JERUSALEM — Israeli security officials said Sunday that they have arrested a Belgian businessman of Iranian descent for spying on Israel and gathering intelligence on possible terrorism targets.
Israel’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence service released photographs that it said were taken from the suspect’s camera that included exterior shots of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
The alleged spy was detained Sept. 11 as he was attempting to leave Israel through Ben Gurion International Airport. The announcement of the arrest comes two days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly, where he is expected to argue that Iran cannot be trusted and that stiff economic sanctions should remain in place until it agrees to curtail its nuclear program.
Israeli analysts said the arrest of the alleged Iranian agent couldn’t have come at a better time for Netanyahu.
Boarding his plane to New York on Saturday night, Netanyahu said: “I will tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles. One must talk facts, and one must tell the truth.”
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has said he seeks more engagement with the West and is prepared to discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He had a 15-minute telephone conversation with President Obama on Friday — the first communication between the presidents of the United States and Iran in 30 years. Upon his return to Tehran, Rouhani was applauded by supporters at the airport, but he later was showered with eggs and shouts of “Death to Israel!” by protesters.
“This kind of thing [the arrest] has happened before, but in the past such cases did not get this kind of publicity. It is not in [the Shin Bet security service’s] interest to publish details of these cases in this way, so obviously it is related to the new geopolitical constellation,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, referring to Israel’s worries about a thawing of relations between the United States and Iran.
Senior Israeli security officials said Sunday that the suspected Iranian agent, Ali Mansouri, had made three trips to Israel over the past two years and was working to make business contacts here and establish a covert base of operations, including a front company to market windows and roofing materials.
The Israelis said that Mansouri was promised $1 million by Iran for his clandestine work.
It was impossible to reach Mansouri, who is being detained at an undisclosed location.
Israel said Mansouri was recruited by Iran’s Quds Force, a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with “extraterritorial operations” of assassination, insurgency and attacks, according to U.S. Defense Department officials. Its leadership answers directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
According to a dossier provided by Israel, Mansouri was born in Tehran in 1958, left in 1980, lived in Turkey until 1997, moved to Belgium, married a Belgian, became a Belgian citizen in 2006 and changed his name.
“During questioning, the suspect Ali Mansouri described entering Israel under a Belgian identity using the alias Alex Mans, and detailed his recruitment and activation process by Iranian intelligence elements,” according to Israel’s Shin Bet.
The Israelis said Mansouri was instructed after each visit to return to Iran to be debriefed by his handlers.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.