After listening to Mike Shuster’s disappointing report on Ali Reza Asgari on NPR yesterday, I’ve come to realize that the very mystery of this case allows everyone connected to it, whether journalist, analyst, politician, intelligence agent, to project their own political agenda onto the blank slate that is Asgari’s disappearance. He’s a sort of Rorschach test. You find in his story whatever you want or need. The Iranian exiles advocating regime change like Pooya Dayanim and Amir Ebrahimi see in Asgari a way to dent the invincibility of the current Iranian government; a way to show that even the best and brightest of the Ayatollah’s crew can see the light and desert the sinking ship. The Mossad and most Israeli journalists see a tool to use both to hurt Iran’s interests both inside the country and externally in Syria and Lebanon. Western governments and intelligence agencies have a similar agenda and so are also inclined to see Asgari as a stick to use against the regime. Even some Iran analysts with sterling reputations have tended to embrace the anti-regime narrative.
Thanks to reader Nico who informed me about NPR’s segment yesterday on Asgari. I was worried that, since the reporter hadn’t bothered to contact me, that the report might be full of the speculation and dubious claims that characterized Laura Rozen’s reporting in Politico on the same story. Though the NPR correspondent Mike Shuster did a better job than her, the report was sorely lacking in a number of ways.
First, Shuster began by reporting that Asgari disappeared three years ago, when it was four (in late 2006). Second, he stated unequivocally that Asgari defected and never even discussed the equally plausible claim by Iran and other parties (including me) that he was kidnapped. He interviewed two native Iranian experts who both supported the theory that Asgari defected. One in fact dismissed a report of mine, whose source was a former senior IDF officer and government minister, that Asgari had been held in an Israeli prison by saying: “Why would Israel have to imprison him if he defected?” The very question completely misunderstands my claim and the claim of those who say Asgari’s disappearance was not voluntary.
Shuster relies on one of his Iran experts who explains Asgari’s defection with the claim that he grew disgruntled with the regime when he returned from an assignment in Lebanon, where he was liaison to Hezbollah, only to be thrown into prison on a morals and corruption charge. He allegedly was viciously tortured in prison and came out a changed man. The only problem: this narrative was fed to western media by the same Ebrahimi who Allison Kaplan Sommer eviscerated in her own 2007 report on the Asgari disappearance. Ebrahimi claims he was a fellow Revolutionary Guard functionary with Asgari, where they became friends. Only problem, Ebrahimi was in Ansar Hezbollah, but never the IRG.
Ebrahimi also claims he facilitated Asgari’s defection in Istanbul and secured documents there gaining him asylum in the west. Only problems, Sommer proves the documents were fake. The defection narrative claims that Asgari escaped Iran without permission. While it wouldn’t be entirely impossible for him to do so, it would be extremely difficult for a former top IRG officer who’s fallen out of favor with the regime to get out of Iran. He would be watched like a hawk. The mullahs and their secret police aren’t stupid or inept. They would know how much damage such a person could do to them.
Again, Shuster completely ignores counter-reports that Asgari did have a passport to make a religious pilgrimage to sites in Syria which was the first leg of his journey.
Shuster completely buys into the notion that Asgari, when he defected, offered a treasure trove of intelligence information to his western interlocutors:
In the three years since his disappearance, reports have surfaced that Asgari provided information on a secret uranium enrichment site in Iran. And that he also provided information that led to the Israeli bombing of a possible nuclear site in Syria in 2007.
For many years Asgari had been the key Iranian liaison with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it is likely he provided much information on Hezbollah, including information on one of its most dangerous characters, Imad Mughniyah.
Mughniyah was probably behind a number of devastating terrorist attacks on U.S. targets in Lebanon. He himself was killed by a car bomb two years ago in Syria, and it has been suggested that Asgari provided information that helped his assassins.
If the western media are to be believed Asgari told Israel and the CIA about Syria’s nuclear reactor, enabling Israeli to bomb it. He testified before the Hariri tribunal that Hezbollah was behind the Hariri assassination. He exposed the hitherto secret Qom nuclear site. He gave up Imad Mugniyeh. You name it, Asgari exposed it. The problem: again, much of these claims arise from Ebrahimi. Note that the best evidence Shuster can offer for his story is “reports have surfaced.” Which reports? By whom? Where?
Where is Asgari now according to Shuster? In the U.S. Again, part of the defection narrative which ensconces him comfortably in a nice ranch house somewhere outside Virginia. Those who believe this narrative should remember what happened to the left Iranian defector the U.S. brought to this country. He ended up redefecting back to Iran. This is one reason why I tend to disbelieve the claim that he’s living here in the U.S. Along with noted Iran watcher Muhammad Sahimi, I find it hard to believe that a devout Muslim like Asgari would abandon two families in Iran and begin life over again in a country whose language, culture and politics he will know noting about. Not a word about this in Shuster’s report.
Here is Sahimi’s perspective:
I find it very difficult to believe an IRGC officer would defect. These guys do not do that. If they are dissatisfied, they simply leave the IRGC. Hundreds of such officers live quietly in Iran, after fighting bravely in the Iran-Iraq war.
In fact, Shuster had the ability to discuss his report with someone like Sahimi, who lives only a few miles from his studio in Los Angeles. Shuster knows Sahimi’s work well and often uses it in his own reporting. He inexplicably chose not to consult with Sahimi, who would’ve offered him not only a sounding board, but a challenge for his conception of what happened. Shuster’s report is the weaker for not having done this.
The final problem with Shuster’s work on this story is that inadvertently he has embraced a narrative fostered by the Mossad and others with an anti-Iran regime agenda. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being critical and suspicious of Iran’s agenda. But Shuster seems oblivious to the possibility that those who favor regime change by violent or other means, or those who favor destroying Iran’s nuclear program by military assault aren’t putting out disinformation that gets swallowed hook line and sinker by journalists like Rozen and him.
Shuster also barely acknowledges my own reporting on this, attributing it to “an internet report.” This is the type of attribution you offer to Matt Drudge or Debka Files thus telegraphing your disdain for the source. This isn’t the way you acknowledge serious reporting.