Iran says West may have seized ex-defense official

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Western intelligence services may have kidnapped a former Iranian deputy defense minister who went missing in Turkey, Iran’s police chief was quoted as saying on Tuesday.

Ali Reza Asgari was on a personal trip and vanished after arriving in Turkey from Damascus, Iranian police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam was quoted as saying by the Iranian ILNA news agency.

“It is possible that former deputy defense minister Asgari was kidnapped by Western intelligence services because of his Defense Ministry background,” Ahmadi-Moghaddam said.

“He went missing after three days stay in Turkey. Police inquiries show he has not left Turkey,” he said, adding there was no indication Asgari had died or had been hospitalized.

Turkish media reports said Asgari, 63, went missing after checking into an Istanbul hotel on February 7.

Israeli security experts gave some credence to the Iranian statement, but also suggested Asgari had defected.

Turkish newspaper Milliyet, citing unnamed officials, said Turkish intelligence and police had found Asgari opposed the Iranian government and had information on its nuclear plans, 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.”

The West says Iran’s nuclear program is a covert attempt to make atomic bombs, a charge which Tehran denies.


A Turkish Foreign Ministry official, who declined to be named, said it was following the case at the request of Iran but did not consider it unusual.

“He is an ordinary Iranian missing person for us,” the official said. “After they (the Interior Ministry) will come up with a solution we will pass the results to the Iranians through the same diplomatic procedures.”

Turkish daily Hurriyet said last month two foreigners had gone to the reception of an Istanbul hotel on February 6 to make a room reservation for Asgari for three nights. They paid in cash. He checked into the hotel on February 7 and later disappeared.

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.

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.

Additional reporting by Zerin Elci in Ankara and Dan Williams in Jerusalem