In a rare statement, Iran’s intelligence minister on Tuesday seemed to confirm that an Israeli ex-minister arrested this year and charged with spying for Iran was in fact Tehran’s agent, after earlier denials.
“You have recently heard that we brought under our control a member of a cabinet of a powerful country,” Mahmoud Alavi told the semi-official ISNA news agency, according to Reuters.
Though he didn’t specify what country he was referring to, Iranian news sites and many commentators took that as a first admission of ties to former Israeli energy minister Gonen Segev, who was arrested in May and extradited from Equatorial Guinea to Israel.
He was charged by Israel in June with “aggravated espionage” as well as assisting the enemy in wartime, attempted aggravated espionage and dozens of counts of attempting to provide information to the enemy, making him the most high-profile figure to be accused of spying in the country’s history.
Segev, a former doctor who served time in an Israeli prison for drug smuggling after leaving the Knesset, moved to Nigeria upon his release in 2007. He had briefly served as an MK and as a minister of energy and infrastructure under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1995 and 1996.
According to the charge sheet, Segev was knowingly in touch with Iranian intelligence officials since 2012, making first contact with them at Iran’s embassy in Nigeria and supplying them with information.
Segev, through his attorneys, has denied that he worked against the interests of Israel, saying that he was trying to act as a double agent against Iran in the hope of returning to the Jewish state as a hero.
Iran’s only official comment on the arrest thus far had been dismissive. A day after Segev was arrested, Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht told reporters at a press conference in Tehran that the “Zionist regime uses every tool to blame the Islamic Republic of Iran,” according to a translation of his comments.
“It’s not clear what this is, but we must ignore it,” Nobakht, who is also strategic adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said at the time.
ISNA reported at the time that “the Zionist regime is famous for faking files against Iran, and, after the violation of the [Iran nuclear deal] by the US government, has recently launched a new round of Iranophobia. The experts have assessed this accusation [against Segev] as part of Netanyahu’s effort to create fake files against Iran.”
Alavi, the intelligence minister, also said in his comments that Iran had arrested dozens of spies in Iranian government organizations, without elaborating on when the arrests took place or the nationality of the detainees.
“I have repeatedly asked people to inform us if they know any dual national,” Alavi added, seeming to indicate that many of those arrested have dual nationality.
Iran does not recognize dual nationalities, so detainees cannot receive consular assistance. A UN panel in September described “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals” in Iran, which Tehran denied.
Analysts and family members of dual nationals and others detained in Iran say hardliners in the Islamic Republic’s security agencies use the prisoners as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.