15 Britons In a Sea Of Intrigue

By David Ignatius
Friday, March 30, 2007

BERLIN -- We are in a season of skulduggery in the Middle East, with a strange series of events that all involve the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The murky saga is a reminder that the real power in Iran may lie with this secretive organization, which spawned Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Revolutionary Guard orchestrated the seizure of 15 British sailors and marines last week near the mouth of the Shatt al Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. The British say they have technical data to prove that their people were outside Iran's territorial waters when they were captured, and they have protested vigorously to Iranian diplomats. But the Iranian Foreign Ministry doesn't seem to know anything about the case. Indeed, it may have been one of the indirect targets.

The Revolutionary Guard seized the hostages, if that's the right word, at a time when it is under intense and growing pressure. U.S. troops captured five of its intelligence operatives in January in the Iraqi city of Irbil. Perhaps the Guard's commanders wanted some bargaining chips to get their people back.

There are larger forces at play, too. The Revolutionary Guard was targeted in the U.N. sanctions enacted last weekend against Iran's nuclear program -- which, as it happens, is run by the Revolutionary Guard. The elite military group may have wanted to retaliate by imposing its own brute sanctions against Britain, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

European officials note that the provocative move comes as speculation grows about new discussions between the United States and Iran -- a dialogue the Revolutionary Guard may oppose. Representatives of the two nations met in Baghdad this month as part of a regional conference on Iraqi security, and it was expected that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would meet her Iranian counterpart at a follow-up meeting in Istanbul in April. That meeting may be in jeopardy if the British sailors and marines aren't returned soon.

The Revolutionary Guard may also have hoped to sabotage diplomatic negotiations over the nuclear issue. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said several weeks ago that the United States was getting "pinged all over the world" by Iranian intermediaries who wanted a resumption of talks. Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, hinted at such a message in his recent contacts with the European Union's top diplomat, Javier Solana. But the prospect of nuclear talks may have been blown out of the water, as it were, until the British issue is resolved.

Maybe that was the goal of seizing the sailors and marines. The Revolutionary Guard, after all, can't be happy about curbing the nuclear program that would allow it to project power even more aggressively.

But what's making the Revolutionary Guard so jittery? Why is it behaving as if someone had made off with its family jewels? Maybe that's where the last of the mysterious events comes in.

On Feb. 7, a top Revolutionary Guard officer named Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asgari vanished in Istanbul. This is no small fish. He is a former deputy defense minister who, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, had been Iran's key operative in Lebanon, helping organize its proxy army, Hezbollah. According to Bob Baer, who was a CIA case officer in Beirut at that time, Asgari was the primary contact for Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and its most feared terrorist operative, Imad Mughniyah. "Asgari was in the IRGC's chain of command when it was kidnapping and assassinating Westerners in Lebanon in the '80s," Baer wrote in Time.

So what happened to Asgari, a man who knows some of the Revolutionary Guard's most precious secrets? Officials in Washington, Paris and Berlin shrug and say, sorry, they just can't be helpful on this one. But a leading Israeli daily, Yedioth Aharonoth, reported soon after Asgari's disappearance that Mossad had organized his defection. An Israeli defense source was quoted in the Sunday Times of London on March 11 as saying that Asgari "probably was working for Mossad but believed he was working for a European intelligence agency."

The betting among spy buffs is that Asgari was recruited in what's known as a "false flag" operation. His handlers may be Israelis posing as officers of another intelligence service, perhaps even during the debriefing. Such speculation was piqued two weeks ago when the German defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, was asked during a visit to Turkey whether Asgari was in Germany. "I cannot say anything on this issue," he replied.

In the perverse spy story that is the Middle East, we have started a strange new chapter. This one has killers and kidnappers galore, and a plot to die for.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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