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.
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.
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 Hizballah 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.