“I mean, what difference does it make if he was snatched or if he defected? It’s the same guy, right?”
The “he” was of course Ali Reza Asgari, the former Iranian deputy defense minister who disappeared from Istanbul in early February. And my question was directed at my old friend, the late James Jesus Angleton, now in a much higher (or lower, I’ve never been quite sure of the geography) place, and reachable only intermittently via the Ouija board. It had shorted out the last time we talked, and I’d had it repaired by a guy who doesn’t want his name used in these accounts. So I figured I’d better get right to the point before the board started sparking again and I lost my contact with Angleton.
JJA: Well, obviously it matters. If you’d ever developed a mind for counterintelligence you’d know right away.
ML: You mean the possibility of disinformation, right?
JJA: Well that’s one thing. If he just walked in, you’d have to wonder if he was a genuine defector or if the mullahs sent him to deceive us about something or other. On the other hand, if he’d been working with us for some time — I think it was the London Times that came up with this version — that might establish more confidence in his bona fides.
ML: Or not…
JJA: Right, or not, depending on whether the information he was providing was stuff we should have known about anyway, or whether it was really sensitive and new. And even then, you would have to have your doubts.
[He always had his doubts, of course. You didn’t get to be the wizard of counterintelligence at CIA for a generation without having doubts. Lots of doubts.]
ML: The newspaper accounts vary widely. The latest was an interview with his wife in Tehran, who said he was obviously kidnapped, that he had no possible motive to defect.
JJA: Well of course she would say that, it’s what the regime has already said, and if they concluded he defected, she’s in big trouble now, since she doesn’t seem to have been aware of anything special and she didn’t warn anyone.
ML: Yeah, fair enough. And she’s not the only one, is she? My pal Roger Simon, who writes stories and movies about plots like this, rightly says that the mullahs are undoubtedly looking for someone to take the rap for this.
JJA: HoHO. Taking the rap is the least of the problems. He’s a big deal. A big fish, as the Iranians are saying. He could tell us a lot.
ML: Right. But there’s something all these newspapers have missed. They forget he was Muslim.
JJA: What is that supposed to mean?
ML: He had several wives. Two for sure, and maybe three or four. An Iranian I trust said categorically that a wife and some children were flown from Istanbul to Tehran on the personal plane of the deputy defense minister. Maybe another wife disappeared along with him…
JJA: Ah, that’s very interesting, if true. The folks arguing for defection said “his family” also disappeared. If that turns out to be wrong, it weakens the argument for defection. What else do you know?
ML: I know a little about his work, and his movements. Several elements are very suggestive. First of all, despite the Iranian regime’s statements that he was “out of the loop,” he was very much at the center of it. As you know, he was one of the evil men who created Hezbollah…
JJA: And how. A wicked genius of sorts. He was probably the guiding spirit behind the massacres of our Marines in Beirut in the early eighties.
ML: Indeed. And he never stopped working with Hezbollah, he was a key intermediary to Mughniyah, the world’s most dangerous terrorist, and he organized the shipment of weapons from Syria to Iraq via Turkey. He’d been in Istanbul in January, I know that for sure. And I also know that our intel people were told about it at the time, by someone who told them that he was unhappy with his career and was a good recruitment target.
JJA: Lots of smugglers in Turkey. Always have been. I remember during the Second World War…
ML: That hotel he went to in Istanbul. You know, the one he went to after the Iranians had paid in cash for another one? Well the one he went to is the smugglers’ favorite spot, it’s where they went for business meetings. So he went there, left his bags — I’m going on newspaper reports here — walked out the door, and…
JJA: And now he’s somewhere talking to someone. How unhappy was he? Unhappy enough to betray the Islamic Republic, which he had worked all his life to create? Unhappy enough to betray his comrades-in-arms, with whom he’d worked for so long?
ML: Dunno. He’d been a real insider for many years, not just in the Defense Ministry, but he’d risen to become one of the Supreme Leader’s top advisers. He was in the kitchen cabinet, a very powerful position. But he was enraged when he didn’t get the top Defense job, he felt he’d been slighted. And then there are the legal questions.
JJA: Yes, I’ve heard that myself. He was an inspector, and had identified corruption inside the ministry. As always happens, he was accused of corruption too, both financial and moral.
ML: Moral? You mean sex?
JJA: Sex. He liked the women.
ML: Four wives weren’t enough?
JJA: Hey, maybe it was only two, you said.
ML: Even so, two wives, good grief…
JJA: Anyway … [and here I was starting to smell burning insulation from the Ouija board] … anyway, he was brought before a judge and apparently got so angry he tried to beat up the magistrate.
ML: You’re kidding.
JJA: I don’t kid about things like this, you should know that … [sparks came out of the Ouija board, and the burning smell was getting stronger].
ML: So he might have been afraid that his enemies were going to give him an all expenses paid vacation to Evin Prison.
JJA: Certainly possible. But it’s not nearly enough to go on. We need more information…
[My office now had a tiny cloud in it, and I was getting more static than Angleton. I got a few more fragments.]
JJA: …if kidnapped, most likely the Israelis, they have special teams…remember Eichmann?…but…
ML: Yeah, the Israelis. But I don’t believe that London Times story about his working for them for 3-4 years. They wouldn’t have been so surprised at the Hezbollah structure in Lebanon last summer, would they?
But he was gone.