TEHRAN (Reuters) - An Iranian court on Monday sentenced to death an Iranian businessman on charges of being an Israeli spy who targeted the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear program and its military, media said.
The Tehran court handed down its sentence at a time of high tension with Israel and speculation of a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.
Iranian media identified Ali Ashtari as the manager of a company selling communications and security equipment to Iran’s government and said he had been accused of “engaging in espionage for (Israel’s) Mossad intelligence service.”
Ashtari, who had been in financial trouble, said he had accepted a loan of $50,000 from Israeli agents, Fars said.
The 43-year-old was shown on television apparently speaking in court. It included the following exchange:
“I pointed out these projects,” Ashtari said and was interrupted by his questioner who asked: “Missile?” To which Ashtari replied: “Yes, and they immediately expressed interest to cooperate with me and to provide me with a loan.”
Iran has often broadcast confessions in the past from those accused of threatening state security.
Ashtari’s name indicated he was a Shi’ite Muslim but Iranian media did not specify his religion.
Tension between the Islamic Republic and Israel has risen sharply since a U.S. newspaper report this month said the Jewish state had rehearsed a possible strike against Iran aimed at thwarting its disputed nuclear ambitions.
In Jerusalem, an Israeli government official said: “We have no knowledge whatsoever regarding this case.”
Iran says its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity. The West and Israel fear Iran is seeking to build atomic bombs. Israel is believed to be the only Middle Eastern state with nuclear arms.
The report has prompted tough statements of military preparedness from Iranian commanders.
“Our response to any aggression will be crushing, fiery and powerful and the armed forces are at a level of utmost readiness in defense of the country,” Mohammad Hejazi, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards, told a military event, Fars said.
Iran, which does not recognize Israel, has previously reported breaking up spy networks and accused the United States and “Zionists” of trying to destabilize the country.
In 2000, 10 Jews from the city of Shiraz were convicted of spying in a closed door trial that sparked international outrage. The last five detained were released in 2003.
Fars quoted Ashtari as telling the court that three Israeli agents had presented themselves to him as foreign bank representatives looking for a commercial partnership.
Meetings with the agents, two of whom were called Jack and Tony, took place in Thailand and Turkey and they provided him with a laptop computer for coded communication as well as satellite phones, the news agency said.
ISNA quoted a senior, unnamed Iranian counter-intelligence official as saying Ashtari had had business contacts with the Iranian government agency in charge of the nuclear program and “some defense and military centers” while working for Mossad.
With Mossad’s help, Ashtari at times supplied “defective and contaminated equipment ... (and) in some instances the application of these parts led to the defeat of the project with irreversible damage,” the official said, without elaborating.
In the televised comments, Ashtari said on one occasion an Iranian officer asked him to fix a defective mobile phone. The Israeli agents took it and asked Ashtari to replace it with a new one, so they could examine the old set.
Ashtari also said the agents wanted to sell to Iran GPS, or global positioning system, equipment so they could track it.
Additional reporting by Avida Landau in Jerusalem and Hossein Jaseb in Tehran; Writing by Fredrik Dahl and Edmund Blair; Editing by Janet Lawrence