Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Friday weighed in on a disputed report that said Israel was likely behind the placement of devices in the vicinity of the White House that can capture cellphone calls.
Zarif mocked the US-Israel relationship in a tweet directed at US President Donald Trump that referred to his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“With a BFF in the #B_Team — who empties US coffers and takes US foreign policy hostage — SPYING on the US PRESIDENT, America doesn’t need enemies,” Zarif wrote, alongside screenshots of the report.
Zarif on Twitter often refers to the “#B_Team,” which includes former US national security adviser John Bolton, who left the post Tuesday, Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, all hawks on Iran. “BFF” is an acronym used online that stands for “best friends forever.”
The #B_Team Strikes again.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 13, 2019
The Politico news outlet reported Thursday that the FBI had determined Israel was responsible for the placement of cellphone surveillance equipment near the White House and at other sensitive locations in Washington, DC.
The report was swiftly denied by Israeli officials and Trump said Thursday that he did not believe it.
“I don’t believe that, no, I don’t believe the Israelis were spying on us. I really would find that hard to believe,” Trump told reporters at the White House after being asked about the report.
“My relationship with Israel has been great,” Trump said, listing some of his pro-Israel accomplishments. “Anything is possible,” he conceded, “but I don’t believe it.”
Earlier Thursday a senior US official also denied the report.
The story “is completely false. Absolutely false. I checked,” Noga Tarnopolsky, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, quoted the senior administration official as saying.
Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials swiftly rejected the accusation as a “blatant lie.” Netanyahu said it was absolutely false, without “a scintilla” of truth.
Also, an Israeli spying operation against the United States government on American soil would represent a dramatic departure from decades-old Israeli policy, a former intelligence official said.
“Can I tell you from personal knowledge that it’s not happening today? No. Could someone have lost it completely in some upper echelon of the government? I don’t know. But based on everything I know, it’s totally false,” Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser, told The Times of Israel.
According to Freilich, who served for more than two decades in the Israeli defense establishment, a decision was made in Israel following the 1985 Jonathan Pollard scandal to avoid spying on the United States.
The former deputy national security adviser, who served in the position from 2000 to 2005, said the potential diplomatic blowback from a botched operation would represent a significant disincentive for carrying out such a mission.
A former senior US official with knowledge of the alleged Israeli operation told Politico it was assumed that the devices were installed to spy on Trump and his top aides, although it was unclear whether the attempt was successful.
Netanyahu on Friday appeared to blame a US strategist working with the Blue and White campaign for being behind the report without offering any proof.
On Thursday afternoon, the author of the Politico story, Daniel Lippman, said he stood by the report, despite the unequivocal denials by the Israeli government.
Zarif’s statement comes amid concern in Jerusalem over Trump’s possible rapprochement with Iranian leadership.
Trump said on Thursday that he believes Iran’s leadership wants a meeting, adding to expectations that he is trying to arrange a summit with his Iranian counterpart at the upcoming UN assembly.
“I can tell you that Iran wants to meet,” he told reporters at the White House.
Trump has repeatedly indicated in recent weeks that he is ready to meet with President Hassan Rouhani, who is expected to attend the UN General Assembly in New York this month. However, the Iranians have so far not given a positive response.
The Daily Beast reported Wednesday that Trump was actively considering a French plan to extend a $15 billion line of credit to Iran in return for the Islamic Republic’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
Four sources with knowledge of the US president’s conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron told the news outlet that Trump “has in recent weeks shown openness to entertaining” the proposal.
On Wednesday, Rouhani blasted the Trump administration, saying “the Americans must understand that bellicosity and warmongering don’t work in their favor. Both… must be abandoned.”
Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads since May last year when Trump unilaterally withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal and began reimposing the punitive measures.
Iran responded by scaling back its commitments to the accord, which gave it the promise of sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program.
However, some analysts see hope for more compromise following this week’s exit of Trump’s hardline national security adviser Bolton.
Israel has received reassurances in recent days that the US will not lift sanctions on Tehran even if Trump meets with Rouhani, Channel 12 TV reported Friday.
The report gave no further details on the US promises and did not cite a source.