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IRAN: Telecom executive accused of spying for Israel is sentenced to death

July 1, 2008 |  9:36 am

Ashtary2_2 Iranian authorities this week sentenced the manager of a telecommunications company to death on charges of spying for Israel.

Ali Ashtari, who sold communications and security equipment to the Iranian government, was arrested about 18 months ago on charges of "engaging in espionage for [Israel's] Mossad intelligence service," Iranian news agencies reported.

The 45-year-old allegedly confessed to the crime and asked for mercy. He told the judge he accepted a $50,000 "loan" from Israelis to get him out of financial trouble, according to news agencies. The website of an state-owned Iranian television station quoted an anonymous intelligence official alleging that Ashtari handed Israelis sensitive information about Iran's communications system and nuclear program.

He's got 20 days to appeal his capital sentence.

In Iran, it's tough to figure out who's an actual spy and who's a casualty of political infighting. The tubby, balding Ashtari hardly seems like a swashbuckling secret agent. And any foreign correspondent or geologist working in the field will quickly recognize the satellite telecommunications equipment shown in the courtroom picture as standard tools of the trade, stuff you can buy on the open market.

Since the beginning 1979 Islamic revolution, figures within Iran's fractured leadership have hurled charges of espionage to take out opponents or sully the reputation of a rival factions.

But the U.S. and Israel have vowed to try to undermine Iranian government by ramping up intelligence and covert operations. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported this week of a $400-million budget allocated for covert intelligence and sabotage operations in Iran. Ashtari appeared perfectly positioned to help gather intelligence.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Ali Ashtari sits in a Tehran courtroom near equipment he allegedly used in espionage for Israel. Credit: Hassan Ghaedi / Fars News Agency

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East. You can subscribe by registering at the website here.

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