A man arrested on suspicion of being an Iranian spy appeared in an Israeli court on Monday and some Israeli analysts questioned the timing of the affair, suggesting it was being showcased as part of efforts to discredit Tehran's new opening to Washington.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew on Sunday to the United States for a visit focused on Iran's nuclear program, Israel's Shin Bet security service announced that Ali Mansouri had been arrested on September 11 on suspicion of spying for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
It said Mansouri, a 55-year-old Iranian-Belgian national, had photographed the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and intended to establish business ties in Israel as a cover for espionage.
An Israeli official told reporters on Netanyahu's flight that Mansouri's picture-taking outside the embassy - whose exterior can be seen in numerous images on the Internet - was an attempt "to collect intelligence for a possible terror attack".
That allegation was challenged by Mansouri's lawyer, Michal Okabi, after a hearing on Monday in a court in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva in which the suspect, who did not speak, was ordered held for eight more days.
"The apocalyptic picture that the Shin Bet is painting is a lot more complicated and the attempt to claim that our client came here in order to carry out attacks in Israel is far from reality and without foundation," Okabi told reporters.
Some Israeli media commentators questioned the timing of the news, released in a Shin Bet statement that included photographs it said he had taken outside the beachfront mission and at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport. No formal charges have been filed.
"NOT BY CHANCE"
Alex Fishman, the well-informed military affairs reporter for Israel's biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote that the Shin Bet, which is overseen by Netanyahu's office, does not usually rush to reveal details of new espionage cases.
"It was not by chance that it was decided in the Prime Minister's Office to disclose the affair on the eve of (Netanyahu's U.S. visit)," Fishman said.
"Israel is trying to embarrass the Iranians to counter the successful public relations campaign that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waged in the United States last week," he said.
Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the Shin Bet had agreed to publicize the case "out of a national interest - that is, the prime minister's trip to the United States and his speech at the General Assembly".
Israel and Iran are bitter adversaries. Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, says Iran is covertly seeking to develop atomic bombs. Iran says it is enriching uranium solely for peaceful purposes.
Netanyahu and President Barack Obama were to meet at the White House later on Monday, three days after the U.S. leader and Rouhani spoke by telephone in the highest-level contact between their two countries in 34 years.
Israeli officials said Netanyahu, who will speak to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, planned to voice skepticism about Iran's intentions in its agreement to returning to nuclear negotiations with six world powers, and to call for a tightening of punitive economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
He also extended his U.S. visit by a day, the Prime Minister's Office said on Monday, to give him more time to conduct "interviews and briefings with the international media".
Rouhani said that in his phone call with Obama the two leaders "expressed their mutual political will to rapidly solve the nuclear issue". On Tuesday, he told the U.N. General Assembly that Iran would never develop atomic weapons and he later called for a nuclear deal in three to six months.
Obama said he and Rouhani had directed their teams to work quickly toward a settlement on Iran's nuclear activity.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)