Israel says Iran ramping up efforts to recruit spies, sow dissent on social media

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JERUSALEM — As Israel wages a fierce war in Gaza against one of Iran’s best trained proxies, Hamas, the Islamic regime in Tehran is ramping up its effort to attack the Jewish State directly via social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Telegram. It’s recruiting Israelis of Iranian origin for spying and spreading divisive misinformation, Israel’s Security Agency revealed in a statement this week. 

According to the agency, which is better known by its acronym, Shin Bet, Iranian security forces have succeeded in recent weeks in recruiting several Israeli citizens, setting them on missions such as photographing the residences of security establishment officials and of prominent figures who have publicly criticized Iran. 

Additionally, the Shin Bet said, the Iranians tasked their unwitting Israeli agents to send bouquets of flowers and messages to some of the families of those taken hostage by Hamas during its deadly Oct. 7 terror attack on southern Israel. The Shin Bet also said it had uncovered online platforms used by Iran to promote divisive activities against some of the families, including initiating protests near their homes and taking photos during the mass rallies that have been held weekly in Israel. 

Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told Fox News Digital Iran’s actions since the outbreak of the Gaza war following Hamas’ attack “shows that Iran is determined to weaken Israel and uses anything in its power to do so.”

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Fake Iran website, blue and green pencil, emoji happy and sad face and clipboard

Operatives in Tehran created a platform called Kan +, which uses similar graphics to Israel’s national broadcast channel Kan 11 and was being used for “phishing” details of Israelis who responded to its surveys. (Israel Security Authority)

Iran has been known to use cyber infiltration methods in the past, including a recent case in which four Jewish women of Iranian descent were recruited and asked to photograph sensitive sites by an Iranian operative in Turkey. Guzansky said, since the start of the current war, “the intensity of the attacks we have seen recently is much higher.” 

“We are seeing Iran fighting Israel in a few dimensions,” he said, “kinetically, through its proxies and in the cyber area. What is most interesting about the cyber area is that the attacks are directly from Iran.” 

The Shin Bet said it had used advanced tools to detect fictitious online platforms clearly being directed and promoted from Tehran, the Iranian capital. Among the sites uncovered, the Israeli security agency said, were online surveys asking Israelis for personal information that was then used to recruit them for spying and a series of fake websites impersonating various Israeli political parties, as well as Israel’s national broadcasting authority, used by Iran to “inflame the political discourse and deepen the divide in Israel,” the Shin Bet said.  

A CCTV camera in Iran

CCTV cameras in a street in Tehran, Iran, April 9, 2023. (Majid Asgaripour/WANA via REUTERS)

“The Shin Bet, in cooperation with other Israeli security agencies, is taking active steps to monitor and thwart any activity that endangers the security of the State of Israel,” the agency said in its statement. 

“Iran thinks — and it is not mistaken — that Israeli society has a soft spot,” Guzansky said, using the example of Israel’s chaotic political system and the mass street protests earlier this year when hundreds of thousands rallied against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the judiciary. 

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Fake Instagram Iran page, propaganda content

Two fake websites Iran used to make contact with Israeli citizens and sow division within Israeli society. The site is called Ein Kol, which translates to no voice in Hebrew.  ( Israel Security Authority)

He said Iran was always looking for ways to “pitch Israelis against one another.” 

“They have used all sorts of messages online aimed at dividing and conquering Israel. It is as simple as that,” said Guzansky. 

Dr. Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer in Iran Studies at Reichman University near Tel Aviv, who grew up in Tehran, told Fox News Digital Iran’s efforts to infiltrate and manipulate Israeli society were “very concerning for Iranian Israelis.”

“Iranian Israelis are both a target and a victim of the Iranian regime’s policy of antagonism towards Israel,” he said. “We are very concerned, not only because of Iran’s support for groups that want to kill Israelis, including Iranian Israelis, but also because Iran is trying to collect intelligence through us.

Israel protests

An aerial photograph shows protesters outside Israel’s parliament March 27.  (Israeli Knesset)

“We have seen Iran trying to dupe Iranian Israelis to collect intelligence from them in the past,” Javedanfar said. “There is always a concern that if somebody you don’t know is trying to reach out to you in Farsi, it could be something suspicious, and you have to take great care.” 

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Images of people on a fake hostage Iran website

Website asking Israelis to fill out the form. ( Israel Security Authority)

Javedanfar, who moved to Israel via the U.K. in 2004, said until about 2007 Iranian Israelis would return to visit their old home country, but that stopped after the Iranian regime attempted to recruit some of those who were visiting there. 

“We are still very connected to the people of Iran and to Iranian culture,” he said. “And we also sympathize greatly with the plight of the Iranian people.”

During the current Gaza war, that sympathy has been reflected, he said, by many Iranians who oppose the extremist regime in their country. 

Israel military in Gaza

Israel’s military says this photo shows its troops operating inside the Gaza Strip Nov. 5. (Israel Defense Forces via AP)

“On social media, we have seen that the only people who are overwhelmingly pro-Israel are actually the people of Iran because they also see themselves as victims of Islamic extremism,” said Javedanfar. 

Guzansky, from the INSS, said, however, that Iran should be viewed as a global problem and not just a problem for Israel. 

“Iran is there behind the shadows, behind the scenes, moving all different parts and all different proxies,” he said. Guzansky pointed not only to Hamas in Gaza, but also to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, who have disrupted global shipping routes by attacking U.S. and international targets in the Red Sea. 

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Male in image with red over lay saying to bring home in Iran

The Shin Bet uncovered a Telegram channel named BringHomeNow, a play on the official slogan for the forum working to release the hostages. ( Israel Security Authority)

Guzansky said that because the West — and Israel — prioritized addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it failed to pay attention to other threats posed by the regime in the region. 

“Israel is fighting Iran in Syria, but it is fighting alone,” he said. “The U.S. is reluctant to get involved and is trying to avoid war at almost any cost. But appeasement will do exactly the opposite. It will bring war closer because you are letting your opponent build its power and grow an appetite – that is how Iran sees it.” 

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