Politico | Ronen Bergman: In May 2003, the deputy head of the Mossad presented a top secret plan to the reclusive Israeli spy agency’s senior leadership, a group of some of the most hard-nosed security men in the world. The plan, the product of an intensive four-month effort, was an ultra-secret strategy to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
This week, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plots with U.S. President Donald Trump against an Iranian nuclear agreement that both men have trashed as nothing more than a pathway to a bomb, it’s worth looking back at this episode to understand how Israel’s spymasters think about the problem—and why they tend to view it radically differently than their political bosses.
“The starting assumption is that a technologically advanced state with a wealth of resources like Iran, which seeks to attain an atomic bomb, will succeed in doing so at the end of the day,” began Tamir Pardo, the right-hand man to the Mossad’s legendary director at the time, Meir Dagan. “In other words, an immediate halt to the project can only be the result of a change of mind or a change in the identity of the political echelon in Iran.”
Some sighs and mumbles were heard in the room, but Pardo continued. “In this situation, Israel has three options. One: to conquer Iran. The second: to bring about a change in the regime in Iran. The third: to convince the current political echelon that the price they’ll pay to continue the nuclear project is greater than what they can gain by stopping it.”
Since the first and second options were unrealistic, only the third option remained—to take overt and covert action that would put so much pressure on the ayatollahs that they would decide to simply give up. “In the meantime, until they reach the conclusion that it’s not worth it for them,” Dagan said in summary, “we must employ a number of means to delay again and again their attainment of a bomb so that at the breaking point, they will not yet be armed with the weapon.”
Dagan okayed Pardo’s plan and developed it into a bold, five-pronged approach: heavy international diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, support to Iranian minorities and opposition groups to help them topple the regime, the disruption of consignments of equipment and raw materials for the nuclear program and, finally, covert ops, including the sabotage of installations and targeted killings of key figures in the program.
The breadth of this effort, particularly its covert elements, including the assassination of Iranian scientists, and the startling success it achieved, has never been told before. For the first time, based on interviews with high-ranking Israeli, American, British, German and French sources, it is possible to closely examine the biggest intelligence, political and diplomatic operation ever waged in order to stop a country’s project for the development of weapons of mass destruction. One outcome of this operation was Iran’s eventual acceptance of the curbs on its nuclear program laid out in the 2015 deal with the American-led coalition of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany, known as the P5+1.
The idea behind this integrated effort—“a series of pinpoint operations meant to change reality,” in Dagan’s words—was to delay the project as much as possible so that before Iran could build an atom bomb, either the sanctions would cause a grave economic crisis that would force Iran’s leaders to drop the project or the opposition parties would be strong enough to overthrow the government.
In support of these efforts, a quadrilateral collaboration between the CIA, the NSA, the Mossad and the Israeli military intelligence agency, AMAN,was formalized by way of a cooperation pact between the two countries’ respective leaders at the time, American President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that included revealing sources and methods (“total mutual striptease,” in the words of one of the prime minister’s aides). This was a very unusual deal in intelligence relations between countries, even among those who maintain close ties with one another.
American intelligence agencies and the Department of the Treasury, together with the Mossad’s Spear (Tsiltsal) unit, which specializes in economic warfare, launched a comprehensive campaign of economic measures to impair the Iranian nuclear project. The two countries also embarked on an effort to identify Iranian purchases of equipment for the project, particularly items that Iran could not manufacture itself, and to stop the shipments from reaching their destination. This continued for years, through the Bush administration and into that of Barack Obama.
But the Iranians were tenacious. In June 2009, the Mossad, together with U.S. and French intelligence, discovered that they had built another secret uranium enrichment facility, this one buried under a mountain near Qom. Three months later, President Obama made a dramatic announcement exposing and condemning the hidden enrichment plant, and the economic sanctions were tightened further. Covertly, joint sabotage operations also managed to produce a series of breakdowns in Iranian equipment supplied to the nuclear project—computers stopped working, transformers burned out, centrifuges simply didn’t work properly. In the largest and most important joint operation by the Americans and the Israelis against Iran, dubbed “Olympic Games,” computer viruses, one of which became known as Stuxnet, caused severe damage to the nuclear project’s uranium enrichment machinery.
The last component of Dagan’s plan—the targeted killing of scientists—was implemented by the Mossad on its own, since Dagan, according to several sources, including some high-ranking officials in the CIA, was aware that the United States would not agree to participate. The Mossad compiled a list of 15 key researchers as targets for elimination.
On January 14, 2007, Dr. Ardeshir Hosseinpour, a 44-year-old nuclear scientist working at the Isfahan uranium plant, died under mysterious circumstances. The official announcement of his death noted that he had been asphyxiated “following a gas leak,” but Iranian intelligence is convinced that he was a victim of the Israelis.
On January 12, 2010, at 8:10 a.m., Masoud Alimohammadi left his home in an affluent North Tehran neighborhood and walked toward his car. He had been awarded a doctorate in the field of elementary particle physics in 1992 by Sharif University of Technology, and became a senior lecturer there. Later, he joined the nuclear project, where he was one of the top scientists. As he opened his car door, a booby-trapped motorcycle that was parked nearby exploded, killing him.
On November 29, 2010, two motorcyclists blew up the cars of two senior figures in the Iranian nuclear project by attaching limpet mines to them and speeding away. Dr. Majid Shahriari was killed by the blast in his Peugeot 206; Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani and his wife, who was also in the car, managed to escape his Peugeot 206 before it exploded just outside Shahid Beheshti University.
The Iranians quickly realized that someone was killing their scientists and began guarding them closely, especially the chief of the weapons group, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was considered the brains behind the project. The Iranians posted cars full of cops around their homes, making their lives a nightmare and pitching them and their families into profound anxiety.
The series of successful operations also had an additional effect, one that Israel did not initiate but that ended up working to its benefit: Iran began to fear that Israel had penetrated their ranks, and thus started devoting huge efforts to locating their leaks and trying to protect their personnel against the Mossad. The Iranians also became paranoid about the possibility that all the equipment and materials they’d acquired on the black market for their nuclear project—for very large sums of money—were infected, and they examined and reexamined each item over and over. These efforts greatly slowed the progress of the nuclear project as a whole.
By the end of 2010, however, it had become evident that though the targeted killing campaign, along with the economic sanctions and the computer sabotage, had slowed the Iranian nuclear program, it had not slowed it enough. The program “reached a point far beyond what I had hoped for,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. He and Olmert’s successor, Prime Minister Netanyahu, both concluded that Iran was nearing the moment when the project’s installations would be indestructible, and they agreed that Israel should act to destroy the facilities before that happened.
They ordered the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence arms to prepare for a huge operation: an all-out air attack in the heart of Iran. Some $2 billion was spent on preparations for the attack and for what the Israelis believed would take place the day after—a counterattack either by Iranian warplanes and missiles, or by its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. The latter could use either the 50,000 missiles it had stockpiled (by 2018, Israeli intelligence estimated the number had increased to 100,000), or it could activate its terror cells abroad, with the assistance of Iranian intelligence, to strike at Israeli or Jewish targets. This is what it did in 1992 and 1994, when it responded to Israeli attacks in Lebanon by blowing up the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the Jewish community center AMIA in that city, with a massive number of casualties in both attacks.
Dagan, among others, thought the plan was insane. He saw it as a cynical move by two politicians who wanted to exploit the widespread public support that the attack would provide them in the next elections, not a levelheaded decision based on national interest. “Bibi learned a technique, the essence of which was to convey messages in a short time. He reached a remarkable level of mastery and control on this. But he is also the worst manager that I know. He has a certain trait, similar to Ehud Barak: Each of them imagines that he is the world’s greatest genius. Netanyahu is the only prime minister [in the country’s history] who reached the situation where the entire defense establishment failed to accept his position
“I’ve known a lot of prime ministers,” Dagan said. “Not one of them was a saint, believe me, but they all had one thing in common: When they reached the point where the personal interest came up against the national interest, it was the national interest that always won. There was absolutely no question. Only about these two I cannot say it—Bibi and Ehud.”
The enmity between Dagan and Netanyahu reached a boiling point in September 2010. Dagan claimed that Netanyahu had taken advantage of a meeting, purportedly about Hamas, with him, the head of the Shin Bet, and the chief of staff, in order to illegally order preparations for an attack: “As we were leaving the room, he says, ‘Just one moment, Director of the Mossad and Chief of Staff. I have decided to place the IDF and you at O plus 30.”
“O plus 30” was short for “30 days from an operation,” which meant that Netanyahu was calling a full-scale attack on Iran an “operation,” rather than the more appropriate term, an “act of war.” Wars needed a vote in the cabinet, but prime ministers could simply order an operation.
Dagan was stunned by the recklessness: “The use of [military] violence would have intolerable consequences. The working assumption that it is possible to fully halt the Iranian nuclear project by means of a military offensive is incorrect. . . . If Israel were to attack, [Iranian Supreme Leader] Khamenei would thank Allah: It would unite the Iranian people behind the project and enable Khamenei to say that he must get himself an atom bomb to defend Iran against Israeli aggression.”
Even the mere act of putting the Israeli forces on attack alert could lead to an inexorable slide into war, Dagan argued, because the Syrians and the Iranians would see the mobilization and could take preemptive action.
Barak had a different version of that dispute— he said that he and the Prime Minister were only examining the feasibility of an attack—but that hardly mattered. The breakdown in relations between Dagan and Netanyahu was irreparable. Dagan had run the Mossad for eight years, longer than anyone else in history except Isser Harel. He had re-created it in his image, had revived a moribund and timid agency and restored it to the historical glory it had enjoyed for decades.
None of that mattered. In September 2010, Netanyahu told Dagan his appointment would not be renewed.
Or maybe Dagan quit. “I decided by myself that it’s enough,” he said. “I want to do other things. And also, the truth is that I was sick of him.”
Iranian intelligence is convinced that just a few months after Pardo succeeded Dagan as director, he resumed the targeted killing policy his predecessor had laid down.
In July 2011, a motorcyclist followed Darioush Rezaeinejad, a doctor of nuclear physics and a senior researcher for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, until he reached a point close to the Imam Ali Camp, one of the most fortified bases of the Revolutionary Guard, which contains an experimental uranium enrichment area. The biker drew a pistol and shot Rezaeinejad dead.
These targeted killings were effective. Information reaching the Mossad indicated that they brought about “white defection”—meaning that the Iranian scientists were so frightened that many requested to be transferred to civilian projects. “There’s a limit to an organization’s ability to coerce a scientist to work on a project when he does not want to,” Dagan said.
With the apparent intention of intensifying the fears of the scientists, the next target chosen was not necessarily very high up in the nuclear program, but whose elimination would cause as much apprehension as possible among the greatest numbers of their colleagues. On January 12, 2012, Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, a chemical engineer at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, left his home and headed for a laboratory in downtown Tehran. A few months earlier, a photograph of him accompanying Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a tour of nuclear installations had appeared in media across the globe. Once again, a motorcyclist drove up to his car and attached a limpet mine that killed him on the spot. His wife, who was sitting next to him, was not hurt, but she saw everything and told his colleagues, horrified at what had happened.
Assassinating scientists, whatever they are working on, is an illegal act under American law, and the United States never knew, and did not want to know, about these actions. The Israelis never told the Americans their plans, “not even with a wink and a smile,” said the CIA’s Michael Hayden. That said, after learning about it afterward, Hayden had no doubt about which measure undertaken to stop the Iranian nuclear project was most effective: “It was that somebody was killing their scientists.”
At the first session of his National Security Council, in 2009, President Obama asked the CIA director how much fissile material Iran had stockpiled at Natanz.
Hayden replied, “Mr. President, I actually know the answer to that question, and I’m going to give it to you in a minute. But can I give you another way of looking at this? It doesn’t matter. There isn’t an electron or a neutron at Natanz that’s ever going to show up in a nuclear weapon. What they’re building at Natanz is knowledge. What they’re building at Natanz is confidence, and then they will take that knowledge and that confidence and they’ll go somewhere else and enrich uranium. That knowledge, Mr. President, is stored in the brains of the scientists.”
Hayden made it abundantly clear to me that “this program has no American relationship whatsoever. It is illegal, and we [the CIA] never would have recommended it or advocated such a thing. However, my broad intelligence judgment is that the death of those human beings had a great impact on their nuclear program.” Hayden was implying that the assassinations had three effects: the loss of the knowhow in the dead men’s minds; the significant delays in the program resulting from the need to beef up measures to prevent penetration by western intelligence and the abandonments of the program by experienced experts for fear that they would suffer a similar fate.
The ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran had wanted an atomic bomb to make Iran a regional power and to ensure their continued grip on the country. Instead, Israeli and American actions, particularly Israel’s targeted killing operations and the virus infections of Operation Olympic Games, had slowed the program’s progress considerably. In addition, international sanctions had flung Iran into a grave economic crisis that threatened to bring down the regime entirely.
These sanctions, particularly the ones imposed by the Obama administration (including the detachment of Iran from the international money transfer system, SWIFT), were so harsh that in August 2012, E. the head of Spear, estimated that if he could persuade the United States to take just a few more economic measures, the Iranian economy would be bankrupt by the end of the year. “And that situation would bring the masses out into the streets again and would likely lead to toppling the regime,” he said.
This did not stop Netanyahu from continuing preparations for an open military assault on Iran. It’s not entirely clear whether he ever really intended to execute the plan: Defense Minister Barak maintained, “If it depended on me, Israel would have attacked,” but there are senior officials who believe that Netanyahu—who had the last word—only wanted to make Obama think he intended to attack, in order to steer him to the conclusion that America would inevitably get embroiled in the war anyway, so it would be better for the United States to carry out the attack itself, first, to be able to control the timing.
The Obama administration feared that an Israeli attack would send the price of oil soaring and that chaos would ensue in the Middle East, harming the president’s chances of reelection in November 2012. The administration also estimated that Israel was likely to attack soon and watched Israel’s every move with fear—even regular army brigade maneuvers became a source of apprehension that an Israeli attack on Iran was imminent. In January, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) met with Mossad director Pardo in her Senate office, demanding that he explain the reason for movements by Israel’s 35th Brigade, as she was apparently informed by U.S. intelligence. Pardo didn’t know anything about the routine drill, but he later warned Netanyahu that continued pressure on the United States would lead to a dramatic measure, and likely not the one Netanyahu was hoping for. Pardo himself believed that another two years of economic and political pressure would probably make Iran surrender under favorable conditions and give up its nuclear project entirely.
But Netanyahu refused to listen to him, ordering Pardo to continue with the aggressive operations against Iran, and the IDF to continue its preparations for an attack.
In December, Obama, fearing Israeli action, agreed to an Iranian proposal to hold secret negotiations in Muscat, the capital of Oman. “The Americans never told us about those talks, but they did everything to make sure we would learn about them,” said a Mossad intelligence officer who discovered the Muscat meetings. She recommended to Pardo that he immediately stop all the aggressive operations in Iran. “We must not do this when a political process is under way,” she said. Pardo agreed with her and asked Netanyahu for permission to cease the entire violent campaign as long as the talks were ongoing.
It is reasonable to assume that if the talks had begun two years later, Iran would have come to them in a considerably weaker state, but even the deal that was eventually struck was an Iranian capitulation to a number of demands the ayatollahs had been rejecting for years. Iran agreed to dismantle the nuclear project almost entirely and to be subject to strict limits and supervision for many years into the future.
For Dagan, the agreement marked a double triumph: His five-front strategy against Iran had achieved many of its objectives. At the same time, Netanyahu had grasped that launching an attack while negotiations with Iran were under way would be an intolerable slap in the Americans’ faces. He postponed the attack again and again, and when the final agreement was signed, he canceled it altogether, at least for the near future.
But Dagan was not satisfied. He was bitter and frustrated over the manner in which Netanyahu had shown him the way out, and he did not intend to take it lying down. In January 2011, on the last day of his tenure, he invited a group of journalists, including me, to Mossad headquarters and, in an unprecedented move—and to our astonishment— lashed out fiercely at the prime minister and the minister of defense. After his address, the chief military censor, a woman with the rank of brigadier general, stood up and announced that everything Dagan had said about Israeli plans to attack Iran was in the top-secret category and could not be published in the media.
When he saw that the military censor had barred the publication of his remarks, Dagan simply repeated them at a conference at Tel Aviv University in June, before hundreds of participants, knowing that someone of his stature would not be prosecuted.
Dagan’s criticism of Netanyahu was trenchant and personal, but it also sprang from a profound change in attitude that Dagan underwent in his later years as director of the Mossad, a change that was of far greater importance than his ferocious fight with the prime minister over the Iranian nuclear project.
Dagan, along with Sharon and most of their colleagues in Israel’s defense establishment and intelligence community, believed for many years that force could solve everything, that the right way to confront the Israeli-Arab dispute was by “separating the Arab from his head.” But this was a delusion, and a dangerously common one at that.
Throughout their successive histories, the Mossad, AMAN and the Shin Bet—arguably the best intelligence community in the world—provided Israel’s leaders with operational responses to every focused problem they were asked to solve. But the intelligence community’s very success fostered the illusion among most of the nation’s leaders that covert operations could be a strategic and not just a tactical tool—that they could be used in place of real diplomacy to end the geographic, ethnic, religious and national disputes in which Israel is mired. Because of the phenomenal successes of Israel’s covert operations, at this stage in its history the majority of its leaders have elevated and sanctified the tactical method of combating terror and existential threats at the expense of the true vision, statesmanship and genuine desire to reach a political solution that is necessary for peace to be attained.
Toward the end of his life, Dagan, like Sharon, understood this. He came to the conclusion that only a political solution with the Palestinians—the two-state solution—could end the 150-year conflict, and that the result of Netanyahu’s policies would be a binational state with parity between Arabs and Jews and a concomitant danger of constant repression and internal strife, replacing the Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state with a large Jewish majority. He was anxious that the calls for an economic and cultural boycott of Israel because of the occupation would become bitter reality, “just like the boycott that was imposed against South Africa,” and even more anxious about the internal division in Israel and the threat to democracy and civil rights.
At a rally in central Tel Aviv before the March 2015 elections, calling for Netanyahu to be voted out, he addressed the prime minister: “How can you be responsible for our fate if you are so frightened of taking responsibility?
There were times when the words of the generals were taken as sacred by most Israelis. But their campaigns against Netanyahu have thus far failed to topple him, and some say they have even bolstered him. Israel has undergone drastic changes in recent decades: The strength of the old elites, including the generals and their influence over the public agenda, has ebbed. New elites—Jews from Arab lands, the Orthodox, the right wing—are in ascendancy. “I thought I would be able to make a difference, to persuade,” Dagan told me sorrowfully in the last phone conversation we had, a few weeks before he died, in mid-March 2016. “I was surprised and disappointed.”
The divide between the combat-sated generals, who once had “a knife between their teeth,” as Sharon used to describe Dagan, but later grasped the limits of force, and the majority of the people of Israel, is the sad reality in which Dagan’s life came to its end.