Iranian officials contest claims of Pulitzer winner’s new biography

BEIRUT: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird’s new book has been making waves for its startling claim that an Iranian general who masterminded the 1983 attack on Beirut’s U.S. Embassy now lives in the United States.

Bird’s claim has been contested by multiple figures close to Revolutionary Guard General Ali-Reza Asgari, however, who point out that the factual premises of the “revelation” are simply false.

Bird’s biography “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” alleges that Asgari oversaw the 1983 bombing and in 2007 defected to the U.S. under CIA protection.

Asgari was known as “Reza Chieftain,” a nickname that Asgari’s friends say he resented – as it referred not only to a military prowess akin to that of the British tank, but also to his wide girth.

Iranian sources contradict the author’s claims about the general’s whereabouts, saying that Asgari was nowhere near Beirut at the time of the 1983 attack. Throughout the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iranian officials and Revolutionary Guard officers say, Asgari was based in Iran’s Kurdistan province.

Bird writes that in a Dec. 15, 2012 speech, the current commander-in-chief of the Iranian national police corroborated Asgari’s presence in Lebanon in 1983.

In fact, the Farsi reports of the speech in Bird’s footnote quote Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moghaddam as saying: “The day that [Asgari] went directly from being a commander in Kurdistan into Lebanon was the worst phase of an internal fitna and civil war that had been going on between Hezbollah and Amal. ... Hajj Reza [Asgari] went to resolve this fitna and he was successful.”

The bloody Hezbollah-Amal “battle for supremacy,” as it was called, reached its peak in 1988 and numerous reports credit Iran with brokering an end to the violent conflict between the two groups in January 1989.

Based on the police chief’s reference to this conflict, Asgari can only have arrived to Lebanon in the late 1980s, years after the attack on the U.S. Embassy.

Perhaps the most convincing proof of Asgari’s whereabouts in 1983 is a video aired during the 2012 ceremony at which Ahmadi-Moghaddam gave his speech.

This short documentary, posted to YouTube and Persian website Bachehaya Ghalam, recounts the missing general’s career, and includes photographs and footage of Asgari in Kurdistan during the conflict with Iraq, as well as in Lebanon after 1988.

Iranian officials and Revolutionary Guard officers echo the same story about the date of Asgari’s arrival to Lebanon.

A senior Iranian Foreign Ministry source, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the Asgari case, said the general traveled for his first mission to Lebanon in August 1988.

Mohsen Rezaei, commander of the Revolutionary Guard from 1981-97, told The Daily Star that Asgari was stationed in Kurdistan from the outbreak of war in 1980 and served as the top commander in the province from 1982-88.

A decorated high-ranking officer who still serves with the Revolutionary Guard told The Daily Star that Asgari was “one of the great generals” of the force until the end of the war with Iraq.

“At the same time he was the commander of the group of mobilized Kurdish forces and Kurdish military groups fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Army in Iraqi Kurdistan,” the general added. “It’s impossible he went to Lebanon until 1988.”

Col. Jaber Sotudeh, a member of the Revolutionary Guard based in Kurdistan, concurred.

“Asgari was the representative of Mohsen Rezaei in Kurdistan Province,” Sotudeh told The Daily Star, “and he was managing all the branches of forces from the Iraqi Kurds to the Iranian Kurds in cooperation with Iranian military in the greatest operations that Iran waged against Saddam Hussein’s forces in the west of Iran.”

Bird also quotes erroneous reports that Asgari's family "sought refuge abroad before he did," though the general's two wives and children remain in Iran, according to numerous Farsi news reports and interviews.

In the absence of any corroboration, and in the face of much evidence to the contrary, Bird’s assertion that Asgari was in Lebanon in 1983 is backed up with a single source, Mustafa Zein, a Shiite businessman from the southern Lebanese town of Tyre.

Zein is quoted as saying that slain Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh told him: “It was Asgari’s operation.” If indeed Mughniyeh said those words, in Arabic the same sentence can also mean: “It was a military operation.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Iranian researcher who interviewed Mughniyeh told The Daily Star that he had heard the slain Hezbollah commander deny responsibility for the 1983 attack, saying that “it was a military operation” beyond his own capabilities.

The common phrasing of these two remarks suggests the tantalizing possibility that Mughniyeh made the same comments to Zein and the anonymous researcher.

The author insists that Zein was unequivocal in his assertion that Mughniyeh was referring to the missing general.

“Mustafa was referring to Asgari, who was the commander of Iranian forces on the ground,” Bird told The Daily Star.

Despite Mughniyeh’s own denials of involvement in the attack, most researchers and U.S. officials point to evidence of his culpability.

As for the Iranians, Rezaei said his troops were deployed to Lebanon soon after Israel’s 1982 invasion, having received “the request for help from some Lebanese figures and politicians, and also the Syrian government.”

Any honest investigator must therefore include both Mughniyeh and Iran in a long list of possible suspects who were militarily active in Lebanon at the time of the 1983 embassy bombing.

As for Asgari, multiple testimonies place him far away, fighting Iraq for the Islamic Republic’s very survival.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 28, 2014, on page 16.




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