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Abducted? Defected? Israelis mull missing Iranian

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli security experts gave some credence to Iran’s statement on Tuesday that one of its former deputy defense ministers may have been kidnapped by Western spies, but also suggested the missing man had defected.

Israel has reason to be interested in Ali Reza Asgari, who disappeared while visiting Turkey last month. Turkish newspaper Hurriyet said in an unsourced report that Asgari was involved in Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel considers a major threat.

U.S. officials, at the forefront of Western efforts to curb a program that Iran insists is peaceful, have at times said their work is circumscribed by lack of viable intelligence.

“A man with nuclear information would be a valuable asset for the CIA and Mossad,” said Alon Ben-David, Israel analyst for Jane’s Defense Weekly, referring to U.S. and Israeli foreign spy services. “He could be worth kidnapping, despite the risks.”

Iran did not give details on Asgari’s career. But the Iranian chief of police was quoted as saying that he may have been snatched “because of his Defense Ministry background”.

A Mossad veteran voiced doubt over such a scenario.

“Espionage kidnappings went out of style after the Cold War,” said Gad Shimron, a former Mossad field agent. “I doubt anyone wants that level of escalation at this point in time.”

Shimron said Turkish media reports suggested that Asgari had defected. According to Hurriyet, the Iranian vanished after checking into an Istanbul hotel room that had been reserved from him by two foreigners. Milliyet newspaper quoted Turkish intelligence as saying Asgari opposed the Iranian government.

“It sounds to me very much like he turned up for a debriefing, or even to ‘come out of the cold,’” Shimron said.

The London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, citing “informed sources”, said Asgari, 63, had decided to defect to the United States.

Israeli and U.S. officials had no immediate comment.

MISSING AIRMAN

Menashe Amir, an Israeli analyst of Iranian affairs, said he had information indicating that Asgari’s family was with him.

“According to part of the information, his wife and children managed to leave Iran before his disappearance,” Amir told Israel’s Army Radio, without elaborating on his sources.

“It’s very possible that he decided to defect,” Amir said.

A major Mossad action involving Iranians would require the approval of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been at pains to reduce open tensions with Tehran that might distract from the U.S.-led diplomatic campaign against it.

But Ben-David said that Israel might consider Asgari a prize worth the price of potentially embarrassing Turkey, one of the few Muslim countries to maintain ties with the Jewish state.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that Asgari had served as a military adviser in southern Lebanon, where an Israeli airman, Ron Arad, was captured by Iran-linked militiamen after bailing out of his crippled warplane in 1986. Arad later vanished.

Israel accuses Iran of holding Arad. Iran denies it.

“Every Mossad director over the past 20 years has fantasized about being the one who brings Arad home,” Ben-David said.

In what appeared to be a precaution against any reprisals by Iranian agents, Israel has ordered security at its embassies abroad to be beefed up, Israeli diplomatic sources said.

“It’s one thing to wage quiet proxy campaigns against your enemies, but going all the way and grabbing a government-level player is an act of war,” Shimron said. “If they were willing to do it, surely they would have gone for someone even more senior?

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran and Zerin Elci and Paul De Bendern in Ankara

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