File photo: Gonen Segev in 2005. Moti Kimche

Analysis Enlisting a Former Israeli Minister Is a Victory for Iranian Intelligence

If the charges against Gonen Segev are true, they show how important Israel is to Iran and raise questions about Israeli counterintelligence

Intelligence agencies are constantly on the lookout for high-value agents – individuals with information about or connections to a target country’s inner circles. For Iranian intelligence, the recruitment of a former cabinet minister and Knesset member like Gonen Segev as an agent would have been a significant achievement.

Granted, Segev was thrown out of the club more than two decades ago – first in 1996, when he dropped out of politics, and then, seven years later, when he became embroiled in a series of crimes (including attempted drug-smuggling) for which he spent more than two years in prison. Later, he left Israel for Africa.

Nevertheless, if the charges against him are true, he could presumably have provided the Iranians with intelligence they couldn’t obtain from the internet.

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Anyone who was once a member of the club understands how things in Israel work behind the scenes – the complex web of political and business ties, the defense establishment’s role and influence. As a former energy minister, Segev also had significant information about Israel’s energy industry, which is always a target for an enemy.

Segev was also charged with attempting to recruit additional agents for the Iranians – people he knew in the fields of defense, security and diplomacy. But as far as we know, this effort failed.

The standard claim made by Israeli intelligence professionals about their Arab rivals is that they have trouble recruiting Jewish Israeli agents from the defense establishment or circles close to the decision makers. But Iran and Hezbollah, both together and separately, are evidently mounting a more sophisticated effort against Israel than Arab countries are.

In 2004, when Segev was first arrested for drug smuggling, the Ynet news website reported that Hezbollah had tried to recruit him at that time. His would-be operator was Qais Obeid, an Arab Israeli from Taibeh who lured and then abducted Col. (res.) Elhanan Tennenbaum in 2000. Both Tennenbaum’s involvement in attempts to get rich quick by illegal means and his military background are reminiscent of Segev’s position.

According to the Shin Bet security service, Hezbollah also once ran former MK Azmi Bishara, who fled Israel after being accused of espionage and now lives in Qatar.

Segev, Tennenbaum and Bishara, each in his own way, were more useful to enemy intelligence agencies for their ability to provide background and explanations than for their possession of concrete secret information. Nevertheless, the harm they could potentially do is more worrying than the periodic cases of Westerners in Israel who are revealed as Iranian or Hezbollah agents and arrested for offenses like photographing important defense facilities from a distance.

The parts of the indictment not under a gag order and the Shin Bet’s statement on Monday leave more questions than answers. For instance, the Shin Bet said that Segev’s ties with the Iranians began in Nigeria in 2012, and over the years, he held numerous meetings with his operators and even traveled to Iran twice.

So how did Segev escape detection for six years, and what information did he divulge during this time? It’s not yet clear. And didn’t his past ties with Hezbollah, as reported in the media, require that he be watched more carefully after he left jail?

It’s also not clear from the Shin Bet statement how Segev was brought to Israel. The statement merely says he was brought here at the request of the Israeli police after Equatorial Guinea refused to let him enter its territory from Nigeria, where he has been living.

Assuming the charges prove true, this case shows how focused Iranian intelligence is on Israel. In addition to gathering military information and increased efforts at cyberspying, Iran and Hezbollah haven’t neglected that traditional source of information, human agents.

Did they achieve something here equivalent to the recent Mossad operation that emptied Iran’s nuclear archive? Presumably not. Segev left politics in 1996. The most recent documents from the archive date from 2003, but Israeli intelligence claims they’re still relevant.

Beyond the great human drama of Segev’s story, which will doubtless receive much media attention in the coming days, this case raises serious questions about Israel’s counterespionage capabilities. The Shin Bet will presumably seek to broaden its inquiries to ensure that Iran didn’t recruit other agents who still play or previously played an active role in events, but without starting a witch hunt.

The agency’s counterespionage unit has been greatly expanded in recent years. The Segev case hints that this expansion was necessary.

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