JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service said Sunday it has arrested a Belgian citizen of Iranian origin whom it claims was sent by Iran to spy on Israel under the guise of a windows and roofing salesman, an announcement that coincided with a trip by Israel’s prime minister to the U.S. aimed at casting doubt on Iran’s recent overtures to the West.
The Shin Bet said the accused spy, identified as Belgian-Iranian businessman Ali Mansouri, had admitted to interrogators that he was recruited by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force last year and sent to Israel to set up business ties as a front for spying on Israeli and Western targets. For his services, the Shin Bet said, Mansouri’s Iranian handlers promised him $1 million.
The Shin Bet said Mansouri entered Israel on Sept. 6 with a Belgian passport under the name Alex Mans, and that they arrested him five days later at Israel’s international airport as he was to board a flight to Europe. He was found with photos of sites throughout Israel “that interest Iranian intelligence,” including the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, the Shin Bet said.
The security service released amateurish photographs it said Mansouri took of a cafe next to the U.S. Embassy, a rooftop view of the embassy taken from a nearby building, and the baggage claim hall of the airport. Another photograph shows Mansouri posing on the Tel Aviv seaside boardwalk in a tight white polo shirt and short jeans shorts and clutching a map.
A lawyer for Mansouri could not immediately be located. The Shin Bet, the Israel Police, and Israel’s Justice Ministry said they did not know who is representing him.
There was no official Iranian comment on the spy, but Iranian state TV called the arrest an attempt at “anti-Iranian propaganda” by Israel before Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama.
The Shin Bet denied the timing was linked to the Netanyahu’s trip to the U.S., where he will visit the White House on Monday and address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
Israel has grown alarmed about the recent conciliatory moves between Iran and the U.S. Israel believes Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon and is reaching out to the West as a tactical move to ease international sanctions and buy time. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Before boarding a plane to the U.S., Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the purpose of his trip was to “tell the truth in the face of the sweet-talk and the onslaught of smiles,” a reference to Iran’s recent diplomatic overtures to the West.
It was the Israeli government’s first reaction to last week’s telephone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first such phone call between U.S. and Iranian presidents in three decades.
Archenemies Israel and Iran have been engaged in intense mutual espionage efforts in recent years. Israel has convicted several Arab citizens of spying for Iranian proxy Hezbollah. It also has accused Iran of being behind a series of attacks on Israeli targets around the world.
Iran has accused Israel of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, and Israel and the U.S. are widely believed to be behind a computer virus that disrupted Iranian nuclear facilities.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told the Belga news agency in an interview Sunday that Ali Mansouri married a Belgian woman in 2002 and quickly obtained Belgian citizenship, and had changed his name to Mans as allowed by law.
The couple later divorced and he remarried with an Iranian woman who lives in Teheran, and in 2012, asked to be stricken off the list of Belgians living abroad — even though he kept up contact with the Belgian Embassy in the Iranian capital.
“We learned immediately about his arrest, and our consulate in Iran informed his second wife,” Reynders was quoted as saying. “We are now going to verify that there was no sign of risk regarding him, and that the steps that he took were not only carried out to allow him to enter Israeli territory.”
For now, Belgian authorities have no indication that his marriage and process of obtaining Belgian citizenship were marred by irregularities, Reynders said, according to the agency. A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment to The Associated Press beyond the statements in the Belga report.
Belgian diplomats in Israel have been in contact with the suspect, and both Mansouri and his lawyer have declined comment, according to Belga.