Bizarre Iranian Spy Ring in Israel Proves Tehran Has Trouble Recruiting Agents

The indictments against four Israeli women in their 50s for spying for Iran are rather laughable, but they mainly serve as an indication of how difficult it is to recruit human agents these days

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The Facebook profile picture of Iranian agent 'Rambod Namdar', and The U.S. Embassy Branch in Tel Aviv
The Facebook profile picture of Iranian agent 'Rambod Namdar', and The U.S. Embassy Branch in Tel Aviv
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The indictments of five Iranian-born Israelis for spying for Iran read like a mix of serious crime and comedy. The first four accused are women in their 50s, at least one of whom is already a grandmother. They immigrated to Israel many years ago. The fifth defendant is the husband of one of the other suspects. He is alleged to have assisted his wife. The link between the four women and political power centers – let alone security secrets – is very weak.

Nevertheless, an Iranian intelligence agent – who identified himself on social media to them as a young Jew from Tehran named Rambod Namdar – tried to dispatch them on a range of intelligence missions. According to the Shin Bet security service and the State Prosecutor’s Office, the women had suspected that this was an attempt to enlist them as spies but had difficulty breaking off contact on the internet.

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Perhaps they were swept away by his charm or were enamored over the gifts and the rather modest sums of cash he had sent them. In many instances, they evaded their mission, had difficulty carrying it out or simply lied to him. But Namdar, diligent as he was, wasn’t discouraged, and a new mission would quickly surface.

And what strange tasks they were. One of the accused, a medical massage therapist, had a passing acquaintance with Likud lawmaker Keti Shitrit, at the time a backbencher while her party was in power. The handler asked the masseuse to offer Shitrit a massage and then to photograph her in the course of the treatment. According to the indictment, Shitrit “politely refused.”

On another occasion, one of the defendants attempted to get on as an extra for the Israeli public television series “Tehran,” but even didn’t manage to do that. Still, our man Namdar, an Iranian version of Inspector Clouseau, didn’t despair. He asked one of the suspects for the phone numbers of the producers of the series, or if she might by chance know people at the Shin Bet. “Defendant No. 3 responded in the negative,” the indictment dryly notes.

And there are other misdeeds, most of which don’t turn out well. Our unfortunate Clouseau asked the women for anything they could lay their hands on: sketches of city hall in Beit Shemesh, details about the local National Insurance Institute branch and Israel Defense Forces units. One of the women downloaded a shoulder insignia from the Givati Brigade, in which her brother served, and sent it off.

As far as can be ascertained, this network of matrons didn’t give the Iranians much that would be helpful. Even the mission to photograph the U.S. Embassy buildings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (the latter a location that also interested the Iranians a decade ago in another case) didn’t go well. One time, the security guards’ suspicions were aroused, holding up the doomed mission. On another occasion, a video clip was rather unfocused in the view of their Iranian contact.

Nevertheless, the Iranians continued to maintain contact with the Israeli women and attempted to enlist their help. The list of targets appears to be of intelligence gathering locations that in the future might be helpful in carrying out terrorist attacks. It’s doubtful, however, that this case represents a real danger to Israel’s national security.

One might hope it will end in a plea agreement and light punishments, but in any event, two things can probably be gleaned from the case, and they are related. First, as far as is known, the Iranians so far have had difficulty enlisting high-level agents deep inside the Israeli security or political establishment. Secondly, they haven’t despaired and are casting their net as widely as possible in an effort to collect any information they can get. Somebody, sometime, might still be successful.

Over the years, the Shin Bet has uncovered and foiled a series of Iranian attempts to dispatch foreign agents to Israel or to recruit them inside the country. In some of the cases, they were agents with influence, such as cabinet minister Gonen Segev, after he had already served time in jail on drug offenses, or Knesset member Azmi Bishara, who was recruited by Hezbollah and ultimately fled to the Persian Gulf.

Former minister Gonen Segev in his trial in 2018.Credit: Amit She'evi

This is another in that series of attempts, and this time it was foiled without it causing real harm other than entangling the women themselves. One should assume that there will be more like it – and one would hope that Israeli intelligence is better deployed in Iran than the Iranians are in Israel.

In any event, it’s possible the arrests and indictments are part of another phenomenon – a waning of human intelligence based on human agents. In an era of tight oversight of borders and monitoring of social networks, the recruitment of agents is done remotely. It’s harder to recruit senior, well-connected people – and the danger of being discovered has grown. All of this holds true for both the Iranians and the Israelis.

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