Teheran hanging of spy seen as warning

Expert: Regime fears Israeli attack and is afraid its own citizens will leak info on nuclear program.

ali ashtari 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ali ashtari 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Teheran is becoming increasingly paranoid about an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities and is sending strong signals to its citizens to deter them from any espionage, experts say. The Iranian regime's hanging of convicted "Mossad spy" Ali Ashtari last week, the country's first known espionage conviction linked to Israel in nearly a decade, was performed to warn to its citizens to avoid "falling into the trap of Israel or intelligence agencies of other countries" or sending information to an enemy, Menashe Amir, an Israeli expert on Iranian affairs and chief editor of the Foreign Ministry's Persian-language Web site, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "The killing of Ashtari came in order to deter scientists and technicians and anyone connected to Iran's nuclear program to be careful and not to come into contact with foreign agents," Amir said. "There are more and more Iranians who are already convinced that [the nuclear program] may hurt the national interest, so they look at it as a national interest to pass information to other nations to work and prevent the Iranians from going on [with the program]." Iran has been severely hit by the global economic crisis and the regime has become increasingly unpopular, which could also encourage espionage, said Eldad J. Pardo, an Iran expert and a lecturer in the Middle Eastern Studies Department at the Hebrew University. The Islamic republic is particularly concerned about the leakage of any information "since it augments international pressure" to halt its nuclear program, Pardo said. "I think they are afraid that big pressure is coming to them now from [US President-elect Barack] Obama. He's much more popular in the world [than President George W. Bush] and he seems to be tough... Obama said clearly that the US is not going to accept an Iran with nuclear weapons." It is easy for the Iranian government to accuse Ashtari of being a Mossad agent, even though the charge might be false, experts say. The Mossad is a more important symbol to Teheran than any other intelligence agency and it's clear that Israel is most affected by the production of an Iranian nuclear weapon, Amir said. Yet Teheran's nuclear project attracts attention from many intelligence agencies around the world, not just Israel's, Pardo added. An International Atomic Energy Agency report released last week confirmed Iran's refusal to heed Security Council demands to freeze uranium enrichment and stated that the Islamic republic has enriched about 630 kilograms of low-enriched uranium suitable for nuclear fuel. Some analysts contend that the amount is enough to upgrade into a nuclear weapon. The report, along with estimates that Iran will have its first atomic bomb within a year, "have encouraged the strengthening of any plan to prevent Iranians to have a bomb before it's too late," Amir said. Iran and Israel are "drawing near to the climax of the conflict," Amir said. Not only because of the nuclear issue, but because Teheran is increasingly giving weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon to deter an Israeli attack, he said. In addition, the Islamic republic is supplying large quantities of cash and weapons to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza to lead to a collapse of the tahadiyeh security calm and to create tension in an effort to overshadow the continuation of Iran's nuclear program, Amir said. Israel might not no choice but to act alone against Iran's nuclear weapons program if the international community did not take concerted action, he said. "Relations are very tense" between Israel and Iran, Amir said. "The more time that passes, the more chances increase that Israel will be forced to cope alone with an Iranian nuclear weapon, particularly after the report from [IAEA chief Mohamed] ElBardei" released last week, Amir said. Europeans are most concerned with the current economic crisis and they don't have the will to deal with the Iran issue, he said. In addition, the US government is now in transition, which paralyzes any decisive action on its part. "The Europeans are not willing to endanger their short-range economic and political interests by participating in a kind of action that will involve negative reactions from the Iranian side," Amir said. "It may produce a situation where Israel will be obliged to act alone." But Amir argues that Iran, which is also troubled by a political crisis and political infighting, would likely give in to the right amount of political, economic and military pressure from the international community. "Iran is determined to continue [with its nuclear program] - in any situation and under any conditions - but it [only] has a certain level of tolerance for pressure," he said. "If there will be impossible pressure, they will not be able to withstand it and they will break... They will abandon their nuclear plans."