Several Iranian espionage networks were quietly rolled up in early April in at least six countries – one or more in North America, two in West Europe and three in the Middle East and Gulf. This intelligence coup, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources have discovered, resulted directly from the debriefing of Gen. Ali Reza Asgari, the Iranian officer who disappeared mysteriously in Istanbul last February, whether as a defector or abducted.
Our sources report the roundups were coordinated and simultaneous, so as not to put on their guard Iranian spy controllers, some of them under diplomatic cover in embassies, or other clandestine pro-Tehran elements operating in those countries.
Although conducted with the utmost stealth and discretion, the multiple detentions had some fallout:
1. Certain of Iran’s undercover big fish managed to slip out of the net and flee. They made for European and Gulf countries which cherish their ties with the Islamic Republic. Those governments are therefore unlikely to surrender the fugitives and may give them asylum or help them reach Iran.
2. A number of unknown agents not shopped by Gen. Asgari were alerted by the arrests of their colleagues and either took off or dove into hiding. This tipped off the intelligence services in those places to previously unsuspected Iranian espionage rings.
A source familiar with the spy ring break-up operation told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that it had had a domino effect on Tehran’s clandestine networks on three continents. A second round of detentions is due shortly.
These developments reveal the true nature of Gen. Asgari’s most recent career.
All the official communiques issuing from Iran since his disappearance refer to his past jobs, such as his ties with the Hizballah and former position as deputy defense minister. But his debriefing now shows that far from being a has-been, he was a very high-ranking intelligence asset up to the moment of his disappearance in February.
This is demonstrated by the quality of the data he has handed over to the West on Iran’s spy rings in several countries.
He delivered three years of transcripts
Very shortly before his disappearance, he rendezvoused with contact-men from various Iranian spy networks in several countries, including Turkey, Greece, Syria and Lebanon, in order to collect their product and deliver it to Tehran. He traveled under cover as a businessman
Asgari was therefore a very high-value prize for the west because he was not only a prime mover in Iran’s intelligence establishment, but he possessed up-to-the-minute inside data on active networks, knew their members’ identities and brought with him transcripts of many reports he had collected and delivered from them in the past three years.
From those transcripts, his interrogators learned Iranian intelligence’s methods of operation in key areas, such as nuclear espionage. They also located breaches in intelligence and military weaknesses in several of the Western countries where those rings functioned.
These documents have offered valuable insights into Iranian policy-making in such areas as their nuclear activities, preparations for war and relationships with Gulf neighbors, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The mass of material apparently in the possession of the missing Iranian general would indicate that he had been preparing to defect to the West for some time and may even have acted as a double agent before he did.
The time tables and locations of his rendezvous with Iranian overseas spies were habitually shrouded in secrecy for the sake of his and his contacts’ security. His frequent long absences on trips around the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Europe were therefore regarded by his masters as part of his regular routine, but they also provided cover for his meetings with Western agents without raising suspicion. This form of operation also explains why Tehran took so long to start wondering about his absence – from December 2006 when he was last heard of, until early February. Only then, when he was first reported missing from his Istanbul hotel, did the intelligence ministry in Tehran begin to suspect a serious a debacle.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that the general’s Western debriefers were astonished by the high professional standards and skills of Iran’s agents and their networks. Not only had Iranian exiles and Shiite Muslims been roped in, but high-profile local social, business and political figures, as well academics and media personalities, who could hardly be credited with working for Iranian intelligence.
Full exposure of the reach of those Iranian networks could cause serious political upheavals in some countries. Their governments might also drastically revise their attitudes towards Tehran when they understand how often its spies, working through Asgari, were sent to fetch military data, including photographs, on strategic sites as objects for Iranian ballistic missile attacks.