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Israel court remands Iran spy suspect

AFP , Monday 30 Sep 2013
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An Israeli court on Monday remanded in custody for eight days an alleged Iranian spy, arrested on 11 September carrying photographs of the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

An AFP cameraman at the court said that in his first public appearance Ali Mansouri, 58, was silent and motionless as he sat in handcuffs, wearing a brown prison uniform.

He not yet been charged.

News of his arrest was made public on Sunday, just hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for Washington and New York, determined to expose what he described as "sweet talk" by Israel's arch-foe Iran.

Israeli media quoted a police representative as telling the magistrates court in Petah Tikvah, near Tel Aviv, that the decision to ask for the lifting of a gag order on the arrest was made at "a high level."

A transcript of the hearing showed defence lawyer Michal Okabi remarking that usual practice was to lift reporting restrictions only after charges against a suspect had been filed.

Top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot was suspicious of the timing.

"Security services do not hurry to reveal, of their own volition, recent espionage affairs," its defence commentator Alex Fishman wrote.

"An espionage network is too important an operational card to trade with publicly, unless there is a particularly important operational or diplomatic interest that requires such disclosure," he added.

"In the case of the Iranian spy Ali Mansouri, the diplomatic interest behind the affair is completely transparent: Israel is trying to embarrass the Iranians in response to the successful public relations campaign that Iranian President (Hasan) Rouhani conducted in the US in the past week."

Public radio's veteran defence correspondent Carmella Menashe echoed those suspicions.

"Security sources tell us that details of the investigation would have emerged anyway in the coming days," she said. "They confirm that there were additional considerations of national interest.

"The national interest considerations were the prime minister's trip to the US and his speech at the UN."

Israel's Shin Bet security service says that Mansouri, who holds a Belgian passport, was sent to Israel by Iran's elite Republican Guards and arrested at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport as he sought to leave the country.

The domestic intelligence service, directly responsible to Netanyahu's office, said in a statement on Sunday that Mansouri had enrolled in a "special operations unit of the Revolutionary Guards responsible for numerous terrorist attacks around the world".

He had been using the alias Alex Mans after being recruited last year, the agency said, naming his four alleged handlers as senior Iranian officials.

The Shin Bet said that under questioning, the suspect had said he had been promised $1 million to use his position as a businessman to set up companies in Israel on behalf of the Iranian intelligence services to "harm Israeli and Western interests".

He had previously visited Israel in July 2012 and last January, the agency said.

An Iranian national, the suspect married a Belgian woman in 2002 and they divorced in 2007, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said on Sunday.

Public defender Okabi told reporters outside the courtroom that the facts of the case were not so black and white as the security service alleged.

"The apocalyptic picture painted by the Shin Bet is far more complex and the attempt to say that our client came here in order to carry out attacks on Israel is far from the truth and without foundation," she said.

"We are forbidden from giving further details," she said, as the investigation was still in progress.

Netanyahu, due to meet US President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday, has been dismissive in his response to the drive by Rouhani to mend fences with the international community, which culminated in a historic 15-minute telephone conversation with Obama on Friday.

Israel, the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed power, remains adamant that Iran is bent on developing a nuclear weapons capability, something it regards as a threat to its existence.

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