In nothing less than a happy coincidence, the Shin Bet security service announced Sunday that it had uncovered an Iranian spy in Israel, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on his way to the United Nations General Assembly in New York to focus on Iran’s nuclear threat.
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Foiling Iran’s plan to plant a businessman with Belgian citizenship as an intelligence agent is important, but it’s hard to ignore the attempt to equip Netanyahu with a little more ammunition for his U.S. visit. He’ll need it; his visit this time opens from a clear inferior position amid the blossoming romance between the Obama administration and the ayatollah regime.
The spy suspect is Ali Mansouri, a Tehran native who left Iran as a child and has lived since in Turkey and Belgium. Mansouri, who has changed his name to Alex Mans, visited Israel three times and was arrested on September 11, on his way back to Belgium.
According to the Shin Bet, he was sent to Israel to set up a network of companies designed to serve Iranian intelligence via spying and terror against Israel and the United States.
Besides the PR coup, Mansouri’s arrest and interrogation are likely to provide Israel with valuable information about the way Iranian intelligence operates against it.
At the forefront of these efforts is the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards’ spying and terror apparatus, headed by Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. Sunday’s revelation backs Israeli assessments that Iran is a sophisticated, calculated rival that plans for the long term.
The main difficulty the Iranians have faced is recruiting effective agents in Israel.
In the late 1990s, Israel arrested several people who entered with European passports on tourist visas in the service of Hezbollah or Iran. Over the past decade Israel arrested one person every few years - individual immigrants from Iran who were discovered after the Iranians had blackmailed them, mainly during attempts to organize visits with relatives back home.
The plot uncovered this time - if the Shin Bet can prove its case in court - reflects an attempt to exploit the many opportunities international trade offers for setting up a spy infrastructure in Israel. It’s a vocation that interests not just Iran, as the frequent announcements from Tehran on spy suspects supposedly working for Israel or the West indicate. In most cases, these suspects confess under interrogation that the initial contact between them and their operators began on a business basis.
Last week, Haaretz recalled the recent New Yorker profile on Suleimani, who alongside his terror efforts abroad is now focusing on the massive assistance Iran provides Syria and Hezbollah. The Shin Bet’s announcement names Suleimani, 56, as ultimately responsible for the spying and terror activity. The New Yorker describes the diminutive general as a central figure in the Iranian government, a kind of Karla, the Soviet spymaster from John le Carre’s Smiley novels.
Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who ironically described Suleimani as an “old friend,” told the magazine that the general “has ties to every corner of the system. He is what I call politically clever.” According to the article, Suleimani, “the shadow commander,” is the brains behind some 30 terror attacks and attempted terror attacks against Israeli, American and (at least in one incident) Saudi targets in recent years. (There was a failed assassination attempt of the Saudi ambassador in Washington.)
These attacks include the killing of five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July 2012, as well as attacks in India, Thailand, Azerbaijan and Cyprus. Most of the Iranian attempts, like the one uncovered Sunday, failed or were foiled.