Iran says it knows nothing of Israeli ex-minister charged as spy

In first comments on case, Rouhani aide says arrest of Gonen Segev, accused of passing intel to Iran, should be ignored

Former energy minister Gonen Segev, seen at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem for the appeal on his prison sentence on August 18, 2006. (Flash90)
Former energy minister Gonen Segev, seen at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem for the appeal on his prison sentence on August 18, 2006. (Flash90)

A senior political aide to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday dismissed Israel’s arrest of an ex-minister accused of spying for Tehran and said it should be ignored.

Iran has mostly remained mum since the Shin Bet security service said Monday it had charged former energy minister Gonen Segev with knowingly providing sensitive information to Iranian agents for the last six years, making him the most high-profile figure to be accused of spying in the country’s history.

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,” said Nobakht, who is also strategic adviser to Rouhani.

The comment was the first official Iranian reaction to the arrest of Segev. On Monday night, ISNA was the only news site in Iran’s tightly controlled media to report on the arrest, dismissing it as a fraud.

“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,” the site wrote.

After news broke of Segev’s arrest, however, Iranian social media users posted messages of support for Segev along with the hashtag #freeGonenSegev, a method used to identify topics of interest on the internet.

Some also tagged their posts with an attempt at a Hebrew translation of the hashtag but the resulting tag used the Hebrew adjective meaning at no cost rather than the verb to liberate. Amused Israeli social media activists then shared the erroneous Hebrew tag along with satirical comments poking fun at the price of “a Segev.”

Segev, a former doctor who served time in an Israeli prison for drug smuggling, moved to Nigeria upon his release in 2007. He had briefly served in the Knesset and as a minister of energy and infrastructure under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1995 and 1996.

According to the Shin Bet, Segev has knowingly been in contact with Iranian intelligence officials since 2012, making first contact with them at Iran’s embassy in Nigeria.

“Segev gave his operators information about [Israel’s] energy sector, about security locations in Israel, and about buildings and officials in diplomatic and security bodies, and more,” the Shin Bet said in a statement Monday.

The security service said Segev met with his Iranian handlers in hotels and safe houses around the world and used a special encrypted device to send them messages in secret.

He was also accused of making contact with Israeli figures in security, defense and diplomacy in order to mine them for information to send to Iran.

Mohammad Bagher Nobakht speaks at a meeting in the city of Rasht, Iran. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

According to the Shin Bet, Segev also tried to make direct connections between his Israeli contacts and Iranian handlers, presenting the spies as businesspeople.

In mid-May, Segev traveled from Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea where he was arrested by local police and extradited to Israel, the intelligence agency said.

On Friday, he was indicted in a Jerusalem court on charges of assisting the enemy in wartime, spying, and a number of other related crimes, but the case remained under a gag order until Monday. Some details of the case remain sealed.

Segev’s lawyers said in a statement to the press that the full charge sheet painted a “different picture” from that which can be seen from only the parts cleared for publication.

According to reports in Hebrew media, Segev claims he was seeking to mislead the Iranians and hoped to return home to Israel a hero.

Segev, who reportedly was being held in a Shin Bet facility, was moved Tuesday to Gilboa Prison in northern Israel.

His next court hearing is set to take place on July 9.

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