RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday that people it arrested on suspicion of spying this month had direct links to the intelligence services of Iran, its main rival for influence in the Gulf.
“Preliminary investigations, physical evidence which has been collected and statements from the accused in this case have shown a direct link between members of this cell and Iran’s intelligence apparatus,” said a security spokesman for the Interior Ministry quoted by the official news agency.
He said Iranian intelligence had paid the suspects “in exchange for information and documents about important sites”. The investigation is ongoing, he added.
Riyadh announced a week ago it had arrested 16 Saudis, an Iranian and a Lebanese on suspicion of spying.
Iran denied on Sunday that it was linked to spying in Saudi Arabia.
Slumped in a Nairobi courtroom, suit coats rumpled and reading glasses dangling from librarian chains, the defendants made a poor showing for the notorious Quds Force of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ahmad Abolafathi Mohammed and Sayed Mansour Mousa had been caught red-handed and middle-aged. And if the latter did them a certain credit — blandly forgettable always having been a good look for a secret agent — the prisoners still had to explain why they had hidden 15 kg of the military explosive RDX under bushes on a Mombasa golf course.
Created to advance Iran’s interests clandestinely overseas, the Quds Force has lately provided mostly embarrassment, stumbling in Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Kenya and most spectacularly in Thailand, where before accidentally blowing up their Bangkok safe house, Iran’s secret agents were photographed in the sex-tourism mecca of Pattaya, one arm around a hookah, the other around a hooker. In its ongoing shadow war with Israel, the Iranian side’s lone “success” was the July 18 bombing of a Bulgarian bus carrying Israeli tourists — though European investigators last week officially attributed that attack to Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hizballah. That leaves the Islamic Republic itself with a failure rate hovering near 100% abroad and an operational tempo — nine overseas plots uncovered in nine months — that carries a whiff of desperation. A Tehran government long branded by U.S. officials as the globe’s leading exporter of terrorism may be cornering the market on haplessness.
Within Iran’s own borders, however, the story is different. Twice in the past two years Iranian intelligence has cracked espionage rings working with Israel’s Mossad, Western intelligence officials tell TIME. In both cases, the arrests were the furthest thing from secret: announced at a news conference, each was later followed up by televised confessions broadcast on Iranian state television in prime time. Given Iran’s history of trumped-up confessions, skepticism is more than justified. But the arrests appear to be solid. One intelligence official said the captured Iranians provided “support and logistics” to the Mossad operatives who carried out the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
At least four scientists were killed on Tehran’s streets from 2010 to 2012, when, as TIME has reported, Israel ratcheted back on covert operations inside Iran. Officially, Israel has remained silent on the killings, though government officials will coyly say they welcome the deaths. The Jewish state maintains the same ambiguous posture on other “setbacks” to Iran’s nuclear program widely — and correctly, Western intelligence officials say — attributed to Mossad, from the Stuxnet computer virus, to mysterious explosions like the massive blast at a missile base, which destroyed ballistic missiles that could reach Israel.
The US Treasury Department today designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) “for its support to terrorist groups as well as its central role in perpetrating human rights abuses against the citizens of Iran and its role in supporting the Syrian regime as it continues to commit human rights abuses against the people of Syria.”
Al Qaeda and its affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq, are among the terrorist groups supported by the MOIS, which is Iran’s chief intelligence agency.
“Today we have designated the MOIS for abusing the basic human rights of Iranian citizens and exporting its vicious practices to support the Syrian regime’s abhorrent crackdown on its own population,” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen explained in a press release. “In addition, we are designating the MOIS for its support to terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, al Qaeda in Iraq, Hizballah and HAMAS, again exposing the extent of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a matter of Iranian state policy.”
The MOIS is assisting al Qaeda in a variety of ways. According to Treasury, the “MOIS has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.”
In addition, the MOIS has “provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)…and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.”
Reports are coming in indicating that Iranian intelligence paid Azerbaijani locals to attack the Israeli embassy and kill the ambassador; Furthermore, they were instructed to target a Jewish day school:
Three Azerbaijani citizens who were arrested by security forces last week planned to attack Jewish targets, including Israeli ambassador to Baku Michael Lotem, a local media outlet reported Tuesday.
Israeli sources also speculated that the terror cell members plotted to attack the embassy in Baku and the ambassador.
The report was published less than three weeks before the anniversary of the assassination of senior Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh.
The men are suspected of plotting to kill a rabbi and a teacher at the Ohr Avner Chabad Jewish Day School in Baku as revenge for the recent killing of a nuclear scientist in Tehran. The Iranian regime claimed Israel was behind the assassination.
Two of the suspects were identified as Rasim Aliyev and Ali Huseynov. According to reports, they received instructions from Balagardash Dadashov, who was in contact with Iranian intelligence and received a sniper rifle, pistols and explosive devices to attack Chabad emissaries operating in Baku.
It is estimated that the would-be assassins were supposed to receive $150,000 to carry out the hit on the Israeli ambassador. It was reported that Aliyev, Dadashov’s brother-in-law, recruited Huseynov and gave him $9,300 as an advance.
Dadashov, who is in his 60s, has been wanted since 1995 on charges of murder, abduction of children and other offenses. He reportedly headed a crime syndicate that dealt in arms trafficking, kidnapping and more.
According to an Azeri news agency, Dadashov fled to Iraq, where he lived for many years, and then moved to Iran. However, it was impossible to extradite him because Iran is not bound by any extradition agreements.
Some four years ago agents from Iran and Hezbollah planned to set off a car bomb near the Israeli embassy in Baku shortly after Mughniyeh’s assassination, but the attack was foiled.
Israel has issued a travel warning for Azerbaijan. The Counter-Terrorism Bureau suggested that visitors avoid places frequented by a large number of Israelis.
Some 30,000 Jews currently live in Azerbaijan. They enjoy freedom of religion and are rarely targeted by anti-Semites.