March 10/2007

Bible Reading of the day
Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew 21,33-43.45-46. Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.' They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?" They answered him, "He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times."Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the scriptures: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes'? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them. And although they were attempting to arrest him, they feared the crowds, for they regarded him as a prophet.

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Can Syria Come in from the Cold? By: Seth Wikas. March 10/07

Latest News Reports From miscellaneous sources For March 10/07
Hariri, Berri Agree on 'Some Topics' in First Meeting to End Lebanon Crisis-Naharnet
Murr Assures Syria: No U.N. Deployment Along Border
Asghari Donating Information on Hizbullah to Intelligence
U.N. Bids Belgians Farewell
Trenches, Earth Mounds along Lebanese-Syrian Border
Hariri: Tribunal to be Established, No Veto Power to Opposition
Australian Politician Quits After Praising 'Fat Tony'
Report: Olmert Said Military Strategy Planned Before July 12
Scrap Traders Wounded by Israeli Rocket
Dealer of Soviet Air Defense Missiles Arrested in Lebanon-Kommersant
Solana to visit Syria to seek backing on Lebanon-Jurnalo, Germany
Iranian general gives up Hezbollah secrets-Scotsman
Ex-Defense Official's Whereabouts Remain A Mystery-
Elite Iranian general defects with Hezbollah’s arms secrets-Times Online,

Lebanon war image causes controversy.BBC

U.N. Body Cuts Aid to Iran-Naharnet
Iraq will urge US, Iran not to use it as pawn-
Washington Post 
Israel won't transfer more tax revenues to Palestinians (Roundup)Monsters and

Latest News Reports From the Daily Star For March 09/07

Hariri, Berri Agree on 'Some Topics' in First Meeting to End Lebanon Crisis -Naharnet

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri of the opposition and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri said Friday, a day after their first meeting in months to end the political crisis in Lebanon, that they have agreed on some topics, but that other issues needed further consultations. A joint statement issued Friday by the two rival leaders said a "positive" atmosphere prevailed over the "frank" talks. That, the statement added, "reflected agreement on the need to deal with the crisis to reach practical exits that can guarantee the return to normal life, activate the national economy and defuse political tension."
"Viewpoints during the meeting were identical regarding a number of topics. However, other topics need further consultations and discussions with a positive approach. Speaker Berri and MP Hariri agreed on further discussions at a meeting to be held very soon," the statement added.
The daily An Nahar said Friday the Hariri-Berri meeting which began at 9 p.m. lasted well through the night. It said photographers were sent away right after they took pictures of the two leaders who then began their meeting behind closed doors at Berri's mansion in Ain el-Tineh in Beirut.
As Safir newspaper quoted Berri as telling visitors half an hour before the talks commenced that the significance of the conference was not the meeting itself, but the ability to come out with "a positive, mutual stand that would reassure the Lebanese about their present and future."It also quoted Hariri as telling reporters shortly before arriving at Ain el-Tineh that he was as optimistic as the Speaker. Hariri, who met with religious and political allies upon return from Saudi Arabia on Thrusday, announced that he was seeking a solution for a crisis "that has gone for long."
"We should get out of it in a way that there is no victor and no vanquished," he told reporters at the Grand Serail. He said that neither the majority nor the opposition can run the country on its own. The meeting of the two key leaders in itself was significant, after months of disputes in which politicians from both sides exchanged insults in public and supporters of rival factions clashing on the streets, threatening to slide the country into civil war.
While An-Nahar said on its front page the meeting "Relaunches dialogue between the majority and the opposition," As-Safir labeled the conference "The beginning of an end to the crisis … But." The meeting capped weeks of mediation by Saudi Arabia among Lebanese politicians and a summit between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last month. Saudi Arabia strongly backs Prime Minsiter Fouad Saniora's government and Iran supports the opposition. Lebanese leaders have been feuding since November, the last time Berri and Hariri met.
The opposition has been campaigning with protests and sit-ins since Dec. 1 in downtown Beirut -- just outside Saniora's office -- in a bid to force him to resign or share power in a national unity government that would give Hizbullah and its allies veto power.(Naharnet-AP) Beirut, 09 Mar 07, 08:02

Murr Assures Syria: No U.N. Deployment Along Border
Defense Minister Elias Murr has said there was no reason for Syria to close its border with Lebanon since U.N. peacekeeping troops are not going to deploy along the frontier. "They will not close the border because UNIFIL is not going to deploy there," Murr told reporters after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon on Thursday. He was responding to an announcement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in which he threatened to close the Lebanese-Syrian border if international troops were deployed along the boundary. Murr said Gates reiterated the support of the United States for the Lebanese military without any restrictions. He said that Gates informed him that the Lebanese army will receive the "entire shipment of equipment before the end of June." In response to a question, Murr said that the issue of disarming Hizbullah was not raised.
"The army position is clear. This is an internal issue. Neither the United States nor any other country has got to do with it," Murr insisted, adding that the problem will be solved domestically. Beirut, 09 Mar 07, 11:46

Trenches, Earth Mounds along Lebanese-Syrian Border
Syrian troops are setting up earth mounds and digging trenches along the Lebanese-Syrian border, Lebanese media reported Friday. The daily An Nahar said the procedure in Wadi Anjar, a town on the Lebanese-Syrian eastern border, was designed to "block illegal crossings used by smugglers."The Daily Star, however, on Friday quoted security sources as saying Syrian troops began placing sand berms near the border town of Al Masnaa late Thursday. The sources said five tractors began digging and erecting earth mounds near the Chamber of Agriculture, within Lebanese territories. The Syrians were "expected to continue working and placing the sand berms along the entire Syrian-Lebanese border, cutting through part of Lebanese land," one source told The Daily Star. Lebanese security forces rushed to the scene to investigate the actions and submit a report to authorities, so necessary measures can be taken in case any land was being captured, the source added. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had threatened to close the border with Lebanon if international troops were deployed along the frontier.(Naharnet filephoto of the Lebanese-Syrian border.) Beirut, 09 Mar 07, 09:19

Hariri: Tribunal to be Established, No Veto Power to Opposition
MP Saad Hariri stressed to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir Thursday that the March 14 majority alliance wants an international tribunal established through "constitutional means" to try suspects in the assassination of ex-Premier Rafik Hariri and related crimes. Hariri, talking to reporters after a meeting with Sfeir at the latter's seat in Bkirki, said: "We .. want the international tribunal established through constitutional means. Blocking the tribunal will allow the criminals to maintain the killing.""We do not want the tribunal to be approved under chapter seven (of the U.N. Charter), and the Patriarch said approving it under chapter seven is not in Lebanon's Interest," Hariri added. However, Hariri elaborated, "if certain parties and forces keep trying to block the establishment of the International tribunal in accordance with external instructions, then the court will be established … under chapter seven."He was referring to the Hizbullah-led opposition which is backed by Syria and Iran. Hariri said he briefed Sfeir on the outcome of his visits to Saudi Arabia, Belgium and France, stressing that "we have been searching for a settlement based on a no conqueror no vanquished concept.""We want a thorough settlement for Lebanon's problems."Asked if the majority alliance would accept giving the Hizbullah-led opposition veto powers in the government, Hariri said: "No."He said that a meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri would be held "very soon" to discuss a settlement to the ongoing crisis.
Beirut, 08 Mar 07, 20:17

Can Syria Come in from the Cold?
By Seth Wikas
March 9, 2007
In the coming weeks, Syria will participate in two important regional conferences. On March 10, it will join Iraq's other neighbors and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in Baghdad. On March 28-29, it will participate in the Arab League summit in Riyadh. Syria's detractors continue to criticize Damascus for failing to seal the border with Iraq and for meddling in Lebanese internal affairs in violation of UN Security Resolution 1701. Of equal importance is the downturn in Syria's relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Last week's Saudi-Iranian summit has Damascus worried about its role in Lebanon and the possibility of an international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a crime for which Syria is widely believed to be responsible. Will the upcoming conferences give Syria a chance to improve its regional standing, or will its isolation continue?
The Baghdad Conference
The March 10 meeting in Baghdad is aimed at curbing violence and promoting reconstruction and national reconciliation within Iraq. Syrian leaders are greeting the conference with cautious optimism and as a partial step toward diplomacy. They want to see full adoption of the Iraq Study Group (a.k.a. Baker-Hamilton) report's recommendation of direct American dialogue with Syria and Iran. Meanwhile, Washington appears committed to its policy of isolating the two nations, and President Bush has stated that the Baghdad conference will be a test of Syria and Iran's readiness to reduce sectarian violence in Iraq. Washington is not blind to the results of the Iraq war, however -- Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey is currently awaiting a visa to travel to Damascus, where she has been authorized to discuss only the status of Iraqi refugees in Syria. On the Syrian side, the editor-in-chief of the government daily al-Baath, Ilyas Murad, stated the need for Washington to admit its failure in Iraq at the conference, and also wondered how the United States could refuse to talk to other conference participants.
One constructive step Damascus has recently taken is to allow Iraqi refugees to renew their three-month residency permits. Yet official Iraqi sources point to Syria's continued role in undermining stability in Iraq. Last week, Iraq's UN ambassador, Hamid al-Bayati, called on Syria to control its border, as it is the entry point for most foreign fighters. He dismissed Syria's claims that it cannot adequately patrol its border until it receives the necessary surveillance equipment.
Saudi Arabia and the Arab Summit
Syria's relationship with Saudi Arabia has been strained at best since Syrian president Bashar al-Asad's August 15, 2006, speech in which he railed against Arab leaders who did not support Hizballah in the war against Israel -- notably Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. Asad described such leaders as "half men." The deterioration in their relations has been compounded by Syria's suspected involvement in the killing of Hariri, a Saudi citizen, and by Syria's implication of Saudi Arabia in the September 2006 attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus. In December, Syrian vice president Farouk al-Shara attributed the strain to personal reasons: "We Arabs become angry and calm down quickly." In Saudi eyes, his statement trivialized the depth of the problems between the two states.
Most recently, the relationship suffered a flare-up after a caustic op-ed appeared in the Saudi-owned London daily al-Sharq al-Awsat. Although the newspaper consistently reflects the Saudi position on issues, and is notoriously anti-Syrian, Abdul Rahman al-Rashid's March 4 article pushed the envelope. A former editor of the paper, he outlined Saudi grievances -- including Asad's August speech and Syrian attempts to bring down the Lebanese government -- and claimed Syria had lost nearly everything in the Middle East as a result of its leadership's inexperience and miscalculations. He added that Syria was even risking its alliance with Iran and predicted the upcoming Arab Summit could not save Syria from a dark future.
For its part, Damascus has sought to project a very different image. According to Syrian sources, Saudi King Abdullah sent Asad a personal invitation to the Arab Summit via an emissary in February. Asad assured the emissary that he would attend and conveyed his personal respect for the king and the importance of the Saudi-Syrian relationship. The summit will include separate bilateral talks between Abdullah and Asad. In the wake of the invitation, the Syrian media has shown a noticeably more positive tone toward Saudi Arabia.
The media messages on both sides are important in light of recent talks between Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad and King Abdullah. Saudi Arabia is seeking Iranian support for the Hariri tribunal, and this worries Syria. It is unclear whether Tehran and Riyadh can find a solution to the Lebanese political crisis, and what pressure -- if any -- will be put on Syria to discontinue its interference in Lebanese affairs.
Syria's Relationship with Iran
The Syrian-Iranian relationship is under a great deal of pressure. Former Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad skillfully developed and nurtured alliances with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, helping to make Syria a key regional player. The alliance with Tehran worked well when Damascus saw Iran as an ally in the struggle against its old nemesis, Iraq, and as a source of inexpensive oil. In turn, Iran viewed Syria as a base for exporting the Islamic Revolution to Lebanese Shiites via Hizballah. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia benefited from the protection that both nations provided from Iraq. Bashar al-Asad, however, has turned Syria into a political liability for its allies and neighbors. He has angered the Saudis by meddling in Lebanese political affairs -- notably in the assassination of Hariri -- and has turned his country from a partner into a client of Iran. Asad has also voiced his open support and respect for Hizballah -- something his father never did -- and Damascus has lost the power it once had over the group. The result is that Syria's fortunes in Lebanon are now dependent on Hizballah's success, making Hizballah a partner, not a dependent.
In sum, Syria's new position in relation to both Iran and Hizballah has weakened its political clout. Asad also fears that the recent Iranian-Saudi summit yielded Tehran's assent to the international tribunal on Hariri, which would further debilitate the Syrian regime. Neither the Saudis nor the Iranians want to see Asad fall, but an international tribunal and a settling of the Lebanese political crisis (to Syria's disadvantage) would strip Damascus of many of its political cards.
The upcoming Baghdad conference and Arab Summit highlight the various challenges facing Syria. Given its record, Syria is unlikely to play a constructive role in Iraq -- but this does not interest Damascus. Instead, its primary goals are to block the international tribunal on the Hariri assassination and ensure that Hizballah gains more power in the Lebanese parliament. Even if it achieves its objectives, however, Damascus has badly damaged its relations with allies and regional neighbors, and these will take time to heal. Internationally, Syria is hoping to bypass continued U.S. opposition to direct diplomacy by strengthening its military and economic ties with Russia. Regionally, neither of the upcoming meetings are likely to reduce Syria's isolation, improve its image, or change its leadership's demonstrated inability to balance competing political interests.
***Seth Wikas is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Syria's domestic politics and foreign policy.

Israel won't transfer more tax revenues to Palestinians (Roundup)
Mar 9, 2007,
Jerusalem/Ramallah/Brussels - Israel said Friday it would not for the time being unfreeze more of the at least half a billion US dollars in tax revenues it owes the Palestinian Authority (PA). Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the decision because President Mahmoud Abbas broke a promise that he would use the money for humanitarian purposes only, Israel Radio reported. Olmert's spokeswoman would only say that Israel had not said it would transfer more of the money anyway and that it was checking reports that 100 million dollars transferred in mid-January 'did not reach those it was supposed to reach.' Olmert would bring up the question in his next meeting with Abbas, Miri Eisin told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
Israeli and Palestinian officials were lowering expectations for the meeting scheduled for Sunday, which is also taking place before the planned Palestinian unity government between Abbas' opposition Fatah party and the ruling Hamas movement is finalized. Abbas left for Amman Friday for consultations with Jordanian King Abdullah ahead of his parley with Olmert.
He departed without having reached final agreement on who should be interior minister in the unity government, a crucial post because it entails control over security forces. Abbas' nevertheless said after meeting Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniya of Hamas in Gaza Thursday that '99 per cent' of the outstanding issues on forming the government had been resolved. Officials said Haniya may announce the new government Tuesday, although he has until March 22 when a three-week period plus a two- week extension allocated to him by Palestinian law end.
Senior Fatah official Saeb Erekat called on Israel to release the rest of the funds it owes the PA. 'This money belongs to the Palestinian people. Israel is not a donor country. It is withholding Palestinian money,' he told reporters in Ramallah. Israel collects some 50 million dollars a month in value-added tax on goods entering the Palestinian autonomous areas via its ports and airport. But it has stopped forwarding the taxes since the Islamic militant Hamas won elections and formed a government in early 2005, citing fears the money would be used to fund militants. On January 18, Israel transferred some 100 million dollars to a special account in Abbas' office after receiving guarantees the money would not reach Hamas.
Erekat said the money was used 'for the national interest and for economic and humanitarian purposes.' It was unclear whether whether he referred to payment of outstanding salaries of civil servants, some of whom may be Hamas officials or militants. Haniya, meanwhile, during his Friday sermon at a Gaza mosque, called on the international community to lift its boycott of the PA. But the European Union, on the second day of its summit in Brussels, issued a draft statement Friday saying it was only 'ready to work with a legitimate Palestinian government that adopts a platform reflecting the (Middle East) Quartet principles.' The bloc last week ruled out a quick resumption of direct aid, rejecting demands by France and Sweden for a partial restart of assistance once the new Palestinian unity government took office. Israel said it would allow no compromise on the demands of the quartet consisting of the US, United Nations, EU and Russia that the new government recognize its right to exist, renounce violence and accept past interim peace deals.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is to stress Israel's stance during a visit to Washington early next week, Israel Radio reported.
© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur

Iraq will urge U.S., Iran not to use it as pawn
By Mariam Karouny
Reuters-Friday, March 9, 2007; 12:06 PM
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq wants action not words from a regional conference in Baghdad on Saturday and will urge Iran and the United States not to use it as a playing field to settle their scores, Iraq's foreign minister said on Friday. Iraq has called the meeting to enlist support in stopping a slide into full-scale civil war but it is being closely watched as a rare opportunity for officials from Washington and Tehran to meet at a time of tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions. "We do not want Iraq to be the battleground to settle scores for other countries and for them to settle their scores with the United States here at our expense," Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters in an interview. Zebari said Saturday's mid-level meeting would be followed by others at a more senior level, at a date to be determined. "We don't want to raise expectations, one meeting will not solve the problems of my country," Zebari said. "But their very presence, having the meeting in Baghdad, is a major success for the government and for the people."
"What do we expect from this? Really, some actions, not words. Not (just) statements of solidarity or support."The United States accuses Iran and Syria of fomenting the insurgency in Iraq, where violence rages four years after U.S.-led forces invaded the country to topple former dictator Saddam Hussein. Syria and Iran deny the charge. The United States this week sent its clearest signal yet it is open to bilateral talks with Iran and Syria by saying it will not rebuff them if they wish to discuss stabilizing Iraq.
"If we are approached over orange juice by the Syrians or the Iranians to discuss an Iraq-related issue that is germane to this topic -- stable, secure, peaceful, democratic Iraq -- we are not going to turn and walk away," David Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, told reporters.
While insisting the agenda would focus on Iraq, Zebari did not rule out bilateral meetings, saying with a smile: "There's lunch and there is some orange juice and soft drinks going around."The meeting groups officials from Iraq's neighbors, as well as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- and other Arab countries. "We thought it would be good idea to see Iraq as a unifying issue for them, not as a divisive issue," Zebari said. "We are concerned about escalation in the region."
Satterfield said whether or not bilateral talks were held would depend in part on the Syrian and Iranian stance. U.S. officials have said any talks with Iran would focus on U.S. charges that Iran is supplying weapons to militants in Iraq. Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Iran, has had contacts with Iranian officials in group settings, including as recently as September, but has resisted bilateral talks. It has offered to talk to Iran if Tehran first suspends its uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for power plans or for atomic bombs. Iran has so far refused to do that and says its nuclear program is peaceful. Analysts say Iran's decision to attend reflects a more conciliatory approach in its foreign policy, but that Tehran remains wary U.S. officials could use the gathering to berate it for what Washington calls its meddling in Iraq.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a conservative Iranian cleric who heads the constitutional watchdog the Guardian Council, hit out at the meeting on Friday.
"What do they want to do? They want to take Iraq out of the hands of the Iraqi people and give Iraq's authority to an American institution so that it would completely be in the hands of Americans. This is what they do to make up for their failures in Iraq," he said.From The TimesMarch 09, 2007

Elite Iranian general defects with Hezbollah’s arms secretsRichard Beeston and Michael Theodoulou
An Iranian general who went missing on a visit to Turkey last month appears to have defected to America, taking with him a treasure trove of his country’s most closely guarded secrets. Ali Resa Asgari, 63, a general in the elite Revolutionary Guards and former Deputy Defence Minister, vanished on February 7 after arriving in Istanbul on a flight from Syria. He had reservations at the Ceylan Intercontinental Hotel but never checked in.
Iran has notified Interpol and raised fears that General Asgari might have been kidnapped. Yesterday, however, several sources confirmed reports in America that General Asgari had fled to the West, becoming the first senior Iran official to defect since the revolution 27 years ago.
Danny Yatom, the former head of Mossad and a member of the Knesset, said that the general could provide Western intelligence with a unique insight into Iran’s foreign operations in Lebanon and beyond.
“From the very start I thought this was a defection,” Mr Yatom told The Times. “All the signals showed that it was well planned and executed. He left Iran with his family, so that no one would be able to put pressure on them. I assume the defection was to the US.”
Mr Yatom described the missing general as very important and said that he would be able to shed light on one of the murkiest chapters in recent Middle East history. From the early 1980s Iran funded, trained and armed members of the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, which began as a small Shia Muslim militia but is today the most powerful paramilitary force in the Levant. The Iranians are accused of using Hezbollah to launch suicide bomb attacks against American, French and Israeli targets, to kidnap Westerners and to build a state within a state in southern Lebanon. They are also suspected of carrying out operations in Europe and even Argentina.
“He is a significant figure,” said one Western source, who follows Iran closely. “It has so far been very difficult to get reliable information on how Iran ran its operations in Lebanon. This could be a big break.” Last summer Israel fought a bloody, 33-day war with Hezbollah after the group seized two Israeli soldiers, whose fate is unknown. At the time, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, boasted: “Israel doesn’t know our capabilities on every level. The Zionist enemy has not succeeded in infiltrating our group.” General Asgari could lift that veil of secrecy.
“It means for the first time, Hezbollah’s adversaries may have accurate estimates of stockpiles, weapons types, even perhaps placement and tactics,” said Nicholas Noe, the author of a forthcoming book on Hezbollah. “This is crucial because the limits and placement of Hezbollah’s weaponry has been a major problem.” After Lebanon, General Asgari returned to Iran as a high-ranking official dealing with the arms trade and weapons industry, including the development of the Shaab-3 ballistic missile. He stepped down as Deputy Defence Minister in 2005. Iranian officials have played down General Asgari’s importance, saying he has been “out of the loop for four or five years. But his defectioncould cause a serious blow to Iran.

Iran: Ex-Defense Official's Whereabouts Remain A Mystery
By Golnaz Esfandiari
March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The fate of a former Iranian defense official remains a mystery a month after his disappearance in Turkey.
At least one Iranian official has suggested that onetime Deputy Defense Minister Alireza Asghari was kidnapped by Western intelligence services. Others have claimed the retired general defected to the West. Asghari vanished without a trace shortly after arriving in Turkey in early February.
Radio Farda's correspondent in Turkey, Ali Javanmardi, says Turkish newspapers broke the news of his disappearance.
"On February 27, 'Hurriyet' daily reported that an Iranian who has very important information regarding Iran's nuclear activities had disappeared in Istanbul," Javanmardi says. "For the first time, it was also said that Mr. Asghari arrived in Istanbul from a Damascus flight on February 7 and checked into the Hotel Ceylan three days later. Following a meeting with an unknown individual, he disappeared."
Asghari's hotel reservations, for three nights, were reportedly made before his arrival by two non-Turkish citizens. Some reports have suggested that Asghari moved to an Iranian-owned hotel.
Tehran Speaks
Iranian officials initially remained silent as reports emerged in the Turkish, Israeli, and Arab media. Then in early March, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki stated publicly that "a retired staff member" from the Defense Ministry had gone missing during a private trip to Turkey. He said Tehran was pursuing the case through diplomatic channels. Speculation has swirled over Asghari's familiarity with highly classified information on Iran's ties to Hizballah as well as well as its nuclear program. On March 6, Iranian police chief Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam said the former defense official had likely been kidnapped by Western intelligence services because of his background. He did not give further details.
The 63-year-old Asghari was a deputy defense minister under President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He reportedly served as a commander in Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) during the Iraq-Iraq War (1980-88).
In The Loop?
Alireza Nourizadeh, a London-based journalist, says the retired general also played a role in Lebanon. He says Asghari owed his political rise to former Defense Minister Ali Shamakhani and his abrupt departure to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
"Following the [Iran-Iraq] war, he was among the staff members who were sent to Lebanon," Nourizadeh says. "He led the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) forces in Lebanon. At that time, he used the name 'Reza Asaker.' Later, because of his relation to Admiral Ali Shamakhani and because Shamakhani trusted him, he became a deputy defense minister. After Ahmadinejad's government came to power [in 2005], Mr. Asghari was automatically dismissed, but they gave him an advisory [post]."Nourizadeh claims that Asghari's recent responsibilities included a 2006 military deal between Iran and Syria.
Lebanon And Nukes
Speculation has swirled about Asghari's familiarity with highly classified information about Iranian ties to the Lebanese militant group Hizballah as well as Iran's nuclear program. Officials in Iran say the country's nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. But Washington and Israel accuse Iran of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran also says that it provides only spiritual and moral support to the Lebanese Hizballah. But accusations are rife that Iran is providing the Lebanese group with missiles and other weapons.
Some reports suggest that Asghari might possess knowledge about an Israeli pilot, Ron Arad, who went missing after ejecting from his aircraft over Lebanon in 1986.
Usual Suspects
Some sources have said that Mossad or the CIA might have kidnapped Asghari for his knowledge of top-secret Iranian activities. Others have suggested that the disappearance bears the hallmarks of the Mujahedin-i Khalq Organization (MKO), a group that seeks the overthrow of Iran's government.
But a number of recent reports have hinted that Asghari defected to the West. "The Washington Post" today quotes an unnamed senior U.S. official as saying that Asghari is "cooperating with Western intelligence agencies, providing information on Hezbollah and Iran's ties to the organization."
Ephraim Kam, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and deputy head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says he thinks circumstances point to a defection. "I think logically -- and I emphasize only logically -- I tend to assume that he asked for political [asylum] because I think it's going to be quite dangerous for Israel, even for the United States, to kidnap him," Kam says. "Because the Iranians might respond with the same coin, and it's going to put many Israeli officials [in danger] and also the Americans."
Citing an "Iranian military source," the London-based newspaper "Asharq al-Awsat" newspaper reported on March 7 that Asghari "is currently in a northern European country in American custody." The paper claimed that Asghari is being interrogated ahead of his transfer to the United States.
Nourizadeh says he suspects that the former Iranian defense official had planned his defection.
"Asghari has maybe felt that it would be better for him to cooperate on his own, since reportedly the U.S. intelligence services have files on people like him -- this could be one reason," Nourizadeh says. "Another reason might be that he thinks the Islamic republic [Iran] is facing dangerous conditions -- the country is being led toward war -- and he feels that if he parts with the establishment he might prevent a catastrophe."
But in the absence of any firm evidence, Nourizadeh's and others' theories about this prominent disappearance remain so much speculation. And a mystery that Iranian authorities and others are eager to solve.