Remember him? He disappeared in Turkey, possibly voluntarily, possibly not. By general consensus he’s in western custody, possibly sharing important information, possibly not. The story blew over by the end of March and he hasn’t been heard from since — until now:

Ali-Reza Asghari, the Iranian general who went missing in Turkey nearly half a year ago, is currently being held in a secure US intelligence facility, it was reported on Sunday [by Yedioth Aharanoth]…

According to Sunday’s report, CIA agents contacted Asghari, who met them in Istanbul. Asghari even managed to get some of his family out of Iran and bring them with him to the US.

Asghari has since revealed new and relevant information about Iran’s nuclear progress, saying that in addition to reactors and uranium enrichment facility centrifuges being built in the country, Iran has also developed the technology to enrich uranium with lasers.

Laser enrichment is a relatively old technique, but Iran has evidently added chemical enhancements that make the technology more advanced, the report said.

According to JTA, the source for the Yedioth story is an “unnamed U.S. official.” An unnamed senior U.S. official was also the source for WaPo’s story on March 8 about Asgari supposedly being held in western custody (a claim denied by yet another senior U.S. official). Another official interviewed for the WaPo piece corroborated Yedioth’s claim that he defected willingly; Asharq al-Awsat, an Arab paper linked to the Saudi government, also hinted that his disappearance had been voluntary. Hard to say how reliable that is, though, given that it’s in the interest of both the U.S. and the Saudis to promote a perception of dissension within the Iranian ranks. I wonder how the left will handle the contradiction. Healthy skepticism towards both sides, do you suppose? Or sneering reactionary contempt for the American version coupled with tacit support for the Iranian claim that he must have been kidnapped?

Actually, skepticism is warranted here. According to the WaPo piece on March 8, “Iranian officials said he was not involved in the country’s nuclear program, and the senior U.S. official said Asgari is not being questioned about it.” The Times of London followed with its own report three days later that claimed Asgari had plenty of info about Hezbollah and Iranian links to terrorism, but “[i]t is not thought that he had details of the country’s nuclear programme.” He’d also allegedly been out of the loop of Iranian intel since 2003, when he was forced to resign for exposing corruption. So it seems a bit, shall we say, convenient that now we’re told not only did he know about the nuclear program, but he has bombshell news about how shockingly technologically advanced it is. And I do mean shockingly. From Global Security:

Atomic and molecular laser isotope separation (LIS) techniques use lasers to selectively excite atoms or molecules containing one isotope of uranium so that they can be preferentially extracted. Although LIS appears promising, the technology has proven to be extremely difficult to master and may be beyond the reach of even technically advanced states

While conceptually simple, the actual implementation of the process is likely to be difficult and expensive, especially for countries with limited technical resources. The AVLIS process requires much sophisticated hardware constructed of specialized materials that must be capable of reliable operation for extended periods of time in a harsh environment.

Iran has shown interest in this stuff before, though. CFR:

Some analysts have regarded laser isotope separation as too difficult to master by nations lacking highly advanced technical infrastructures. One exception is Stanley Erickson, an analyst at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In an October 2001 paper Erickson warned, “As technology advances, this will not remain so.” This observation proved prophetic in August 2002, when the dissident group National Council of Resistance of Iran announced at a Washington, D.C., press conference that Iran had started an LIS program and developed a laser enrichment facility at Lashkar Ab’ad.

The Iranian laser research program, which enriched only milligrams of uranium, had surprisingly managed to escape detection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In February 2003, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei acknowledged that the IAEA would continue having problems detecting similar “research and laboratory activities” in the future.

That’s quite a surprise, all right. More:

During the past few decades, the materials and know-how necessary to build laser systems useful for uranium enrichment have spread widely. For instance, copper vapor laser systems, once costly and technically prohibitive, are now built by high school students for science projects and employed in undergraduate laser laboratory experiments. Dye lasers, another essential component of AVLIS enrichment, are also becoming more available. “This diffusion of laser knowledge and experimental interest means that expertise about the finer points of laser construction is spreading and will make development of [lasers] easier,” observed Erickson.

LIS facilities could escape detection more easily than traditional uranium enrichment plants. They would be more compact than a centrifuge plant with an equivalent capacity, and a lot of LIS research has taken place at universities, which are typically not safeguarded facilities. Moreover, the lasers used in LIS have several dual-use applications.

The CFR report is from 2005 so the mullahs have had a few years since to, er, refine things. Hopefully the proliferation wonks at Danger Room will have some take on this tomorrow. I’m skeptical that a country that can’t quite get the centrifuges spinning right has somehow mastered cutting-edge laser technology, but anything’s possible. Exit question: How will ace reporter Glenn Ellers Ellensburg, fresh off his bombshell expose of the phantom awakening in Anbar that the world’s media has conspired to create, treat this rather troubling news? Hopefully with the same circumspection and coolly balanced approach to both sides that we’ve come to idolize him for.