Ali Ashtari, 43, of Tehran, did not look upset when he was condemned to death as a Mossad spy Monday, June 30. His photograph in Iran’s Revolutionary Court-Branch 15 showed a relaxed, confident, completely unstressed individual in the dock, who looked as though he had just come from a vacation spa rather than 15 months of interrogation, as claimed by the Iranian media.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, Ashtari was in fact a double agent for the Israeli Mossad and Iranian intelligence. He was unworried because he expected his appeal to go through within 20 days; he will then leave the prison through the back door as a free man and return to his regular pursuits as a salesman and expert on electronic telecommunications equipment and computers.
The convicted spy’s special forte is planting undetectable bugs and upgrading electronic equipment.
A man of many gifts, Ashtari is personable and good at inspiring confidence, enough to acquire the custom of Iran’s most sensitive security and intelligence institutions and provide technical services in the offices and private homes of their senior staff. He therefore had the perfect cover for planting eavesdropping devices in both.
Mossad made its first contact with Ali Ashtari in 2005 at an international computer and electronic equipment conference in Thailand. He had been invited to display software and gadgetry he had invented in 2003 for the advance detection and analysis of earthquakes.
To draw him into the net, the Israeli undercover agents posed as representatives of Fortis Bank, which has outlets in Switzerland, Holland, Belgium and Taiwan, in search of promising ventures for partnerships and loans for expansion.
The Iranian accepted $50,000 from his new friends, “Jacques, Charles and Tony,” to seal the “partnership” and stashed it in the false compartment of a document case they produced for the purpose.
Two commissions for Mossad
At his trial, the Iranian electronics whiz claimed in his defense: “I didn’t realize at the time why they were giving me this secret fund.”
This was an act. Our intelligence sources report Ashtari had spotted “Jacques, Charles and Tony” as foreign agents right off and deduced they were Israeli. He entered into the transaction with his eyes wide open. He hoped to convince his friends and clients in the Iranian intelligence ministry that this contact was worth developing for their purposes, while at the same time he acquired an extra source of income.
Ashtari knew exactly what he was doing when he accepted two commissions for the Israeli Mossad:
One was to plant bugs in the offices and communications equipment ordered from him by officials in sensitive Iranian institutions.
The second was to hide in their computers and satellite phones software and miniature modems that would open them up for Mossad access. Some of these devices were exhibited in court.
Neither the court nor Mossad were informed that as soon as the Iranian businessman returned from Thailand in March 2005, he presented himself to the counterespionage department of the Iranian intelligence agency, many of whose officers were friends, and made a full breast of the Mossad offer.
They were delighted. This opening was almost as good as an Iranian spy planted inside an Israeli military or intelligence outfit.
Ashtari was instructed to keep up his contacts with the Israeli agents, while installing their bugs and modems in the places marked on a diagram he was given. The work was to be performed in two stages.
Iranians “turn” Mossad devices to deliver fake data
First they were installed at unimportant facilities with administrative ties to the army and Revolutionary Guards in Tehran and allowed to run for some months. This would convince Ashtari’s Israeli controllers that their scheme was working well.
He would then arrange another overseas rendezvous with them and propose expanding the covert operation to command centers of the military and IRGC and associates of Iran’s nuclear program.
In all, the Iranian double agent made at least 25 trips to the Far East and Western Europe for assignations with his Israeli controllers, returning each time with a new set of modems and computer programs for planting in Iranian facilities.
At one of those encounters in mid-2006, the Mossad handed Ashtari a list of fresh targets, and ordered him to expand his operation to sites of “special interest.”
As for his Iranian controllers at counterespionage, their orders were equally precise. He was told exactly where to plant his bugs and gadgets and which facilities to omit from the operation. This enabled them to feed false data for the Mossad to unload. The Iranian service also had the bugged computers and phones wired to fake computers which led Mossad hackers to a dead end and so blocked the sites they had targeted.
A fraction of this battle of wits was uncovered in court where Ashtari was accused of planting hostile systems at sensitive government institutions, including the Iranian nuclear energy agency, security arms of the Revolutionary Guards and military, political centers and internal security bodies, until he was apprehended in 2007.
Israeli intelligence wakes up
Meanwhile Iranian counterespionage officials were more than satisfied with their sting operation against the celebrated Israeli Mossad. They assumed that the list of targets th Israelis handed to Ashtari gave away the extent of their inside knowledge about Iran’s nuclear projects and military. They found confirmation of their success in turning the Israeli operation around when Western media, especially European publications with good contacts in Israeli intelligence, began running misinformation which could only have originated from devices doctored by Ashtari at the behest of his Iranian masters.
These misreports played up Iran’s advances in uranium enrichment. Iran was falsely estimated as having enhanced and stepped up enrichment by means of smoothly operating centrifuges and claimed to have taken delivery of new air defense systems as a shield against air and missile attacks.
Iran welcomed these phony leaks as proving that the Israelis had been successfully led astray.
At some point in this battle of wits, Israeli intelligence chiefs woke up. They decided to keep the Ashtari operation going and use it as a card up their sleeves.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has not pinned down the moment at which the Israeli side began to suspect the computers Ashtari had doctored on their behalf had been “turned.”
Our intelligence sources postulate two possible scenarios:
1. That Ashtari’s operation as a double agent was not as damaging as Iranian counterespionage believed, because he was only a Mossad decoy to obscure several deeper Israeli or American penetrations of Iran’s covert nuclear and military infrastructure.
Ashtari put on trial to allay war fears
Two former cases point to this motive: In 2006, the high-ranking Iranian officer, Gen. Ali Ashgari, defected to the west, taking with him a load of Iranian nuclear secrets. He fled Iran via Syria and Turkey to the Untied States. And in 2005, a personal computer belonging to an Iranian nuclear program high-up was mysteriously lost and turned up at CIA headquarters in Langley.
2. That while feeding Israeli intelligence sham data, the Iranians exposed their own firewalls and blocking methods. Mossad electronics specialists may have found a way past those firewalls and, while Iranian counterintelligence was focused on Ashtari’s double game, accessed Iran’s most sensitive networks undetected – either by hacking into them or by using undiscovered agents.
By late 2006, Iran’s clandestine services also woke up and sensed something was amiss on their side of the game with Israeli intelligence. In early 2007, they terminated the Ashtari exercise and arrested him.
Putting him on trial more than a year later in June, 2008, appears to have been an impromptu response by Tehran to another big game afoot – the publicity battle of reports, leaks, signals and threats over a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, which have been flying between Washington, Tehran and Jerusalem for the last two weeks.
To counter the spreading war scare and spy-mania, Iranian officials decided that the public trial of an Israeli spy would help allay fears and show their own people and the world that the Islamic regime was calmly confident of its ability to thwart threats and keep the nation secure.
This trial may prove to be an augury. The government may order a wave of arrests of suspected spies and dissidents to drum up national support and unity against a common enemy in case of war.