Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Asharq Al-Awsat has obtained new information about the Iranian espionage cell detained while operating clandestinely on Saudi soil. The Saudi Interior Ministry initially announced that eighteen men—one Iranian national, one Lebanese national, and sixteen Saudi nationals—had been arrested while working for a “foreign” intelligence agency, before subsequently pointing the finger at Tehran.
Asharq Al-Awsat has obtained information revealing that the Iranian national is in his late thirties and is a PhD student at the Current Affairs department of the Islamic University of Medina. He is a media figure, known for his religious seminars on an as yet unnamed private satellite channel.
As for the Lebanese detainee, Asharq Al-Awsat learnt that he is a businessman who also holds a European passport. He is considered to be the central, and most dangerous, player within this spy network.
According to the information, the Iranian detainee obtained both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the Islamic University, indicating that he spent a significant amount of time in the Kingdom prior to his arrest. This detainee, originally from the Shi’ite dominated Iran, was also revealed to be a Sunni.
Investigations are on-going into this individual’s background and it is not yet certain whether he was directly and consciously involved with the espionage cell, or whether this is part of an Iranian attempt to falsely implicate him.
Asharq Al-Awsat previously revealed that another one of the eighteen detainees worked in the main branch of a high-profile Riyadh bank and has over 35 years banking experience. In addition to this, another member of the cell was revealed to be a Riyadh university professor who had previously obtained a master’s degree and doctorate in the US in the field of education.
A third member of the cell was a physician, working in one of the major hospitals in the Saudi capital as a renal consultant in the children’s ward. He was allegedly able to take advantage of his position to provide information about important Saudi figures undergoing treatment in the same hospital.
On March 26 the Saudi Ministry of the Interior announced that the detainees had direct connections with Iran, in the first official accusation of Tehran’s involvement.
A report by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) quoted Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansour Al-Turki as saying, “The preliminary investigations, the physical evidence that has been collected, and the statements made by the defendants in this case reveal direct links between the cell and the Iranian intelligence service.”
“These elements received financial sums, at regular intervals, in exchange for information and documents about important sites, as part of an espionage operation for the Iranian intelligence apparatus,” he added.
He had previously stressed that the eighteen men had been apprehended in the process of actively gathering information about vital national infrastructure which they were then sending to a foreign intelligence agency.
Iran has officially denied any involvement with this espionage cell.
These developments are part of a series of escalating Iranian espionage activities throughout the Gulf States. Last week in Bahrain, an appeals court upheld a ten-year prison sentence given to a man accused of spying for Iran. He was originally convicted in 2011 “of spying for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from 2002 until April 2010 with the aim of damaging Bahrain’s national interests,” according to Bahraini media.
The UAE has likewise convicted one of its citizens on the grounds of spying for Iran. The individual pleaded guilty to the charges of providing a foreign state with secret military intelligence via a foreign consulate, and was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment.