An Iranian Spy in Israel? Hardly a Professional

10/09/2013 02:23 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2014

The SHABAK -- Israel's internal security service, has announced that on September 11, 2013, it captured Ali Mansouri, a/k/a Alex Manes, a suspected Iranian spy. The revelation came as part of Israel's effort to provide solid proof that while Iran is publicly sweet-talking President Obama, its Revolutionary Guards continue with their effort to plan "black operations" -- intelligence and sabotage operations for which the perpetrators will not claim responsibility, and which they will try their best to keep in the dark. Three weeks after his arrest, Mansouri was indicted for espionage and aiding the enemy during war. If convicted, he could face 15 years in prison.

As a probable counterweight, the Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced on October 6 that four people have been arrested while attempting to conduct subversive activity in one of Iran's nuclear sites. He accused un-named countries, which, he said, "think that they can use sabotage to hinder nuclear talks with the West." Salehi provided no further details.

Although some media organizations were quick to describe Mansouri as a spy, it seems that he's not exactly worthy of the title. He visited Israel three times using his Belgian passport, obtained through marriage to a Belgian national. He rented a hotel room with a balcony facing the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and took photos. He also took photos of the arrival hall at the Ben Gurion airport. These activities could hardly be labeled espionage. So why was Mansouri arrested? Because, legally, it's not the quality of the intelligence he was gathering but the criminal intent. Otherwise all clumsy spies would get off the hook. The value of the intelligence, if at all, is measured during sentencing. There's no doubt that Mansouri was a potential risk, and it is credible that he could have posed a serious security risk for Israel.

Mansouri appeared to be using clandestine methods. According to the indictment, he entered Israel three times, each from a different European country. He presented himself to Israelis as a Belgian businessman selling glass for "European Folded Glass System," probably a shell corporation established by Iranian Intelligence. The indictment further alleges that during his investigation, Mansouri's handlers instructed him to establish a seemingly legitimate business infrastructure for Iran's agents to use in espionage and sabotage operations. They also instructed him to seek information about business incorporation, and to survey the local needs for pneumatic tools. According to the indictment, Mansouri, when debriefed by his Iranian handlers, also reported his findings on the passenger screening process at Ben Gurion Airport. The report also alleges Mansouri travelled to a sensitive security installation in Israel and took photos there.

Mansouri was born in Iran. But he spent most of the last 30 years in Turkey and Belgium. He told his Israeli interrogators that when he visited Iran in 2007, he attracted the attention of the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence and special operations unit. An Iranian national with a name changed to one that sounded European, a European passport, and with no apparent contact with Iran, could become an intelligence nugget. Mansouri claimed that he was coerced to become a spy. However, judging from the information available publicly thus far, much more credit should be given to the Iranian intelligence services -- they are not that stupid or simplistic. Although Mansouri admitted being dispatched by Iran to Israel, his mission could have been a test balloon: testing the Israeli counterintelligence services' alertness. There's no need to be a rocket scientist -- or ,in this case, an intelligence analyst -- to predict that Manouri's mission was likely to fail. His Belgian passport showed that he was born in Iran. In and by itself, that's no reason to raise a suspecting brow. But when he came several times to Israel, each time from a different country, suspecting brows went up. One of the first things done under these circumstances is to check the bona fides of the person of interest. This would take just a quick search in the huge databases of the Israeli intelligence community; an inquiry to the Belgian security services for background information; and checking the website used by Mansouri and whether there's a real company behind it. If the results warranted, he'd be flagged at the border during his next entry, and he'd grow a motorcade tail courtesy of Israeli counterintelligence agents. The rest is just as obvious. He's arrested; a search of his camera shows photos he took of the American Embassy and the airport; handcuffs; two weeks of interrogation when he spilled out his mission; and soon, an appearance before a Magistrate and indictment.

Why did the Iranians bother? They are much more sophisticated than that. They would never send a professional spy to Israel bearing a passport that gave his birthplace as Iran. A professional spy would not keep incriminating photos in his camera, but would dispatch them and erase the memory card. A spy worthy of his title would establish himself as a law abiding resident; start a business; make contacts; and refrain from any suspicious activities such as taking photos of sensitive areas. Realistically, what intelligence achievements could a tourist with an Iranian accent make during several short visits to security-minded Israel? Identify strategic areas for attack? There's no need to risk sending an operative. Just watching Israeli TV or reading the newspapers would provide ample information. Incorporating in Israel? Read the website of the Ministry of Justice.

So why was Mansouri sent? One reason could be a security breach on the Iranian end: a suspicion that Israel had planted within the Iranian intelligence services an agent informing Israel of forthcoming espionage operations. To catch the culprit, Iran might plan an operation using a scapegoat that could easily be sacrificed, and make sure that the suspected Israeli agent within their organization -- but no one else -- was made aware of the operation. If Israel caught the unsuspecting Iranian traveler, then it could lead to the planted Israeli agent in Iran. But Israeli security is sophisticated, too. An Israeli agent planted in Iranian intelligence would scarcely be needed to bring Mansouri to Israel's attention.

Bottom line: unless this operation was planned by a clumsy and unsupervised Iranian intelligence officer, now behind bars in Tehran, this operation must have had purposes other than traditional espionage.