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Prosecutors: Iranian agent tried to lure suspects abroad

Shin Bet arrests 5 Jewish Israelis suspected of spying for Iran

Suspects photographed sensitive sites in Israel, attempted to get their kids to join army intelligence units; Bennett tells citizens ‘to be vigilant’ against such online attempts

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An undated Facebook profile picture that was used by an alleged Iranian intelligence operative, known as Rambod Namdar, to make contact with Israeli citizens, several of whom were indicted on January 12, 2022. (Shin Bet)
An undated Facebook profile picture that was used by an alleged Iranian intelligence operative, known as Rambod Namdar, to make contact with Israeli citizens, several of whom were indicted on January 12, 2022. (Shin Bet)

The Shin Bet security service has arrested five Jewish Israelis accused of assisting an Iranian operative, who often pretended to be a Jewish man, in gathering intelligence and making connections in Israel, the Shin Bet said Wednesday.

In some cases, the suspects told investigators they were aware that Namdar may have been an Iranian intelligence operative, but continued their communications with him anyway, according to the security service. The five suspects — four women and one man — are all Jewish immigrants from Iran or the descendants of Iranian immigrants. Their names were barred from publication under a court-issued gag order requested by their attorneys.

According to the Shin Bet, the suspects took photographs of strategically significant sites in Israel, including the US Consulate in Tel Aviv; attempted to form relationships with politicians; provided information about security arrangements at different sites; and committed other offenses — all at the direction of the Iranian operative, who went by the name Rambod Namdar, in exchange for thousands of dollars.

Two of the suspects also attempted to convince their sons to join an IDF Military Intelligence unit, the Shin Bet said.

However, as none of the suspects allegedly involved in the case had access to significant classified material, there was no indication that this spy ring seriously compromised national security. It did, however, reveal a potential weak point that could be used by Iran in the future.

“I call on the citizens of Israel to be vigilant about these attempts. It may be that the people behind the information you consume or share on the networks are Iranians,” said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday in response to news of the case. “There can be no doubt — the long arm of the defense establishment will reach anyone who tries to harm Israel’s security.”

The investigation and resulting indictments shed light on the rare and little-discussed phenomenon of Jews from Iran traveling to Israel to visit family. In one case, such a trip — by one of the suspects’ nieces — was used to transport funds from Iran to Israel in order to pay the Israelis working for Namdar, according to the charge sheet.

Illustrative: The then-embassy of the United States of America in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 14, 2016. (Flash90)

Namdar, who maintained profiles on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, pretended to be Jewish in conversations with some of the suspects.

“With their grave actions, those involved put themselves, their families and innocent Israeli citizens at risk, as their information was transferred to Iranian intelligence, in addition to the information that was handed over about Israeli sites and American sites in Israel, which would be used for terrorist purposes,” a senior Shin Bet official said in a statement on Wednesday.

The five suspects were indicted over the past month in the Jerusalem District Court.

Two of the suspects are a husband and wife, in their 40s, who live in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. According to the Shin Bet, the wife, who worked as a presenter at a radio station — the name of which is also barred from publication under the gag order — was in contact with Namdar over the course of several years.

At Namdar’s direction, the wife allegedly took photographs of the US Consulate in Tel Aviv and the offices of the Interior Ministry in Holon and those of the National Insurance Institute. She also is accused of sending Namdar details about the security arrangements at a shopping mall in Holon.

However, she did refuse a number of his requests, including providing him with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyhua’s email address and Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi’s phone number; taking photographs of the Mossad’s headquarters and various military bases; and filming inside the Knesset and Supreme Court, according to the indictment.

During this time, Namdar also repeatedly asked her for nude photographs of herself, which she refused to send him and which eventually led her to block his number on her phone, prosecutors said.

The woman also tried to convince her son to enlist in Military Intelligence.

Her husband is accused of being aware of her connection with Namdar and of speaking with the Iranian operative himself, as well as transporting her to the US Consulate to take the photographs of it, despite “suspecting that this was an Iranian intelligence figure,” the Shin Bet said.

The two were charged with contacting a foreign agent, transferring information that could be of value to the enemy, and assisting in the transfer of information that could be of value to the enemy.

Illustrative: A Jewish Iranian woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the capital Tehran on February 21, 2020. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Another suspect, a 57-year-old woman from Beit Shemesh, is accused of performing a number of tasks for Namdar in exchange for $5,000. According to the Shin Bet, she attempted to become close friends with a female Knesset member at his instruction and sent him information about their relationship, including recordings of their communications. The name of the parliamentarian was barred from publication.

She also tried to convince her son to join Military Intelligence and sent photographs and videos of his enlistment and military documentation to Namdar, according to the Shin Bet.

The security service said she also formed a club for Iranian emigres in Beit Shemesh, took photographs of her polling box during the March 2020 election and attempted to photograph the US Embassy in Jerusalem, but was stopped by security guards before she could.

According to the charge sheet, Namdar also directed her to install a hidden camera in a massage parlor in her home, apparently to collect potentially embarrassing footage that could be used as leverage over her clients. She installed the camera and recorded one of her clients, but eventually stopped the camera when it made a noise and deleted the video.

She also purchased electronics and opened a business at Namdar’s behest. According to the indictment, the Iranian operative also tried to get the woman to download cryptocurrency software on her phone so that he could transfer her money, but the woman’s nephew, whom she asked to install the applications, told her it was too complicated and that she shouldn’t do it.

According to the charge sheet, the woman “knew that Rambod was working for the Iranian authorities and intelligence services” but agreed to help him anyway. For this she allegedly received $5,000 from him, some of which she received from a messenger sent by Rambod to Turkey, where she’d traveled in order to meet him.

She was charged with contacting a foreign agent and transferring information that could be of value to the enemy.

Some of the money that was allegedly paid to her by a fourth suspect, from the central town of Kfar Saba, who was given $1,000 and jewelry that her niece, who was visiting Israel from Iran, had been given by Rambod, according to the indictment.

The niece “warned [the defendant] that the person who gave her the money and the gifts was unknown by the Jewish community in Tehran, which raised her suspicions that Rambod was working for Iranian intelligence,” prosecutors said.

Despite this, the fourth suspect remained in contact with Rambod, who indicated he wanted a romantic relationship with her, according to the charge sheet.

She too was charged with contacting a foreign agent and transferring information that could be of value to the enemy.

The fifth suspect, a 50-year-old woman from Jerusalem who moved to Israel from Iran in 2001, gave “different pieces of information” to Namdar, the Shin Bet said without elaborating. In the indictment, prosecutors said the woman gave Namdar information about Iranian emigres living in Israel and that the two discussed the fighting in Gaza in May.

In exchange for the information she provided him, the suspect allegedly received $900. Throughout much of their relationship, the woman suspected Namdar, who claimed to be a Jewish contractor living in Tehran, was an Iranian intelligence official — having asked Jewish friends of hers still living in the Iranian capital if they knew anyone with his name and being told no — but continued speaking with him anyway, according to the indictment.

According to the indictment, he also directed her to start a number of businesses, which she refuse to do, and tried to get her to meet him in Turkey, Dubai or in Iran, by traveling there through Armenia. “The defendant told a friend in Iran about this, but he warned her against making such a trip,” according to the indictment.

She was charged with contacting a foreign agent.

In its statement, the Shin Bet warned that Iranian intelligence was constantly looking to recruit Israelis through the internet in order to collect information about the country and to “‘lure’ Israelis abroad in order to harm them.”

“We call on Israeli citizens to be aware of every attempt to make contact or irregular request that are made virtually, particularly with figures who identify as Iranian,” the agency said.

Last year, an Israeli man was nearly tricked into traveling to the United Arab Emirates by an Iranian operative, but called off his trip after hearing about Iranian efforts to kidnap or otherwise harm Israeli citizens.

In 2020, the Shin Bet arrested another Israeli citizen suspected of spying for Iran.

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