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Missing Iranian Underscores Shadowy Skirmishes

A former Iranian deputy defense minister and founding member of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps disappeared while on a personal visit to Istanbul nearly four months ago.

The unsolved mystery has led to speculation that Ali Reza Askari's possible kidnapping or defection could be part of a broader covert intelligence war between the United States and Iran.

By their very nature, covert operations are difficult to confirm. But Middle East experts and former American intelligence officials say a pattern has emerged, indicating that Washington and Tehran are engaging in shadowy skirmishes across the region.

They point to U.S. accusations that Iran is supplying Shiite militias in Iraq with weapons and training, a charge Iran denies.

Meanwhile, Tehran has accused the United States and its ally Britain of being behind a series of bombings and ambushes that have plagued Iranian border provinces populated by disaffected ethnic minorities. They include Iran's Kurdish northwest, the Arab Sunni southwest, and, most recently, the southeastern Baluchistan province of Iran, where a suspected Baluchi militant was publicly executed after a bus bombing in February left 11 Revolutionary Guards dead. The United States denies the charges.

Washington has acknowledged that a number of Iranian operatives were detained in Iraq in recent months. Iraqi Kurdish officials say in January, a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander narrowly escaped an American raid on the Iranian Liaison Office in Erbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Five Iranians who were captured remain in U.S. custody.

"It is a very complicated, multifront, multifaceted game," says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.

"The fronts are Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria. Now, the Persian Gulf and Shatt-al-Arab [waterway] are added to it because of the engagement of the British," says Milani. "And it entails a much more muscular approach by the U.S. government in trying to limit, if not eliminate, Iranian operatives and their activities."

Middle East experts are divided on whether the recent seizure of 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf was Iran's tit-for-tat response to U.S. actions in Iraq and elsewhere.

But a senior Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Tehran raised the issue of the Iranians in U.S. custody during negotiations over the 15 captured Britons.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.