Israel's spies lag in shadow war with Iran

Oct. 18, 2013 at 3:27 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Israel's security services say they've arrested an Iranian spy, allegedly the first planted by the Revolutionary Guards' elite al-Quds Force rather than the Islamic Republic's intelligence service.

But the score, it seems, is currently in Iran's favor.

That's due in large part to a sharp deterioration in relations between the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, and its Turkish counterpart, the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, or MIT, following the 2010 collapse of the strategic alliance between the two powerful non-Arab states in the Middle East.

A heavy crackdown on Turkey's military leadership, which had been among the staunchest supporters of that alliance, has also weakened the security ties between the two eastern Mediterranean powers, playing into the hands of Iran's spymasters.

The harsh sentences handed down in August by a special tribunal in Ankara to many of the leading Turkish military figures found guilty of plotting to overthrow the elected Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have seriously damaged the once-strong links between the two countries.

Among the 275 defendants in the controversial Ergenekon case -- the alleged coup plot named after the mystic mountain redoubt where Turks believe their nation was born -- was Gen. Ilker Basbug, the former chief of the general staff appointed by Erdogan himself and considered the leader of the 2003 conspiracy.

Basburg, one of the alliance's strongest supporters, was given a life sentence along with scores of other senior officers, most deemed friends of Israel.

The intelligence links with Turkey were enshrined in the strategic agreement signed in 1996, but in fact they date back to a top-secret intelligence pact signed in Ankara in 1958 by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister.

This relationship was of immense value for the Mossad because of Muslim Turkey's access to neighboring Iran.

The MIT's deep knowledge of what went on in Iran, much of it gleaned from defectors, was a boon for the Mossad, as it was for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

But, so bitter was Erdogan about Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and its navy's May 31, 2010, seizure of a flotilla of Turkish ships carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and the killing of nine Turkish activists, the seminal incident that ended the alliance, that he reportedly ordered MIT to move against the Mossad.

The Washington Post reported Thursday in early 2012 Erdogan ordered MIT to reveal to Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security the identities of as many as 10 Iranians spying for Israel.

These agents regularly met their Mossad case officers in Turkey, where they were presumably monitored by the MIT, whose chief, Hakan Fidan, is a long-time close associate of Erdogan.

He appointed Fidan as MIT chief May 26, 2010 -- five days before the flotilla incident in the Mediterranean that provoked the Israeli intervention that led to the Israel-Turkey rupture.

At the time, Israeli security officials said there had been an intentional change in relations between Israel and Turkey orchestrated by Erdogan, along with Fidan, the daily Haaretz reported.

Israeli concerns about Fidan, little known outside the Middle East, date from his appointment as MIT chief. In June 2020, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak branded him "a friend of Tehran."

Israeli intelligence officers are said to have described him facetiously to CIA officials as "the [Iranian intelligence ministry] station chief in Ankara."

The Iranian agent Israel's Shin Bet security service says it arrested in Tel Aviv Sept. 11 was identified as Ali Mansouri, 55.

He was born in Tehran, moved to Belgium in 1997 where he became a naturalized citizen and changed his name to Alex Mans, the identity under which he was traveling.

Officials said Mansouri admitted he was recruited in 2012 by the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards' special operations arm, and paid $1 million to set up a business front in Israel as a cover for Iranian intelligence.

The Israelis have made much of the alleged Quds Force link, suggesting the objective was to conduct terrorist attacks, not engage in espionage like Iranian intelligence ministry agents.

If that's correct, it suggests Iran has a sharp escalation in anti-Israeli operations in mind, possibly extending recent terrorist operations blamed on Quds Force in Thailand, India, Georgia, Nigeria, Kenya and Azerbaijan.

A senior Israeli security official said the case "shows a new level of sophistication" by the Iranians.

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