April 25, 2007

Espionage Galore under a Middle East Nuclear Cloud

DEBKAfile Special Analysis

April 17, 2007, 9:19 PM (GMT+02:00)


It sounded like a contest.

On Tuesday, April 17, the Shin Bet intelligence service reported Iranian intelligence had intensified its efforts to recruit Israelis as spies, targeting former Iranians applying for visas to visit their families. One young man had been snared and paid “expenses” for enlisting a friend in security and collecting information. The Shin Bet detained him on landing home, before he did any harm.

Two hours later, in Cairo, a nuclear engineer Mohammed Gaber, was accused by Prosecutor-General Abdul-Maquid Mahmoud of spying on Egypt’s nuclear program on behalf of the Mossad, which was said to have paid him $17,000. An Irishman and Japanese were sought in connection with the affair. Israel dismissed the charge as another of Cairo’s unfounded spy myths, whose dissemination was not conducive to good relations.

Neither case is isolated. Two days earlier, the Israeli-Arab parliamentarian Azmi Beshara admitted from a safe distance to the Qatar-based al Jazeera TV channel that he was under suspicion of spying for Hizballah during its war with Israel and would not be returning home any time soon.

Add on the US defense secretary Robert Gates’ visits to Jordan, Israel and Egypt this week reportedly to coordinate and oversee preparations connected to a potential military operation against Iran and, in the view of DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources, these espionage rumbles denote a far greater upheaval boililng up below ground.

Most can be traced one way or another to the mysterious disappearance of the Iranian general Ali Reza Asgari from Istanbul in February. Tehran’s job description of the missing general – a former deputy defense minister, who also worked with the Lebanese Hizballah in the 1980 - is correct as far as it goes. But the failure to bring it up to date is an attempt to obfuscate the fact that, at the time of his disappearance, he headed Iran’s Middle East spy networks.

The cases disclosed Tuesday may be just the tip of the iceberg, with more spy dramas on the way. But even at this early stage of a potential intelligence earthquake, certain conclusions are indicated.

Firstly, Israeli will soon have no choice but to declare Iran an enemy state and ban Israeli travel to the Islamic Republic for the first time in the 28 years since Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. Surprisingly, Israelis are still legally permitted to visit Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

The Shin Bet did not need to publicize Iran’s intense hunt for Israeli spies in order to stop those visits; there are other ways. The espionage case would not have been brought out in the open without the knowledge of the relevant ministers – certainly not a graphic account of how the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, whence Gen. Asgari vanished, doubles as the distribution center for visas to Iran and a recruiting center for spies. Israelis applying for visas are obliged to deposit their Israeli passports there and issued with travel documents which gain them entry to Tehran. This process is drawn out to enable Iranian intelligence agents to make their first pitch to the targeted Israeli. It is followed up after he enters Iran.

The Shin Bet’s sudden outburst of transparency indicates that the scene is being set for a major diplomatic, military or intelligence step in the summer. This time, the Israeli government will not repeat at least one of the mistakes committed in July 2006, when it refused to declare that Israel was at war and the Hizballah an enemy, even after its forces crossed in to northern Israel, kidnapped two soldiers and let loose with a Katyusha barrage.

Israel is now putting the horse before the cart and declaring Iran an enemy country before the event.

It is therefore vital to deter Israeli nationals from visiting Iran in advance of potential Middle East hostilities. If Iran is involved, even through its allies or the Hizballah, Israelis in the Islamic Republic would be in danger of being taken captive or hostage.

Israel’s latest posture and precautions are likely to have the dual effect of raising Middle East tensions and placing Iran’s ancient Jewish community, reduced now to 25,000, in jeopardy. “Israeli spy rings” may soon be “uncovered” by Iranian security agents.

Second, the Middle East has embarked on a nuclear arms race. It is no secret that at last month’s Arab summit in Riyadh, the Saudi ruler strongly urged his fellows to unite their national nuclear programs under a single roof. Though played down, this was the summit’s most important decision – not the so-called Saudi peace plan, although it made the most waves. It was a step intended to produce an Arab nuclear option versus the Iranian weapons program.

Every aspect of the unified Arab nuclear program is therefore extraordinarily sensitive and hemmed in with exceptional security measures. Each has become a prime intelligence target - and not only for Israel. Hence the song and dance the Egyptian prosecutor general made Tuesday of an alleged Israeli spy network said to operate out of Hong Kong, with an Irish and a Japanese agent charged with planting Israeli espionage software in Egyptian nuclear program’s computers, together with an Egyptian engineer. Egyptian intelligence was making sure to warn off any Egyptian tempted to work for Israeli intelligence, just as the Shin Bet was cautioning Israelis to beware of falling into Iranian intelligence traps.

The events of a single day brought Iran and its nuclear threat into sharp relief as the most pressing issues for Israel. Relations with the Palestinians and Syria, on which so many words are poured day by day, pale in comparison.

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