Uruguay Confirms: Iran Diplomat Suspecting of Collecting Intel on Israeli Embassy Fled

Ahmed Sabatgold suspected of collecting intelligence for bombing attempt on Israeli embassy in Montevideo.

Barak Ravid
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Uruguayan security forces outside the Israeli embassy in Montevideo last month.Credit: AFP
Barak Ravid

The government of Uruguay officially confirmed reports over the weekend that an Iranian diplomat had left the country after being suspected by Uruguayan security forces of collecting intelligence about the Israeli embassy in Montevideo.

Ahmed Sabatgold, 32, a political consultant in the Iranian embassy in Montevideo, was suspected of being involved in placing an explosive device near the new Israeli embassy in early January, the Uruguayan El Observador newspaper reported Sunday.

Haaretz reported on Friday that the Uruguayan government had expelled an Iranian diplomat on suspicion of involvement in the attempted bomb attack on the Israeli embassy. The publication caused a great deal of embarrassment in Montevideo, where the government had tried to keep the affair quiet so as not to damage its relations with Tehran.

After hours of silence from Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, the country’s foreign and interior ministries issued a joint statement that shed some more light on what looks like continued Iranian attempts to collect intelligence in preparation for an attack on the Israeli embassy in Montevideo.

Given the Uruguayans’ handling of the affair, Sabatgold had time to flee Uruguay before the Uruguayans expelled him, which allowed the ministries to note in their joint statement that the Iranian diplomat had not been expelled.

On January 8 there was a small explosion a few dozen meters from a trade center building in Montevideo, on the ninth floor of which the Israeli embassy is located. Police forces arrived and searched the area, finding a small device that had only partly detonated. The building was evacuated and the device neutralized.

Even though the device was far from the building, officials in Jerusalem believe it was an attempt to harm the embassy or gauge its security preparedness.

Investigations carried out by Uruguay’s intelligence services after the discovery of the explosive device yielded information pointing to a possible involvement of someone at the Iranian embassy. The Uruguayan government turned to Iran’s government for information and after consultations between the two, it was decided to expel a senior diplomat at Iran’s embassy.

A senior official in Jerusalem said Uruguay subsequently updated Israel regarding the incident. However, it decided to keep a low profile concerning the affair and did not publicize the diplomat’s expulsion.

The joint statement said the finding of the bomb on January 8 was preceded by another, no less serious event. As opposed to the bomb, which was found and received a great deal of publicity, the previous incident had been kept secret.

On November 24, an unknown person placed a suitcase near the building that housed the old Israeli embassy in Montevideo. Security guards from the embassy and the local police were called to the site and examined the suspicious suitcase – and discovered it was empty. It is now assumed that this was an attempt to test the embassy’s security arrangements, an assumption that was later reinforced by footage from security cameras in the area.

The person who placed the suitcase was not seen in the clips, but a car with diplomatic license plates was filmed parked at the time not far from the embassy, with an unidentified man inside. The video was examined Uruguayan security forces and foreign ministry officials, as well as the Israeli embassy’s security staff. It was quickly ascertained that the car belonged to the Iranian embassy, and the person inside was an Iranian diplomat.

Almagro then decided to invite the Iranian ambassador in Montevideo for an urgent meeting. The Uruguayan foreign minister made it clear to the Iranian ambassador that even though there was no proof that the Iranian diplomat had been involved in placing the suitcase near the Israeli embassy, his presence nearby at the same time raised serious suspicions. Almagro made it clear that this was an unacceptable incident, and if it happened again Uruguay’s response would be serious.

Even though the meeting was arranged at the last moment, it seemed as if the Iranian ambassador knew quite well why he had been summoned, and had prepared an excuse in advance: The diplomat happened to be in the area at the time by coincidence because he had a doctor’s appointment nearby. Almagro was not convinced and made it clear that if the diplomat did not leave Uruguay, he would be expelled.

The Iranian ambassador surprised Almagro and told him the diplomat had left the country the day before, since coincidentally he had completed his duties in Uruguay. It is not clear how the Iranians knew of the suspicions in advance of the meeting with Almagro, reported El Observador.

Sabatgold was under suspicion by Uruguayan security forces even before the bomb was placed near the Israeli embassy, and was considered problematic. El Observador reported that he was a well-known Holocaust denier and often spoke out against Jews. Sabatgold’s career was at its peak during the tenure of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when he served as the translator for conversations and meetings between Ahmadinejad and then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

The media in Uruguay reported that he had been instructing a group of Muslim converts who operated within the framework of the radical Unidad Popular party. The Iranian diplomat often met with members of the group and attacked the Uruguayan government and President Mujica.

The Uruguayan foreign and interior ministries said in their joint statement that as a result of the two incidents, security has been beefed up around the Israeli embassy, as well as for Israeli diplomats and the Jewish community in the country. In addition, the government of Uruguay has agreed on the arrival of an Israeli security delegation to assist in the investigation of the two incidents.

Alertness at Israeli embassies worldwide has been raised to maximal levels since the assassination of Hezbollah’s Jihad Mughniyeh and an Iranian general two weeks ago, an attack attributed to Israel. It is believed that retaliation might come in an attempt to attack an Israeli embassy overseas.

Iran and Hezbollah have a well-established terrorist network in South America, based on Shi’ite Lebanese migrants. This infrastructure was behind two attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s in which more than 100 people died, and involves large Iranian embassies in South America collecting intelligence for such attacks.