Israel, Iran and the all-seeing eye of the Mossad

This article was written by Jake Wallis Simons for the Telegraph blog on September 19th, 2012.  Jake Wallis Simons is a Telegraph features writer, a novelist, and a broadcaster for BBC Radio 4.

It has been revealed that last month there was another covert attack on Iran’s nuclear project, in which the power cables to the Fordow Enrichment Plant were blown up. As with all attacks of this sort, at least two purposes were served. Firstly, the development of nuclear weapons was disrupted; secondly, it was intended to have a damaging impact on Iranian morale.

The perpetrators of this operation remain unconfirmed, but the immediate suspects will naturally be the Mossad. This may be true, but in much of the Muslim world there is a perception of the Israeli military machine as having a superhumanly long grasp. Notwithstanding Israel’s various inconclusive recent military operations, it maintains an almost mythological status. The legacy of Entebbe, Operation Wrath of God and the Six Day War lives on: the reputation of Israel’s military and secret services is so fearsome that it has been blamed for everything from the Breivik massacre in Norway to shark attacks in the Red Sea.

For its part, the Mossad has always seemed keen to perpetuate this reputation. Their attacks have always been as flamboyant and audacious as they are deadly. From the 1996 killing of the Hamas suicide bombmaker Yahya Ayyash, whose head was blown off by a booby-trapped mobile phone, to the assassination of the Hamas weapons smuggler in Dubai two years ago, for which operatives disguised themselves as tennis players (in Israel, tennis kit has become a standard fancy dress outfit), Mossad operations command the attention of the world. Even magnetic bombs on motorcycles have entered our cultural consciousness, and have sparked (failed) copycat attacks.

The Mossad, and people connected to it, seem intent on fostering an impression of omniscience. In March, for example, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that the former Mossad head Meir Dagan – whose company, Gulliver Energy, had just been given permission to mine for Uranium in the Negev desert, by the way – gave a lecture at a Haifa hospital in which he asserted that the all-seeing eye of the Mossad “will know” when Iran moves to the stage of nuclear weapon production, and Israel will attack immediately.

The roots of this lie deep. As the novelist David Grossman has pointed out, Israelis are one of the only nations in the world to feel unsure whether they and their country will even exist in five years’ time. This fundamental instability infuses the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) with a profound sense of purpose and urgency.

A couple of years ago, I attended a passing out ceremony at an army base just outside Jerusalem. The atmosphere was an odd blend of grim resolve and family-like solidarity. It was hot, and the dust rose in great swirls from the parade ground. There were the statuesque, imposing soldiers that one associates with the IDF; there were the bespectacled, tubby nerds; there were the girls who typed messages on pink mobile phones, their M-16s slung over their shoulders. That night, this varied platoon of conscripts marched with flaming torches up the mountain of Masada, where in 79 AD 960 Jews killed themselves rather than surrender to the Roman Empire. After a brief ceremony and a rendition of the national anthem, they raised their torches and shouted with one voice: Masada will never fall again!

If the Holocaust has taught Jews anything, it is that if someone threatens to wipe you out, it is best to take them seriously. The Iranian regime has openly declared its genocidal intentions towards Israel, and is more or less openly pursuing malign nuclear ambitions. From the Israeli perspective, as Douglas Murray has argued, it is only from the luxury of personal safety that so many foreign states can be unsupportive. If Israel does strike Iran pre-emptively and successfully neutralises the nuclear threat without sparking a disastrous chain of consequences, many observers may strike a condemnatory pose in public while feeling downright thankful in private.

The world is becoming more hostile, the stakes are being raised all the time, and the pressure on Israel is becoming acute. Even America is looking an uncertain ally. In this context, two basic narratives clash. The first views the Arab world as having always been intrinsically hateful of the Jews, and sees any attempt to placate them as naïve; the only way forward is for Israel to enforce her own strength, without relying on a combination of diplomacy and the protection of the United States. The second approach believes Arab attitudes to be changeable, and asserts that a more conciliatory attitude from Israel would produce similar gestures from her enemies. The growing spectre of a nuclear Iran is making these questions laden with the heaviest of consequences. When confronted with the opportunity to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons programme – and a clock that is on countdown to zero – Israel will be forced to make a choice.

From one point of view, deciding whether to mount a pre-emptive strike on Iran is simple. A world with a nuclear Iran is clearly far more perilous than one without, even if the latter involves war. But war is never simple. Recent history has demonstrated the foolishness of ignoring the law of unintended consequences; once regional conflagration is sparked, there can be no predicting the global fallout. All of this puts Israel’s military and intelligence services under more pressure than ever before. Failure is not an option; the slightest miscalculation could put the future of the planet in the balance. An ongoing campaign of sabotage will delay the moment of decision, but it cannot be put off indefinitely. This is the stuff of thrillers. One can only hope that if and when the Israelis make their move in the real world, the ending will, so far as possible, be a happy one.


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