Source AP ©

Israel says Iran targeting visiting Israelis as potential spies

Israeli security officials say they have broken up an Iranian plot to recruit Israelis as spies, deepening hostilities between the Middle East nations.

The spat has thrown light on a strange anomaly. While Iran's president calls for Israel's destruction as he pushes forward with a nuclear program, Israeli Jews are still allowed to visit relatives in Iran.

According to Israeli security officials, Iran has begun targeting Israeli Jews who want to visit Iran as potential spies. Israeli security officials told reporters Tuesday that agents from the Shin Bet security service detained an Israeli returning from a visit to relatives in Iran.

The man told interrogators he was paid by Iranian intelligence operatives and asked to help them spy on Israel.

Shin Bet briefing documents obtained by The Associated Press did not specify when the man was picked up, if he carried out the request or if he was released after questioning. But Israeli media reports Wednesday said no charges were brought and the man was released.

The documents said, however, that this was only one among several similar incidents.

"Over the past year Iranian intelligence has increased its activity against Israel," they said. "The Shin Bet has recently uncovered a number of attempts by Iranian intelligence to recruit Jews, Israeli citizens of Iranian descent, who went on family visits to Iran."

There was no comment from the Iranian government.

About 135,000 Israeli Jews trace their roots to Iran, according to Israeli government figures, and many have relatives there. An estimated 25,000 Jews live in Iran, which population is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim.

Before Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution, ties between the two countries were close. According to Israel Army Radio, about 100 Israelis have visited family members there over the past two years.

The Israeli documents said most of the recent Iranian recruitment attempts began at Iran's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and said at least two people there were intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, naming them as "Abdalahi" and "Zinali."

Turkey is a short flight from Tel Aviv and a convenient point for Israelis of Iranian origin seeking to obtain an Iranian passport in order to visit their relatives. Iran does not have diplomatic relations with Israel and does not allow entry on an Israeli passport.

Army Radio cited a senior Shin Bet officer as saying his agency uncovered 10 recruitment attempts over the past two years. It said passport applicants at the Istanbul consulate were quizzed about their Israeli military service and about the general economic and security climate in Israel.

Reserve Col. Shimon Buyavsky, former head of the Iran-Iraq section in Israeli military intelligence, said it was possible the Shin Bet had revealed its findings now in order to pressure Israeli civilian authorities to ban such visits.

"I think the aim in making this public is to show Israelis the danger involved, to get the establishment to act against it and to tell the Iranians we know what they're up to," he told Army Radio.

Tehran-born Avi Igai said he was issued an Iranian passport in Istanbul and visited Teheran, unhindered by the authorities, for a family wedding last September.

"I went there for my niece's wedding and to visit my father's grave," he said, adding that he would consider going again as long as it is not against any law.

Buyavsky warned, however, that people like Igai were tempting targets for an Iranian sting operation.

"Next time, if he goes back, he may find that his niece who got married is now a hostage, and they can put her in prison if he does not start passing information from Israel," he said. "That's how it starts."

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