Leading Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergmann has confirmed that General Ali Reza Askari, who disappeared in Istanbul last February and about whom many guesses were published about what had happened to him, defected to the West and is being held by the United States at a well-guarded intelligence compound, a high-ranking American official has told Yedioth Ahronoth. The official adds that during the many interrogations that were held with him, the general shed new light upon a series of subjects and affairs relevant to the most classified of the Iranian regime’s secrets, to which he had direct or indirect access.

Bergmann reports that according to the American official, the defection of the general, who is considered one of the highest-ranking and prominent intelligence officials in Iran since the revolution, was made possible following a complicated intelligence operation as part of which the CIA made contact with the general, which led to a connection between Askari and Western intelligence personnel in Istanbul. He even succeeded in getting some of his relatives out of Iran, and now they are together with him in the security compound where he is being held.

Bergmann posits that General Askari has given the most important information about the Iranian nuclear plan. He said that there is another, secret track that until now has been unknown to the West and in the framework of which the Iranians have succeeded in making significant progress. Until now, it was known that the Iranians are building two nuclear reactors in Bushehr and in Arak and enriching uranium by means of centrifuges in a place called Natanz. The general added that parallel to these tracks, Iranian scientists have also made progress on another track based on relatively old technology for enriching uranium by using laser beams with the addition of various chemical improvements that make the technology more advanced.

According to Bergmann, the Iranian general gave details of a series of efforts that Iran is making in order to conceal this track from the eyes of the West’s intelligence agencies so that if international pressure or a military operation should disrupt the two known tracks, Iran will be able to continue in the secret track until it builds the first Shiite atom bomb.

In Bergmann’s view, General Askari served in a series of high-ranking positions in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. This is the group responsible for providing physical security and protecting the intelligence of Iran’s nuclear project. This is where Askari’s information comes from. It should be remembered that he served as the assistant to former president Khatami and as a member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The detailed information that Askari gave about the Iranian nuclear project has caused a great deal of concern over the past several months among decision-makers in several Western countries and among the few who deal with the Iranian subject in those states in which the material has been fully disclosed. It had been suspected for some time that the Iranians were trying to obtain a nuclear bomb by other means, and bits of intelligence even matched those assessments, but no one suspected that there had been such great progress that places Iran closer to the atom bomb than anyone had believed before Askari’s defection.

Currently, Western intelligence officials are busy analyzing the information that Askari has given and reassessing the amount of time that it will take Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb. The American official says that the intelligence that Askari provided is also behind the statements that American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made last Friday, when she mentioned the grave danger from Iran.

A senior U.S. government official told Bergmann that when the analysis of the material and the questioning of Askari are completed, it is possible that the material will be used for public-relations purposes, in order to prove that Iran has been lying all along. The official said that the current working assumption is that the Iranians realize that Askari has apparently defected and have taken preventive measures on the assumption that he will tell everything he knows.

This article ran in the Philadelphia Bulletin on July 9th, 2007