Spy Agency Documents Leaked: But the Israel-Nuclear Story is a Fizzle

As historians and journalists who write about espionage, we find leaked documents fascinating — and the latest South African intelligence dossiers leaked to Al-Jazeera (and widely distributed by The Guardian) make for some interesting reading.  

But hunting for a headline — by claiming there’s new proof that the Mossad disagreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public claims about Iran’s nuclear program?  There’s not much there, there.  

This analysis is based on an article in The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.

After promising a bombshell, Al Jazeera’s publication of documents on Monday fell short of that mark.

Al Jazeera did not obtain an original and authentic document from the Mossad, Israel’s foreign espionage agency.

What they published was a South Africa State Security Agency (SSA) document that is based on a briefing given to them by the Mossad. The document from 2013 contains no secrets.

In fact — any reader, or follower of public reports on Iran’s nuclear program, is familiar with the facts written in that document.

Netanyahu's display at the UN in New York (Sept. 2012)

Netanyahu’s display at the UN in New York (Sept. 2012)

The Mossad provided details in its briefing, such as the quantities of Iran’s enriched uranium at its two levels – 3.5 percent and 20% – about the development of Iran’s nuclear reactor at Arak, and its statement that Iran is “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.”

That assessment was correct – it isn’t possible to utilize fissile material for a bomb only with 20% enriched uranium – an enrichment of 93% is required – and Iran did not have it at the time of the document’s writing.  According to intelligence and International Atomic Energy Agency information, Iran still doesn’t have it now.

Certainly the South African document doesn’t present evidence of a wedge between the Mossad and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.

The Mossad has liaison relations with many spy and security agencies. These contacts are run by its Cosmos (Tevel in Hebrew) department. Some of the meetings and exchanges are very intensive and intimate.

Both sides often feel comfortable in each other’s company to share ideas and insights in a very candid and frank manner — even sharing very sensitive information. In rare cases, such meetings result in joint operations.

One case in point was the recent revelations that the CIA participated – though from the sidelines – in the assassination of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh seven years ago in Damascus.

Another example came to light this week from one of Edward Snowden’s documents, exposing a trilateral coordination among the signals intelligence (SIGINT) and eavesdropping agencies of Britain (GCHQ), America (NSA) and Israel (the military’s Unit 8200), to listen to Iranian leaders three years ago.

The Mossad-SSA relations are of a different nature. Thirty years ago in the heyday of the all-white Apartheid regime, relations between Pretoria and Jerusalem were excellent. The two countries cooperated in the military and nuclear fields, and Israeli security products were sold to South Africa.

After the collapse of Apartheid and the release of popular hero Nelson Mandela from prison, Israel reached out with a gesture of goodwill by giving an armored car to President Mandela — as a gesture of goodwill.

Since then relations have deteriorated.  Mandela, who always felt fraternal warmth with the Palestine Liberation Organization, put his government on the PLO’s side in its conflict with Israel.

Today the intelligence ties between the Mossad and SSA are cordial and ordinary, but not close. It is somewhat surprising that representatives of the spy agencies met at all.

It is unlikely, therefore, that the Mossad either confided in the SSA or gave, during the encounters, dramatic and sensitive information or estimates about Iran’s nuclear program.

Yet there certainly are differences between the Mossad and Netanyahu. We don’t need a South African document to know that.

The spy agency’s analysts and the prime minister don’t differ about facts and details, but about the interpretations and ramifications. It is no secret that the Mossad and Aman (the Military Intelligence agency), both in the past and in the present, don’t share the warnings expressed by the prime minister.

Meir Dagan, when he was head of the Mossad and after the end of his tenure, said in numerous public statements that even with all its nastiness and hostility and secret nuclear plans, Iran did not pose an existential threat to Israel.

Tamir Pardo, the Mossad director

Tamir Pardo, the Mossad director

Dagan’s successor Tamir Pardo said in a private meeting, which was leaked, that the main troubling issue for Israel is the Palestinian problem. These were blatant contradictions of Netanyahu’s position.

Israeli intelligence estimates are that Iran is working to be a nuclear power – a few months away from the ability to assemble the bomb – but not capable of building it now. Iran has not made the decision to “break out” and create a nuclear weapon.

More than anything, Iran wants the United States and the rest of the international community to lift the economic sanctions.

Israeli intelligence researchers know that Iran is already on the verge of becoming a nuclear threshold state. It has the know-how, technology and materials to construct the bomb in a matter of a few months or perhaps a year, if and when the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives the order.

February 24, 2015

An Assassination by CIA and Mossad Together — A Tussle Over Taking Credit

A few weeks after The Washington Post and Newsweek scored scoops by revealing that the CIA worked jointly with Israel’s Mossad to assassinate Imad Mughniyeh – the notorious Lebanese Hezbollah military commander blown to bits by a bomb in Damascus, this week 7 years ago – there’s now a second phase of revelations. Israelis who are close to the intelligence community apparently were concerned that the American side was taking too much credit. This report (summarized first at CBSnews.com) is based on the version the Israelis are telling to Western officials and diplomats.

By DAN RAVIV (CBS News correspondent and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon)

 

Pe’al!” ordered the senior Mossad commander in charge of this extraordinary mission. Translated from Hebrew, this meant Go. Act. Push the button. The expert sitting beside the commander obeyed the order. He pushed the button.  One hundred and thirty-five miles (215 km.) away in Syria’s capital, Damascus, an explosion tore a notorious terrorist to bits.

Imad Mughniyeh had been one of the most wanted terrorists on earth, second only to Osama Bin Laden at the time. Mughniyeh was the military and operations chief of Hezbollah: in effect the number-2 man in the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim faction that is heavily armed and financed by Iran.

Mughniyeh HezbollahThe violent man’s life met its violent end, late at night on Tuesday, February 12, 2008: seven years ago this month.

A manhunt lasting a quarter of a century had come to an end. At Mossad headquarters at the Glilot Junction north of Tel Aviv there was great relief and even celebration.

In a most unusual example of operational cooperation, a CIA liaison officer was also in the Mossad HQ – part of the logistics and decision-making process for the assassination.  The Israelis understood that officials at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, were also very pleased.

The leaks published in America last month – in one case, reportedly delayed for a year or more at the request of the CIA – highlighted the CIA’s leading role.

Yet Israelis close to their country’s intelligence agencies are telling Western officials something different: that the operation was almost entirely “blue and white” – referring to the colors of Israel’s flag – with hardly any “red, white, and blue.”

Some Israelis, it seems, object to seeing the Americans taking too much credit.

What follows is based on what knowledgeable Israelis have been telling Western officials and diplomats.  They say the U.S. participated in the deliberations, the intelligence gathering, the surveillance, and some logistics of the assassination – but they call the assassination itself an Israeli operation: lock, stock, and barrel.

Imad Mughniyeh was born in 1962 in the Lebanese Shi’ite village of Tayr Dibba to a poor family of olive and lemon harvesters. He moved to Beirut as a child and despite his religious affiliation, he became active in the predominantly Sunni Palestinian al-Fatah movement.

In Lebanese Palestinian reports, Mughniyeh was even described as participating in the unit of bodyguards protecting then-PLO chief Yasser Arafat. But after the PLO chairman and his fighters were forced to leave Lebanon following the Israeli invasion in 1982 – just three years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran – Mughniyeh returned to his own religious cohort and joined Hezbollah, “The Party of God,” a heavily armed Lebanese faction established and nurtured by Iran.

He quickly involved himself in some of the most outrageous Hezbollah attacks, proving his loyalty and his skills. He was trained by the chillingly skilled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In a bloody two-year period – between November 1982 and September 1984 – he was a key player in several car bombing attacks against Israeli, American, and French targets in Lebanon. Among his trademarks: videotapes made by the suicide bombers and their accomplices nearby. The terrifying impact was thus magnified.

The attacks of those years included two assaults on Israeli military headquarters in the southern city of Tyre, which killed 150 Israelis and Lebanese.

He orchestrated the suicide bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and a French military building in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen, 58 French paratroopers, and six Lebanese civilians.

He was also a major actor in the bombing of the 1984 U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people. And this was just the beginning. His career would mushroom over the next two and a half decades.

In 1985, Mughniyeh personally participated in the hijacking of a TWA airliner. After it was forced to land in Beirut, a U.S. Navy diver among the passengers – Robert Stethem – was tortured and killed.

The first image of Mughniyeh, then just 22 years old, was first seen in the pages of the Western press when photographed waving his pistol near the TWA pilot’s head in the cockpit. That photo was the key evidence used by U.S. law enforcement officials to indict Mughniyeh for murder in that incident. But for Israel, it would take another seven years to realize his significance.

The Hezbollah man was the architect of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 29 people – including seven Israelis, among them one Mossad agent. This was Mughniyeh’s revenge for the Israeli helicopter attack that had killed Hezbollah’s top leader, Abbas Moussawi.

The Buenos Aires attack led Israel to acknowledge two important facts: One, that Mughniyeh would avenge every Israeli attack on his organization; and two, that Mughniyeh had to be wiped out

These realizations were further strengthened by an attack two years later, when along with his Iranian patrons, Mughniyeh masterminded the bombing of the Jewish community center in the Argentinian capital, which devastated the building and left 85 people dead.

From that point on, Israel used every opportunity it could to try to get rid of Mughniyeh. Numerous tentative plans were drawn up, but only three came into fruition.

In 1994, the Mossad conspired a devious plan to obliterate Mughniyeh:  Lebanese agents working for the Mossad planted a car bomb aimed at Mughniyeh’s brother Fuad. Anticipating that Mughniyeh would attend his brother’s funeral, Israel planned to carry out their assassination of the Hezbollah military chief then: But Imad Mughniyeh, probably paranoid about possible attempts on his life, did not show up at the funeral.

A few months after Fuad’s death, Israeli intelligence managed to obtain precise information that Imad Mughniyeh was scheduled to board a flight from Damascus to Tehran using a false name.

The Mossad informed the CIA of Mughniyeh’s whereabouts, and the Americans orchestrated a redirection of the flight to Kuwait and dispatched a military plane from Saudi Arabia to bring Mughniyeh to justice in the U.S. courts.

But the CIA made a cardinal error: It disclosed to the Kuwaitis the identity of the wanted terrorist. Fearing retribution from Hezbollah should they accede to the U.S. demand, the Kuwaitis declined to order the passengers of the plane to disembark. Kuwait permitted the flight to take off to Tehran.

The next missed opportunity was completely the Israelis’ fault. After the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the senior echelon of Hezbollah – known as the top five – paraded along the Israeli border on a victorious patrol tour. Mughniyeh was among them.

Israeli reconnaissance photographed the five and transmitted the images to Aman (military intelligence) headquarters in Tel Aviv. They were identified; and an attack plan was put into motion. Drone aircraft that could fire missiles were launched.

Western intelligence sources say they were told by Israelis later that this was a “rare opportunity to disrupt Hezbollah’s leadership.”  But the order to kill never came. Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was proud of ordering the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon after 18 years of occupation, feared that the relative calm would be disrupted if he had Hebzollah’s top leaders eliminated.

Senior officers in the Mossad were furious. Years of painstaking information-gathering efforts were wasted. But they had no choice but to accept their political leader’s decision and to wait for the next opportunity.

Mughniyeh, as the years went by, became more cautious. Israeli intelligence learned that he went to a plastic surgeon in Beirut to alter his appearance.

He also moved to the safe haven of Tehran, where he enhanced his professional and personal ties with the Revolutionary Guards commanders – particularly with the charismatic General Qassem Soleimani, who was head of the elite Al-Quds force.

After returning to his Beirut headquarters, Mughniyeh continued to travel frequently among the triangle of the capitals of Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

The Mossad hunters, experts in human weaknesses and knowing that nobody is immune to error, waited patiently – but desperately.

Mughniyeh did indeed make mistakes, basically feeling too safe in the Syrian capital.  He went to Damascus for both business and pleasure.

For his bloody business, he would meet with his master and friend, Iranian General Soleimani, to coordinate and plot strategy. Often joining them was General Muhammad Suleiman, top security adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the man in charge of the regime’s nuclear reactor and its special military ties with Iran and Hezbollah.

After working hours, Mughniyeh would enjoy the pleasures that Damascus had to offer: good food, alcohol and women – most of which he would not risk indulging in back home in the religious Shi’ite neighborhoods of Beirut.

Mughniyeh had an apartment in the posh neighborhood of Kafr Sousa, home to Syria’s most wealthy businessmen and the military and intelligence cronies of the Assad regime.  Feeling safe and secure due to his altered appearance and years of evading assassination attempts, Mughniyeh would travel in his SUV from Beirut to Damascus without bodyguards, often with his personal driver but sometimes alone.

Mughniyeh’s ease and confidence in the Syrian capital turned out to be hubris.  The experts and spies in the Mossad and Israel’s military intelligence agency (Aman) slowly closed in on him.

The Israelis were surprised to learn, during strategic talks with their counterparts in Washington, that the Americans were just as eager to get rid of him.

Since 1975, the CIA had been forbidden by Congress to carry out assassinations – even of America’s worst enemies. But that policy changed after 9/11, when President George W. Bush ordered targeted killings using drone aircraft.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Bush administration – though not always understood by the Israelis – there was a huge difference between sending assassins and killing targets from the sky.

At a certain point during consultations with the Americans, then-Mossad director Meir Dagan proposed to his CIA counterpart, Gen. Michael Hayden, a joint operation to eliminate Mughniyeh.

Gen. Michael Hayden (as CIA director under President George W. Bush)

Gen. Michael Hayden (as CIA director under President George W. Bush)

Hayden agreed, but he set two conditions: First, that no innocent people would be hurt: The Americans were very concerned by the proximity of Mughniyeh’s apartment to a girls’ school; second, that only Mughniyeh would be targeted – and that none of his Syrian or Iranian acquaintances could be touched. The United States was reluctant to stir up violent conflicts with sovereign states.

At least according to what Israelis have been telling Western officials, the Mossad did not need the CIA for active management of the operation. They had already gleaned all the details necessary about Mughniyeh’s daily routine and his hideout in Damascus.

The CIA was there, as they put it, to fill in any missing intelligence information and provide extra eyes in Damascus.

The Mossad certainly had its own excellent expertise, in its Kidon (Bayonet) special operations unit, when it came to killing terrorists. Still, the Israelis felt more comfortable having the CIA take part – even if the American role was seen as minor.

Ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan (Dagan on CBS' "60 Minutes," 2012)

Ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan (Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012)

As agreed by Dagan and Hayden, a senior CIA official from its operations directorate was assigned to the Mossad team working on the project. The command center was in Tel Aviv.

Kidon operatives, along with Aman signals intelligence Unit 8200, monitored Mughniyeh almost around the clock, zooming in on his safe-house and the parking lot nearby. Based on previous operations, it can be assumed that the team had some physical presence in the area. It was decided that the weapon of choice would be a bomb planted in or on a car parked near Mughniyeh’s apartment.

The CIA-Mossad relations hit a bump, for a while, when the Americans got cold feet and pulled out of the operation. The CIA began to reiterate its fears of the collateral damage that such an assassination would cause – concerned, despite Israel’s assurances, about the girls’ school nearby.

The Mossad was sorry to see the CIA pull out, but the preparations continued. Nevertheless, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the Mossad to make sure that the “killing zone” of the bomb be very narrow, so that only Mughniyeh would be touched.

The “toy factory” of the Mossad and the Aman agency – their technological units – began designing, assembling and testing the bomb. It was a laborious procedure, requiring dozens of tests, until the results were satisfactory and matched the guidelines stipulated by Olmert. The process was filmed, time and again, for analysis and dissection.

Ehud Olmert, when prime minister

Ehud Olmert, when prime minister

Contrary to the recent reports in the American media, the process of developing the bomb  was carried out in Israel.  Not in the U.S.

Once Olmert was confident that the bomb would be highly accurate, officials say they have learned from Israel that Olmert brought the video clips to Washington. He showed them to President Bush and asked him to bring the CIA back into the operation. The video clearly showed that the diameter of the “killing zone” was no more than 10 meters. Bush was impressed.

The next day, while he was still in the U.S., Olmert received a call from Dagan informing him that the CIA was back in.

The bomb was smuggled to Syria via Jordan, whose intelligence ties with the CIA and the Mossad had been tight and intimate for decades. The involvement of the CIA gave the Jordanians a sense of security in cooperating, in case of Hezbollah retribution.

There were two main obstacles to executing the operation. Mughniyeh’s visits to his Damascus apartment were random and could not be predetermined by the surveillance teams. Secondly, it was difficult for the teams to ensure that they would be able to secure a spot for their rigged car to be parked near Mughniyeh or his vehicle.

Eventually, the conspirators found an undisclosed operational solution which would give them enough warning time ahead of Mughniyeh’s arrival to prepare the trap.

The day of the assassination arrived: On the evening of February 12, Mughniyeh’s car was spotted pulling into the parking lot. The Mossad planners breathed a sigh of relief. The school nearby was closed for the night. Even if the bomb was unexpectedly flawed, the innocent school girls were not at risk.

But to the agony of the project managers, when the car doors opened, Mughniyeh was not alone:  Iranian commander Soleimani and the Syrian nuclear coordinator Suleiman exited the vehicle with him. At the command center in Tel Aviv, the order was given: Hold.

The three buddies went up to the apartment. In Tel Aviv, the Mossad project managers and their CIA liaison waited, nervously biting their nails, on the verge of losing hope. A few hours later, the information arrived that Soleimani and Suleiman had left the apartment and been picked up by a car. The planners could now only pray that Mughniyeh would not remain in the apartment overnight.

About half an hour later, the surveillance team reported that Mughniyeh had entered the parking lot and approached his car.

In Tel Aviv, the order rang out: “Pe’al!”

The master terrorist, the Hezbollah commander whose trademark was car bombing, fell victim to his own craft in a blast of poetic justice.

Neither the United States nor America claimed responsibility for the attack, but Hezbollah guessed who was behind it and vowed revenge on Israeli and Jewish targets.

Mughniyeh’s successor, Mustafa Badr Adin, ordered attacks on Israeli embassies and tried to assassinate Olmert and senior Israeli military officers and officials.

But Badr Adin repeatedly failed. His only success was in 2012 at Burgas airport in Bulgaria, when a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver.

Olmert, who is now facing additional corruption charges after being indicted in an Israeli court, is loathed by the majority of Israelis. But analysts who watch the country’s security and defense policies believe that in those areas he was far-sighted, showed determination, and was willing to take risks.

In September 2007, just five months before ordering the assassination of Mughniyeh, Olmert unleashed Israel’s covert operatives and then the air force to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor that North Korea had helped build in a remote area.

One can only imagine what the world would look like had the reactor been built and operated in an area now controlled by the brutal Islamic State (ISIS).

Six months after Mughniyeh’s assassination, Olmert approved a covert operation in which Israeli long-range snipers – apparently firing from a ship – assassinated Syria’s nuclear coordinator, Gen. Suleiman, while he dined with guests on the balcony of his villa overlooking the Mediterranean.

Days after Mughniyeh was killed, then Vice President Dick Cheney called Olmert and they exchanged congratulations for the successful operation. President Bush, too, held Olmert in high respect – reportedly telling someone he liked the Israeli leaders because “he has balls.”

Hezbollah has still not fully recovered from the loss of Mughniyeh. He played vital roles for the Shi’ite movement. He was Hezbollah’s military chief, mastermind of its most vicious terror attacks, liaison to its patron Iran for its “special operations” abroad, and responsible for the protection of his boss, Hassan Nasrallah. In short, for both Hezbollah and Iran, Mughniyeh was priceless.

Ironically, his son Jihad was killed by an Israeli airstrike on a Hezbollah convoy in January 2015. The Israelis, who have not officially acknowledged the attack in Syrian territory near the Golan Heights, were apparently not aiming specifically at young Mughniyeh – nor at the senior Iranian officer, Abu Ali al-Tabtabai, who was also killed.

Diplomatic sources said Israel was able to tell Iran, through channels, that it did not intend to kill Iranian soldiers in that strike.  In addition, when Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel as retaliation for the death of Jihad Mughniyeh, Israel did respond emphatically.

The Israeli message was that – at this time, at least – war on the northern border was best to be avoided.

Some Israelis close to senior political and intelligence circles were not, however, willing to let the Washington Post and Newsweek versions of the assassination in 2008 stand uncorrected.

February 15, 2015

Israel “Didn’t Know” It Was Hitting an Iranian General and a Famous Hezbollah Man — in Pinpoint Strike in Syria? That’s One Claim

An unnamed Israeli source told the Reuters news agency that Israel did not intend to kill high-level Iranians or Lebanese Hezbollah, when an Israeli airstrike destroyed a convoy on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

But that doesn’t ring true.  Keep in mind that disinformation is a major part of the shadow wars — the spy-versus-spy, bomber-versus-bomber, assassin-versus-assassin battles that have gone on for years.

Gen. Allahdadi

Gen. Allahdadi

Iran’s official media have confirmed — with the man’s picture — that a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was killed in the Israeli airstrike in Syria.

A news agency run by IRGC said Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was in Syria advising that country’s government on how to combat Sunni Muslim rebels; adding that Allahdadi died “defending the people and holy sites of Syria.”

The IRGC’s role isn’t even being hidden anymore.  Lebanese reports said in addition to the general, several Iranian IRGC soldiers were killed by the Israeli airstrike.

Also killed were half a dozen Hezbollah fighters — including the 25-year-old son of Imad Mughniyeh, the notorious military chief of the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist movement who was blown up by an Israeli Mossad car bomb in Syria’s capital in 2008.

Why would Israel’s military now hint — through a leak — that killing those senior men was just a coincidence?

First, Israel’s intelligence agencies don’t want their enemies to know precisely how much Israel knows.  Do the Israelis listen in to practically all cellphone conversations and intercept text messages?

Does it make sense that Israel — using a rocket-firing helicopter, according to the first leak, but now U.N. observers say they saw Israeli drone aircraft cross into Syrian airspace before the strike — would strike two jeeps, just because they were within a few miles of the Golan Heights armistice line?

Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)

Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)

We think it is more likely that Israel struck the convoy, because of information that senior Hezbollah men were in it.

The presence of the Iranians may not have been known, but it was always a real possibility.

The leak to Reuters is probably aimed at making a tense situation a lot less volatile — to soothe some of the anger. The suggestion is made of an intelligence mistake by the Israelis, hinting that they did not intend to kill a senior Iranian — and therefore Iran shouldn’t overreact.

A former Israeli military intelligence chief, retired General Amos Yadlin (who this week became the official pick for Defense Minister by the Labor Party-led coalition called “The Zionist List”), was asked if he would order the airstrike in the knowledge there was an Iranian general in the vehicles.

“We don’t check the identity cards or passports of people who are engaged in terrorism attacks on Israel,” Yadlin replied.

But a smart espionage community like Israel’s does, in fact, try to be entirely aware of whom it is striking — and what the consequences could be.

A lingering question is whether the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may have ordered the airstrike in the belief that it would boost his reelection campaign.  Israelis will be voting in mid-March.

The Israeli government strongly denies that; and there is the reality that the blowback — retaliation by Hezbollah, Iran, or both — could be so disruptive and damaging that Israeli voters will not be happy about the airstrike.

Yadlin predicts that Hezbollah (probably with Iranian assistance) will hit back at Israeli facilities or citizens — but “far away from Israel and Lebanon.”

Indeed there are many indications that Hezbollah and Iran don’t want a hot shooting war with Israel at this time.

Still — just in case — the Israeli military is reinforcing the Northern front: along the frontier with Lebanon and on the Golan Heights.  The Israelis permitted publication of the fact that an Iron Dome anti-missile system was moved to the North to protect Israelis.  Hezbollah could, after all, rain down with tens of thousands of missiles.

(first published here at IsraelSpy.com on Jan. 20, 2015)

February 14, 2015

Where to Buy ‘Spies Against Armageddon’: on the People, Missions and Goals of Mossad and Israeli Security from 1948 to the Headlines of Today

Click here for full details of how (and where) to buy Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, the most complete and balanced history of the Mossad and Israel’s other security and espionage agencies.

The authors are Dan Raviv (of CBS News) and Yossi Melman (the longtime Haaretz expert on intelligence, who now is a defense, strategy, and espionage analyst for the Jerusalem Post and other Israeli media).

This is their fifth book together.  Their best seller (in 1990-91) about Israel’s intelligence community was Every Spy a Prince.  They also wrote a character-filled history of U.S.-Israel relations, Friends In Deed.

To glance at readers’ reviews posted at Amazon.com, please click here.  For example:

Despite the book being over 350 pages, it goes by very quickly (I read it in a weekend). ” –daniel michael  |  17 reviewers made a similar statement
Highly recommended read for those interested in Middle East events. ” –zedillo99  |  15 reviewers made a similar statement
“Raviv and Melman have written a wonderful history of Mossad. It reads like a thriller, but conveys a thorough history of the Israeli intelligence agency.” –Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize winner

Spies Against Armageddon, israel spy, covert operations, dan raviv, yossi melman

SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON is a powerful, vivid history of Israel’s intelligence community – led by the famous and feared Mossad – from the country’s independence in 1948 right up to the crises of today. Israel’s battle plan, aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, may drag the United States into war and soaring oil prices. The plan is based on deception, sabotage, assassination, and intimidation. The book tells the story, never told before, of Kidon – the super-secret unit that is like a Mossad within the Mossad. Kidon carries out special operations, including assassinations and sabotage. Kidon had a daring role in destroying Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007.

Israel’s methods and motivations can be fully understood only when seeing how they developed over the decades. Bold spies have penetrated enemy capitals, and secret agencies felt a historic responsibility to protect Jews worldwide. The authors chronicle major changes in Israeli intelligence agencies’ priorities – away from Palestinian peace prospects, shifting to Iran as the main focus. The book also exposes some episodes of which Israeli spies are ashamed; scandals they would prefer remain buried. Still, in the age of the internet and spy satellites, Israel is the most innovative nation in the use of espionage as an alternative to war.

Dan Raviv

yossi melman, spies against armageddon, iran nuclear

Yossi Melman

Among the burning questions addressed and answered in SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON are these: Who planted a powerful computer worm in Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges? Who has been motorcycling boldly through the streets of Tehran, assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists? Are Israeli spies regularly inside Iran and other enemy countries? Did the Mossad make a huge mistake when two dozen of its operatives were seen by hotel security cameras in Dubai, or was it a successful murder mission? Do the assassins, as portrayed in the movie “Munich,” really feel pangs of conscience? Have Israel’s enemies ever managed to plant agents in the Israeli government? Does the United States really trust Israeli intelligence, or is the relationship limited by mutual mistrust? Why do U.S. security agencies believe their close ally is spying on America? Is Israel trying to maneuver the U.S. into attacking Iran?

This book contains new information about the Mossad director from 2002 to 2010, Meir Dagan, and how he put “the dagger back between the teeth” of the spy agency. When he publicly declares that he opposes an Israeli military strike on Iran, what does he favor instead? The authors of this book have spoken with all the major players, and a multitude of minor players as well, to gain a balanced and deep understanding of Israeli actions at times of crisis – and Israel almost always feels it is in a crisis.  Click here for reviews and more information on Spies Against Armageddon.

 

February 13, 2015

Here’s a New Detail About 2008 Assassination in Damascus by CIA and Mossad: Cheney Phoned Israel Afterward to Share Congratulations

Another new detail has emerged about the assassination of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh — in Damascus, Syria, in 2008.

After the bomb blast that killed Mughniyeh — a “most wanted” terrorist from a U.S. point of view and an active enemy from Israel’s perspective — Vice President Dick Cheney telephoned Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to say, in effect, “job well done.”

This was a rare, extremely high-level joint mission.  It wasn’t aimed at gathering intelligence (as other joint missions have been) but at liquidating a joint enemy.

Cheney phoned Olmert to thank him for the cooperation.  Leaders in both the U.S. and Israel were satisfied.

The intention, at the time, was to remain eternally silent about the mission.

January 31, 2015

Why Would the CIA Now Reveal its Role (with Mossad) in a Middle East Assassination?  To Remind Israel that it Still Needs the USA

One should ponder why American officials would suddenly leak details of the assassination of Hezbollah’s military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, seven years after the lethal explosion in Damascus.

Why would they decide to tell reporters on the espionage beat that the CIA acted together with Israel’s Mossad?  And why would they apparently emphasize that the CIA was on the spot in Damascus, doing the key job of planting the cleverly designed bomb – after the bomb was created and tested at a base in the United States?

The answer seems linked with the current, recently increased tensions between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It is as though Obama wishes to remind Netanyahu that Israel still needs the United States: America’s expertise and long reach.

President Obama, annoyed at Bibi Netanyahu again

President Obama, annoyed at Bibi Netanyahu again

White House officials are obviously angry that Israel’s prime minister plans to come to Washington to address a joint session of Congress on March 3.  The event designed by Republican leaders in Congress is aimed at adding pressure to their desire for legislation that would threaten tougher sanctions against Iran.

Netanyahu would love for such a bill to pass, but he seems to be ignoring Obama’s strong opposition to the bill.

Obama has explained that if Congress insists on threatening more sanctions now, that might give Iran an excuse to walk away from the nuclear talks – with the U.S. and five other nations – and some in the world may blame America for derailing the process.

Benjamin Netanyahu Plans to Address Congress -- Over Obama's Objections

Benjamin Netanyahu Plans to Address Congress — Over Obama’s Objections

Obama claims he gives the talks with Iran only a 50-50 chance of success, and he says U.S. military action against Iranian nuclear facilities is a real possibility.

Netanyahu, for years now, hints at the possibility of unilateral military action against Iran by Israel.

He has been criticized by his opponents – in Israel’s election scheduled for March 17, a mere two weeks after the speech to Congress – for ruining relations with Israel’s all-important ally in Washington.

Netanyahu’s critics, both in Israel and in the U.S., say the tiny country of 8 million people seems to forget that it is the junior partner in an alliance with a superpower (of over 300 million people).

When American officials point to a joint mission with Israel to kill a notorious terrorist in 2008 – emphasizing the leading role played by the CIA, while the Mossad was the junior partner – that seems to include a political message that the Israelis should remember their place and their dependence.

January 31, 2015

Suddenly a Flood of New Details: How the Mossad worked with the CIA to Assassinate a Hezbollah Leader – Seven Years Ago

In Damascus, seven years ago – before the civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people in Syria – the military chief of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia was assassinated.

Israel never admitted responsibility for the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, who was responsible for many attacks on the Jewish State but also lethal bombings and hijackings that took the lives of hundreds of Americans.

Suddenly this weekend, CIA sources have been telling The Washington Post and Newsweek that American intelligence officers – acting surreptitiously and courageously in Syria’s capital – were primarily responsible for assassinating Mughniyeh.

The unofficial but reliably based Israeli version of events confirms that Israel and the U.S. were acting together. Israeli officials refuse to say whether Israeli (Mossad) operatives were on the ground in Damascus, but based on their successful similar operations in Beirut, Lebanon, it would seem logical – if daring – for the Israelis to be there.

The Israeli version confirms the new reports’ assertion that the signal to detonate the bomb that killed MUghniyeh was transmitted from Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv; and that might reflect the CIA’s reluctance to engage in assassinations.

The new accounts say that in Washington the CIA had to make a case – because of U.S. legal concerns – that Mughniyeh continued to pose a potent, deadly threat to Americans.  The Post reported that President George W. Bush enthusiastically approved of the killing, after CIA director Michael Hayden felt uncomfortable about the mission.

How this seemed different from the drone strikes that killed dozens of alleged terrorists is not clear.

In our book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, we wrote of unprecedented cooperation in recent years between the Israeli espionage agency, Mossad, and the CIA – including joint operations which would have seemed unthinkable prior to 9/11.

*THEY COULD’VE GOTTEN A SENIOR IRANIAN

Sources close to the Israeli side of the mission confirm that the Mossad was acting jointly with the Americans – and they confirm that the CIA was very concerned that “collateral damage” be avoided, including the possibility of killing of a senior Iranian operative who was with Mughniyeh in Damascus. That man was identified as Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officer in charge of liaison with Hezbollah.

The Israeli side suggests that its desire to include Soleimani in “the hit” was vetoed by the Americans.

Our sources continue to say that Mughniyeh was not as careful as he should have been, because in Syria’s capital he was “fooling around” with women.  In Beirut, especially as a senior officer of the conservative Hezbollah (Shi’ite Muslim) movement, he would not have engaged in such reckless behavior.

In Damascus, Mughniyeh was visiting a girlfriend – and that was his fatal downfall.

January 31, 2015

Israel: Tension on Syria/Lebanon Frontier, Signal to Iran, and a Test of Targeted Assassination

By YOSSI MELMAN  [originally written for The Jerusalem Post]
Amid growing tension in the wake of the death of six Hezbollah operatives and six Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders, killed by a missile while on a reconnaissance mission on the Syrian Golan not far from the Israeli border, contradictory messages are emerging.

On Tuesday, Reuters quoted a “senior security source” in Israel saying the Iranian general killed in the operation – attributed by the foreign media to the Israel Air Force – “was not the target.”

If the citation and source are genuine, the meaning is clear: There is an effort to send appeasing messages to Iran in order to prevent further escalation, which could lead to a general confrontation with Hezbollah.

It can also be interpreted as an Israeli admission that it carried out the operation, and that it was an intelligence and/or operational failure.

But within hours of the Reuters story, an “official security source” issued a statement to the effect of refuting the first one, saying that “the State of Israel neither comments on the event in Syria nor on reports about it, which didn’t come from officials.”

It may well be that the two sources are actually one, using double-speak: Sending a conciliatory message to Iran while at the same time, signaling a different hint to Israeli voters, two months before the election.

Whatever intentions have been concealed, it seems that someone fears an entanglement with Iran – whose senior military commanders promised this week to avenge the killing of their comrade.

Under the official cloud of secrecy and silence, it is difficult to dissect what really happened behind the scenes which led to the attack. But it is known that the Israeli decision-making and approval process for targeted killings and assassinations is thoroughly deliberated; the various agencies of the intelligence community are required to collect data and information on potential targets. This includes every piece of intelligence regarding the target’s daily routine; their importance in the relevant hostile organization or military structure of an enemy country; and the domestic, regional and international ramifications in case an elimination order is given.

The flow chart of the decision-making process goes in both directions – from the political echelon to the security/military apparatus, and vice-versa. It is desirable to reach a unanimous decision but sometimes, disagreements do appear in the deliberations between the two levels or within each of them.

For example, and this has happened in the past, the chief of military intelligence – a key player – can oppose the suggested course of action, while his peers in the IDF General Staff or the Mossad support it. While the final word is in the hands of the defense minister and the prime minister, military and intelligence commanders can greatly influence the process and can practically prevent dangerous or overly adventurous decision from being taken.

Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's Defense Minister

Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war nearly four years ago, Israel has adopted a non-interventionist policy. The only deviations have occurred when “Israeli interests are jeopardized,” as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has declared on several occasions.

Israel has responded with measured, low doses of artillery shells or missiles when its territory on the Golan was occasionally bombed by the Syrian army or Hezbollah.

According to foreign sources, convoys carrying Syrian or Iranian weapons via land from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon have been attacked by Israeli forces at least 10 times in the past. For Israel, preventing the transfer of long-range advanced missiles or anti-aircraft weapons is considered “a vital interest.”

The message being clear: It must be stopped.

But all in all, Jerusalem has tried to restrain itself – to the point that even when shots were fired at the Israeli side, which turned out to be erroneous fire, the IDF held its guns.

Israel has long maintained that its ultimate interest is upholding peace and tranquility along its border with Syria. To that end, Israel has taken in injured Syrian fighters and civilians for treatment in its hospitals, and has supplied humanitarian aid.

Lebanese and the Iranian media have even accused Israel of cooperation with the Nusra Front, considered the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda – which now controls the 100-kilometer border strip between Israel and Syria, and is fighting Hezbollah.

Clearly, the attack this week against Hezbollah and the Iranian commanders may endanger the Israeli wish for quiet.

On the other hand, one should not ignore the fact that in recent months Hezbollah has made inroads into the Syrian Golan, close to the Israeli border. It can be assumed that the inspection tour by Hezbollah and the Iranian entourage was part of this expansion effort to establish a “Golan command.”

Hezbollah officials, including secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, claim this is a reaction to what they perceive as Israel’s breaking of tacit understandings. They accuse Israel of being behind an attack a few months ago on a convoy probably carrying sophisticated weapons – which, in a first, was attacked not on Syrian soil but inside Lebanese territory.

Monitoring these developments, Israel sees Hezbollah as wanting to create a launch pad to challenge it from a second front, in the event that a third Lebanon war breaks out.

Much speculation was raised in the media about who was the target of the last attack. In all probability, it wasn’t the Iranian general. But it is also very unlikely that it was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, who was considered Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” and was Nasrallah’s right-hand man and the darling of IRGC’s top commanders.

(Imad Mughniyeh was killed in 2008 in Damascus by a bomb planted in his car; Hezbollah, Iran and Syria accused the Mossad of the assassination.) Unlike his father, the 25-year-old Jihad was neither a senior nor a daring nor a skillful military commander.

Yet he was an icon for Iran and Hezbollah, the son of the legendary Imad, and thus granted leadership of the so-called Golan Command.

Several experts believe the real target was Abu Ali Tabatabai, a senior Hezbollah commander in charge of “special forces,” currently fighting and dying in the Syrian civil war while defending the Assad regime.

In case a war breaks out in the future, these special forces have also been charged with moving the battles inside Israeli territory in order to capture small, rural communities.

Hezbollah has a military force of some 30,000 soldiers, most of them non-conscripts who are called up for reserve duty – almost exactly like in the IDF. It is a very disciplined and hierarchal force, and its mid- and top-level commanders are adept and professional. Experience has shown that after losing top commanders, either in the Syrian killing fields or due to assassinations, Hezbollah has found it difficult to find adequate replacements – and cultivating them takes time.

Today, seven years after the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, the Shi’ite organization hasn’t recovered from his loss.

Yet the ultimate test of whether the decisions to get rid of Imad Mughniyeh, Tabatabai and the Iranian general were right, or whether the risk was misplaced, will come in the future.

It will depend on whether Hezbollah and/or Iran retaliate as they have promised, and whether that retaliation causes a major, painful blow to Israel.

January 23, 2015

New CIA Deputy Chief: Expert on Following Terrorist Money — David Cohen Worked with Israel, Many Others

[This is adapted from an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and previous books on Israeli intelligence and national security.]

While all eyes in the world were on Paris following the terror attacks this month, President Barack Obama announced the appointment of David Cohen to be the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA has been seen as a WASP stronghold since it was founded.

Just in the last decade-and-a-half individuals from minority groups in the US have begun to obtain middle and high-level positions at the agency.  The number of Jews on staff at the CIA has been, and remains, relatively few. In the past, the CIA representative in Israel was Jewish.  There was a Jewish man who was CIA director in 1995-1996, John Deutch.

David Cohen's official Treasury portrait

David Cohen’s official Treasury portrait

Cohen can now be considered the second most important Jewish figure in the Obama administration following the Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, who has been Cohen’s boss at Treasury.

Cohen will replace Avril Haines who was the first woman to ever hold the office of deputy director. Haines will join the White House as Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

The appointment of Cohen, who has no experience in an intelligence organization, also signifies the direction in which the CIA and other Western organizations — including Israeli intelligence — are headed in the face of new challenges.

One challenge is summed up by the catchphrase “follow the money.”

Cohen’s appointment is good news for Israeli intelligence units that track terror financing and that follow Iranian attempts to circumvent the sanctions regime. Cohen has visited Israel a number of times to discuss these issues with intelligence personnel who also met with him in Washington.

Cohen served in his prior position at the Treasury for the past three-and-a-half years and was responsible for overseeing the US sanctions regime against Iran in order to stop its nuclear arms program.

Cohen, 51, is married, has two children and is the son of a doctor. Raised in Boston, he does not give special mention to his Jewish background in interviews, seemingly in order not to be labeled by the Jewish community as “one of our own.”

He studied at Cornell and at Yale, where he completed his law degree and researched nuclear management. He served as a law clerk to a federal judge and then joined the ranks of a law firm specializing in white collar crime. After nine years he joined the US Department of the Treasury. 

At the start of his career at Treasury, Cohen was a legal advisor. During the administration of President George W. Bush, Cohen was involved with the drafting of the USA Patriot Act of 2001 that limited civil rights in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. 

After he was appointed under-secretary at the Department of the Treasury, Cohen was involved primarily in the issues of terror-financing and the sanctions against Iran. His firm positions on these issues earned him the nickname, “the sanctions guru.”

Cohen worked with the US intelligence community and with those of US allies including Israel during this role. During his contact with Israeli intelligence officials he helped the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) in its efforts to stop the flow of money to Hamas, but especially in its efforts to follow the financing of Hezbollah and Iranian efforts to evade the economic sanctions against it.

Recently Cohen has placed an emphasis on the effort to dry up funding sources of Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

“The financing of ISIL presents a challenge for us that is different than ones we have faced in the past. It has accumulated a large amount of capital, unprecedented in its speed; and its sources of funding are different from most of the other terror groups in the world,” Cohen said in a speech three months ago. 

“In contrast to al-Qaeda, for example, only a small amount of ISIS funds come from donors with deep pockets, so the funds are not dependent on international money transfers. Instead, ISIS accumulated its wealth from criminal and terror activities,” Cohen said, likely in reference to ISIS gains from ransom payouts and revenues from oil.  

Assuming the West reaches a deal with Iran this year that curbs Iran’s suspected nuclear arms ambitions, in exchange for the removal of the sanctions regime, the greatest challenge facing David Cohen in his new role as deputy director of the CIA will be tracking the financing of the Islamic State.

January 19, 2015

The French Intelligence Failure: Nobody’s Perfect, But Were 17 Murders Unavoidable?

[The following is adapted from an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]

Like insurance companies, intelligence agencies cannot guarantee full, fail-safe coverage.

The French security service can’t have information about every terrorist cell, certainly not about individuals or couples who conspire to carry out acts of terrorism. As a reminder, even the highly reputed and effective Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) didn’t know about the plan of a Hamas cell in Hebron to abduct Israelis last June, a terrorist incident that resulted in the murder of the three Israeli yeshiva students — then retaliation against an innocent Palestinian youth, and then a 50-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

In the case of the kidnap which triggered a global crisis, it took the Shin Bet a few weeks until it tracked down the murderers and their helpers.

“Intelligence is not going to predict when a fanatic goes from being a radical thinker to a violent terrorist in most cases,” Bruce Riedel, a former top CIA analyst, told Reuters. He said French security agents cannot monitor all potential suspects “24 hours a day.”

These are wise words of truth. Yet it seems that this time the French services failed. Said and Cherif Kouachi, the brothers who murdered 12 people in last week’s attack against the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, were known to the French security service and under surveillance.

Their names were on the list of TIDE, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. TIDE is the U.S. government’s central database on known or suspected international terrorists. It contains more than one million names. The CIA shares the list with its counterparts – including, of course, French intelligence.

Furthermore, the brothers were on another watch list of those banned from boarding flights.

One of the brothers flew in 2011 to Yemen and was trained by AQAP — Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch led by Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed that year by a U.S. drone strike.

The other brother was a recruiter trying to dispatch French volunteers to join the jihad in Iraq against U.S. forces.

It is interesting to note that while foreign experts such as Riedel are suggesting excuses in defense of the French security agencies — specifically the domestic service DGSI (DirectionGénérale de la Sécurité Intérieure) — French experts are much more critical. The French analysts are less hesitant to define as failure what happened last week when three jihadi terrorists with Kalashnikov assault rifles put a major European capital under siege.

JeSuisCharlie“Our problem,” I was told by a senior French security and intelligence expert, “is in the structural reform of our security services.”

The expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that in 2008, the domestic security service DST merged with the intelligence units of regional police departments, known as RG. The merger created a new body known as DCRI, later in 2014 to be renamed DGSI.

Until the merger, DST was focused on the “big issues” of counterintelligence and catching foreign spies, and on “great” terrorism, big groups such as al-Qaeda.  RG, on the other hand, was doing the leg work of sending undercover agents to mosques, listening to imams and mapping the terrain of radical Islamists in the neighborhoods.

But according to the French expert, “what happened after the merger is that the mentality of the DST – which considered itself a noble, aristocratic counterintelligence service – its state of mind has contaminated the entire DGSI and after the merger fewer resources were devoted to the methodical and patient intelligence collection that RG was doing before.”

In other words there is a dangerous irony: that as the radical Islamist threat has grown, its intelligence coverage has been weakened by structural malfunction.

Nevertheless, the French problem is not merely the structure and deficiencies of its security agencies. It is much broader and much deeper.

France, like the rest of western Europe, has to change its attitude and state of mind. It has to realize that it is in a state of war against those who challenge its culture, heritage and history.

To face the new challenge, France and Europe have to toughen their anti-terrorist laws and change their immigration policies. France must be ready to reevaluate the delicate balance between security and democracy, and between democratic values versus the need to defend the republic.

As happened in the U.S. after 9/11, defending security inevitably comes at the expense of some liberties.

January 12, 2015

Not Simply Lone Wolves — The Paris Massacre: War has Come to Europe

By YOSSI MELMAN [written for The Jerusalem Post, Thursday January, 8, 2015]

The writing was on the wall. European streets in general and French ones in particular are turning into a battlefield of radical, extremist Islamist zealotry. The battle is an extension of the Middle East front lines.

Not that anyone should have been surprised. The first wave was carried for several years after 9/11 in 2001 by al-Qaeda sympathizers and supporters, who pursued their ideology of global jihad in impressive terrorist attacks in Madrid, London, and Istanbul.

After a relative calm that created the illusion that Europe was relatively safe came the second, current wave.

This one reflects the rise of Islamic State and the weakening of al-Qaeda.

There are numerous bloody indications that Islamic State and al-Qaeda are back in action on European soil.

A soldier was stabbed to death in London; a gunman stormed a synagogue in Toulouse. Another gunman killed two Israeli tourists in the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

Two characteristics are commonly found in most of these terrorist incidents. One is that some attacks have been carried by young, local Muslims who were inspired by Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

The second is that some terrorist incidents are perpetrated by young European nationals who volunteered to fight in Syria and Iraq and came home after acquiring battlefield experience and being thoroughly brainwashed.

A scarred city: Paris (courtesy French tourist board)

A scarred city: Paris (courtesy French tourist board)

There are thousands of European nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq who have become a major headache to the various European security services. This phenomenon is particularly widespread in France, which houses the largest and potentially the most violent Muslim community. French intelligence estimates that between 700 and 1,000 French volunteers are fighting alongside Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

It was a sad irony that, minutes before the attack, Charlie Hebdo’s Twitter published a cartoon wishing a Happy New Year “and particularly good health” to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State .

The attack carried the pattern of targeted killing. The terrorists had a clear plan, knew what they wanted to achieve, and acted calmly – as the graphic footage of the cold-blooded execution of one wounded and helpless policeman shows. No doubt they were professional killers.

Regardless of who was behind it – al-Qaeda, Islamic State foreigners, or a local Muslim cell – this was a direct challenge to French and Western democracy and to the fundamental values of liberty and freedom of expression.

The West is slowly realizing that this is a clash of civilizations. It is a war declared by Muslim fanatics against what France and all of Europe treasure and stand for.

The answer has to be appropriate: better cooperation among Western security services, better intelligence on the terrorist groups, and new laws to limit the ability of the enemy to exploit and take advantage of democratic values.

The Paris massacre is France’s 9/11 – and à la guerre comme à la guerre.

January 7, 2015

Israel’s 2015: Egypt, Iran, and the Unresolved Palestinian Issue

[This is the continuation of an analysis of Israel’s strategic position at the start of 2015 — by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and other books.  This is adapted from his recent article for The Jerusalem Post.]

< Israel and Egypt have developed military, intelligence, security, and operations cooperation beyond anything seen before.>

In the South has occurred perhaps the most interesting and important development of 2014. Israel and Egypt have developed military, intelligence, security, and operations cooperation beyond anything seen before, not even at the height of secret contacts between the two countries when Hosni Mubarak was president — and when intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman felt very at home at the Mossad’s headquarters north of Tel Aviv.

Israel and Egypt, now under the leadership of Gen. Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, see eye-to-eye on everything related to Gaza, Hamas, and terrorism in Sinai.

The regime in Cairo sees Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Gen. Sisi despises.  Egypt treats Hamas as an enemy that it must humiliate, subjugate, and isolate.

Egypt accuses Hamas of increasing terrorism in Sinai by helping Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, al-Qaida’s local branch, which has recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS).

Egypt’s army and security forces, with strong backing from Israel — only a little of which is made public — are waging an uncompromising war of destruction on the terrorist organization in Sinai.

In the past year they have had important achievements, but Egypt has also suffered heavy losses. The war on terrorism in Sinai will continue in 2015.

Israel, of course, found itself at war with Hamas for over 7 weeks last summer. Because Hamas’s military strength was severely injured, that represents a gain for Israel.

Yet the Hamas of 2015 is not just another terrorist organization — as the Israeli government and the IDF (the Israeli military) call it.

It is a regime that controls a territory and organizes its forces as a semi-regular army. It is a mix between a guerrilla organization and an actual army. But it is a weakened army, that lost 2/3 of its rocket capabilities (some 6,000 rockets were destroyed or launched), and saw almost all of its attack tunnels into Israel destroyed.

Hamas is trying to rehabilitate its military power and to get out from under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, by swallowing its pride and crawling back into the arms of Iran.

Iran isn’t rushing to take Hamas back into the ayatollahs’ good graces.

Hamas is internationally isolated, and it is also gradually losing its main source of support, Qatar — because the Qataris recently are trying to make peace with the Egyptian regime.

Militarily, Israel is challenged, at least potentially, by three things: radical Islam, Hezbollah and Iran.

The extremist Islamist terrorist groups are near Israel’s borders. Jabat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) controls almost all of the border strip from Jordan to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is active in Sinai, not far from Israel’s border, and Islamic State is trying, unsuccessfully for now, to infiltrate Jordan.

All of these are potential threats, but at this time there are no signs that these terrorist groups are showing interest in Israel.  Their focus is on acting against the states they are currently in: Syria and Egypt.

Despite becoming weaker due to its involvement in Syria, Hezbollah is still considered a serious military power. The group has tens of thousands of missiles that cover almost every point in Israel, including airports, the nuclear reactor in Dimona, army bases, and power stations. Hezbollah fighters are also gaining experience on battlefields in Syria, which will give them improved military capability in the case of a conflict with Israel

Yet Israeli deterrence, which has existed since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, is still holding. Hezbollah does not want war with Israel.

The second threat to Israel comes from Iran. It has hundreds of Shihab-3 missiles, which can hit any target in Israel.

In the eyes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Iran is an existential threat to Israel — mainly because Iran seems intent on secretly developing nuclear weapons.

There are senior experts in the defense establishment who believe differently. They privately say that Israeli leaders — above all Netanyahu — make Iran into a life-or-death national threat for domestic political reasons.

Iran is already a nuclear threshold state, anywhere from a matter of months to a year away from having the ability to build its first bomb. If Iran wanted to, it could have already built a bomb.

However, as of now, Iran is not interested in building a nuclear bomb, mainly due to the economic crisis it is facing due to UN and Western sanctions, and also due to the falling price of oil, which is its main source of income.

<A nuclear deal with Iran would be the most

interesting development of 2015>

The first months of 2015 will be focused on the nuclear talks between the P5+1 group of world powers and Iran to reach an agreement that will end the nuclear crisis, which has continued for the past nine years. If an agreement is reached and Iran allows tight inspections and limitations for a number of years on its ability to enrich uranium, it will probably be the most interesting development in the international arena in the coming year.

If Washington renews relations with Tehran, Netanyahu’s foreign relations and security policy — built on inflating the Iranian threat, frightening the Israeli public, and abusing the memory of the Holocaust — will be rendered useless.

But it is still far from certain that such an agreement will be reached. The ball is in the court of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the power to decide to compromise at the cost of national pride — and in doing so save his country from  economic crisis and isolation.

Israel’s unquestioned military superiority stems from the deterioration of states in the Arab world (Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq), from the radical Islamist threat on Arab regimes, and mainly from Israel’s constant efforts to preserve its technological and scientific advantage over regional opponents.

This qualitative edge was created with the help of the strategic alliance with the U.S., but in the past year there have been cracks in this alliance. True, relations and cooperation in the field of security and intelligence on the operative level of both states have been preserved and even improved. But Netanyahu’s confrontational approach to President Barack Obama and his government — as well as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s overheard insults (for which he half-heartedly apologizes), are damaging Israel’s most important asset: its intimate relations with the US.

As a result of the policies of Netanyahu-Ya’alon (while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has exhibited a serious and responsible approach on Iran-related matters and has looked like the gatekeeper), Israel is having difficulty leveraging its military advantage into strategic achievements.

The challenge is always how to combine military capabilities with foreign policy and international status.

Strategically, Israel has gotten weaker in 2014 because of the deterioration in relations with the US and — even to a greater degree — with European states.

This deterioration stems firstly from the government’s lack of desire to advance the peace process with the Palestinian Authority. Also, Netanyahu’s government stubbornly permits the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, to the point that, soon, any chance of an agreement that includes evacuating settlements and withdrawing from territories — in exchange for security arrangements and an end to the conflict — will be blocked.

On this matter, the end of 2014 saw the dam burst: European states, including traditional Israeli friends such as France, are prepared to recognize a Palestinian state and are not afraid of being blamed for having an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic approach.

The Palestinian issue remains Israel’s No. 1 problem and it will also be an important challenge, perhaps an existential one, in 2015.

Without the breakthrough of a diplomatic agreement, one of two scenarios is liable to occur — or perhaps both of them together: a popular Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, the buds of which we already saw in 2014; or Israel falling into a situation that will resemble the former apartheid regime in South Africa.  The latter label will be branded on Israel if the Jews are perceived to be a minority ruling over an Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.  That is not the situation now; not yet.

That kind of labeling — especially if accompanied by a Palestinian uprising that evokes global sympathy — would mean the deepening of Israel’s international isolation, possibly to the point of sanctions being levied against it. It is conceivable that Israel would not be rescued by a veto by the United States — especially if the U.S. starts to feel that the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace is mostly Israel’s fault.

January 2, 2015

Israeli Defense and Security in 2015: Strong on Tactics, Weak on Strategy

[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of books including “Spies Against Armageddon.”]

In the euphoric years between the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the leaders of Israel — with defense minister Moshe Dayan chief among them — had a tendency to boast that “our situation has never been better.”

Within a relatively short time, reality flipped on them and the illusion died at the painful price of some 2,700 fallen soldiers. Since then, the same turn of phrase has been avoided.

Nonetheless, there is no better phrase to encapsulate Israel’s military situation in 2014.

According to most estimates, evaluations, and analyses by experts and all those correctly viewing reality — without any personal, political, or ideological bias — Israel?s military situation improved in the past year and its qualitative edge over its enemies has grown.

In actuality, Israel is the strongest military power: not only in the Middle East, but in the entire region stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. There is not a single state or coalition of states that has the military ability to threaten Israel’s existence or defeat it on the battlefield.

THE EASTERN FRONT: SYRIA AND IRAQ

In the East, the two large armies that made up this front in the past — those of Syria and Iraq, which in the past were considered major threats by Israel — have completely receded.

Iraq today is a country disintegrating into three or four parts. Despite the tens of billions of dollars invested by the U.S. in Baghdad?s army, it collapsed like a house of cards in the battles of the past half-year against Islamic State (ISIS).

In Syria, the civil war continues and March 2015 will mark four bloody years of conflict with no end in sight.

Armed Hezbollah fighters (courtesy The Israel Project)

Armed Hezbollah fighters (courtesy The Israel Project)

Syria is a completely dismantled state. Bashar Assad’s regime controls only around a quarter of the country’s territory, mostly Damascus and its surroundings, the coast, a few other cities, and the roads connecting them. Assad’s army has suffered heavy losses in battles with the various rebel groups, both on the battlefield and through the desertion of tens of thousands of soldiers, including high-ranking officers.

Even without a U.S. attack on Assad — as threatened by Barack Obama after Syria’s army used chemical weapons — the international community has confiscated the regime’s chemical weapons, which had been developed and produced to answer the nuclear capability that Israel is reputed to have.

Even if the Syrian regime retains some residual chemical capability with Sarin gas and certainly chlorine, as is estimated among Israel’s intelligence community, that still does not pose a real threat.

This is evidenced by the fact that Israel stopped distributing gas masks to the public.

THE NORTHERN FRONT: LEBANON

In the North, Hezbollah has been significantly weakened over the past year. The group is up to its neck in the Syrian civil war, in which it serves as an Iranian military wing in defense of the Damascus regime.

However, the price that Hezbollah is paying for becoming more and more of an Iranian proxy and less and less of a Lebanese Shi’ite group is very heavy.
Hezbollah has lost hundreds, if not more than a thousand, of its best fighters in the Syrian war.

Among those lost are senior commanders with abundant battle experience. They are being buried in the dead of night in order to hide the ugly reality  from the Hezbollah’s members.

Morale is low. Many in Lebanon, especially within the Shi’ite community on which the group relies, are asking the key question: Why do young Lebanese men need to sacrifice their lives for a foreign regime? In a certain manner, Syria is Hezbollah’s Vietnam.

At the same time, the war in Syria is crossing over into Lebanon itself. ISIS and extremist Sunni organizations such as Jabat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, are transferring the war to Lebanese territory. They are blowing up car bombs in the heart of Shi’ite strongholds, planning ambushes on the Shi’ite group’s fighters, and forcing Hezbollah to take cover and defend its home.

IN THE NEXT POST:

ISRAEL’S SITUATION VIS A VIS EGYPT AND IRAN

January 2, 2015

Israel and Iran: Enemies in Arbitration over an Oil Pipeline — Exclusive Details After an Oil Spill

[Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, has been one of the few journalists tracking unusual business negotiations involving Israel and Iran.  He wrote this article for the Israel-based English-language magazine, The Jerusalem Report.]

To be fair and honest, the greatest environmental disaster in the history of Israel – the oil spill in the Arava desert earlier this month, under the responsibility of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) – has no direct connection to the convoluted structure of the company, to its owners or its mysterious historical past.

Israel's flag

Israel’s flag

The company is subject to Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry and is obligated to operate in accordance with that.

A senior official acquainted with the affair told this writer that the disaster occurred as a result of a technical glitch: in the redoubling of a pipe, 5,000 million liters of oil spilled out.

Having said this, the EAPC is one of the most secret companies in Israel, operating under a special legal force since 1968, which gives it immunity from appropriate public control (including from government supervision, from the state comptroller, the Knesset and the media).

Journalists must fight severe censorship appeals to cover any aspect of the company. All of these restrictions only strengthen the sense (whether real or imagined) that the company has something to hide. As the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and American Zionist leader Louis Brandeis once, said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

The company’s full name is The Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company, a name which might tie it distinctly and solely to Israel. But in essence, the EAPC is part of a legal entity known as Trans Asiatic Oil, (TAO)  a partnership of the Israeli government (under the auspices of the Finance Ministry) and the National Iranian Oil Company (NOIC).

The Islamic Republic of Iran's flag

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s flag

Following Iran’s de facto recognition of Israel in 1951, the two states during the regime of the Shah – the Iranian monarch – developed special and clandestine cooperation based on four principles: Iranian assistance in the secret emigration of Jews from Iraq, organized by the Mossad; Israeli-Iranian cooperation on matters of intelligence (the Mossad, the Shin Bet security forces and the Israel Defense Forces helped establish, train and operate the Iranian army and Savak – the notorious Iranians security service); in exchange, Savak helped Mossad with documentation and other assistance enabling it to launch operations to recruit and run agents in Iraq, as well as assistance to enhance the Kurdish rebellion. The agreements between the two countries also covered military cooperation and the supply of Iranian oil to Israel.

Until the mid-1950s, Israel received its oil supply from the Soviet Union, from Kuwait (then under British control) and from international oil companies. But in 1955-6, these connections were halted, and Israel was forced to find itself new sources.

Through its secret connections, it turned to the Shah and his aides, and asked them to make Iran into its main oil suppler. The Iranians were hesitant, fearing this would harm their relations with the Arab states, but in the aftermath of the Sinai operation in 1956, which elevated Israel as a strong military power. they relented and agreed to supply oil to Israel.

During the months that Israel controlled the Sinai Peninsula following the military operation, it “expropriated” – meaning, it stole – pumps and pipes from an Italian and Belgian firms operating oil fields in Ras Sudr, in the peninsula. With the help of this equipment, a pipeline was built from Eilat.

Most of the funding for this project came from the bankers of the Rothschild family, the major shareholder of the initiative, called Tri-Continental. At the Iranians’ demands – in order to hide their involvement in the sale of oil to Israel and in the partnership  – a secret company was formed and registered in 1959 within the tax refuge of Lichtenstein, under the name of Pimerco, and in which Iran held 10 percent . The oil was transferred from Iran to Eilat in tankers and channeled through the small pipeline, measuring 40 cm (12 inches) in diameter, to Be’er Sheva.

Following the Six Day War in June 1967 and the closure of the Suez Canal, Israel convinced the Shah (who was codenamed “landlord” in the Israeli documents) to exploit the new situation and establish a joint and expansive oil initiative.

Thus the Trans-Asiatic Oil  (TAO) was established, a company under equal and joint ownership of the Israeli government,, and INOC the Iranian National Oil Company. The Israeli government gave the company an exclusive franchise to transport and store the oil.

The main fear of Iranian supporters of the initiative was that if the cooperation were to be exposed, the Arab countries would use it to bash Tehran. Therefore, in order to maintain secrecy and hide the Israeli partnership, the company and its entities were registered in Switzerland, Canada and Panama – at Iran’s request, as to appear as a foreign company.

The owners of TAO, as they appear in the Israeli Registrar of Companies, were called the Eilat Corporation and Sea Marco — both registered in Panama.

After the Shah agreed in principle, the next obstacle was to secure funding for the joint venture which was estimated to cost $85 million dollars – a huge sum in those days. The Baron de Rothschild refused to fund the new initiative, claiming it would not be profitable. The Israeli representatives were finally able to secure funding from the German Deutsche Bank, through which the financial compensations to Israel were transferred in the 1950s and 1960s.

The chairman of Deutsche Bank, Hermann Josef Abs, who acceded to the Israeli-Iranian request for funding, had a Nazi past – he had been responsible for bank’s foreign deals from 1938 onward, and following World War II, was imprisoned for a few months by the Allies.

This aspect of Abs’s past did not seem to bother the Israeli representatives, nor did it stop them from conducting tight and friendly contact with him.

In Israel, TAO operated as though it were a foreign company. It acquired the pipeline to Be’er Sheva from the Rothschild family and laid a larger pipeline, with a diameter of 42 inches (just over one meter), alongside it, from Eilat to Ashkelon, where they also built terminals for loading and unloading the oil. The construction of the terminals was completed in 1969.

The Israeli government granted the exclusive concession for 49 years, set to expire in 2017, enabling the flow of oil and its storage. The closing of the Suez Canal made it difficult to supply oil to Europe from the Persian Gulf. The tankers were forced to sail on a long route around the Cape of Good Hope.

The idea behind the establishment of the company was to shorten the sailing routes and the supply time, and thus of course earn more money.

The tankers loaded oil in the ports of Iran, sailed to Eilat, where they unloaded the cargo at a special terminal that was built for that purpose, and the oil was transported through the pipeline to Ashkelon. Most of it was then loaded onto tankers bound for Europe, and a small percentage was used for Israel’s energy economy. INOC sold the oil to TAO below the market price and granted it credit for three months.

In its heyday, TAO was an economic empire with a turnover of billions of dollars. It established a subsidiary, EAPC, which owned the two pipelines, and a storage container farm to store the oil in Ashkelon and Eilat. It purchased or leased a fleet of 160 tankers. Its goal was to reach a transport average of 50 million tons per year. – a target that was not achieved.

But after 10 years of prospering business came the crisis. The Shah’s rule was weakened. About two months before Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, INOC stopped selling to TAO — in effect paralyzing it. One of Khomeini’s first acts when he came to power was to cut relations with Israel completely.

During the first years, the Israeli managers of Trans-Asiatic tried to conduct secret talks with representatives of the Iranian National Oil Company to dismantle the partnership voluntarily and in an orderly manner. But the Iranians broke off contact and refused to hear from Israel.

TAO sold the oil tankers, mostly at a loss, dismissed dozens of employees and closed operations and offices abroad. What saved it from bankruptcy was the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, in the context of which Egypt promised to sell Israel oil as a substitute for the loss of the oil wells in Sinai. The Egyptian oil, an average of about 1.5 million tons annually, arrived in tankers to Eilat, and from there it was transported via the pipeline to Ashkelon and then to refineries in Haifa and Ashdod.

Today, Israel’s oil is supplied by brokers from various sources including Azerbaijan, Mexico, the Gulf Emirates and even Iran.  

The Iran connection was revealed by the U.S. government three years ago, when it added to its blacklist a Singapore-based tanker company owned by the Israeli brothers Sammy and Yuli Ofer. The company’s tankers, the U.S. learned, had been loading cargo at the Bandar Abbas port and thus breaching American sanctions against Iran.

Surprisingly enough, the man who rushed to defend the Ofer brothers then was the same person who would lead Israel’s international efforts against the Iranian nuclear program and who pushed for very strong international sanctions against the Islamic Republic: Mossad Chief Meir Dagan.

In 1985, the Iranians suddenly began to show a renewed interest in Trans-Asiatic. Via attorneys in Europe they demanded the company pay its debts to their national oil company. The direct debt of TAO, for transporting the oil in the pipeline on credit for three months, was estimated then to be $400 million – a sum that has since inflated to an estimated $4 billion dollars.

When the Iranian claims were made, attorney Elhanan Landau, who in the past had served as the legal adviser of the Finance Ministry and was very familiar with the subject, was appointed to handle the case for Israel representing EPAC.

After Landau’s death he was replaced by his partner, Zvi Nixon, who continues to serve as the legal adviser of the company. The line of action that was decided upon was that the responsibility for the situation lay with the Iranian National Oil Company, because it had unilaterally stopped honoring its commitments to Trans-Asiatic and EPAC, ceased taking an interest in the company and caused it severe damage.

Over the course of the years, arbitration services and litigations were carried out in Switzerland, in the International Court of Commerce in Paris, as well as in another European state, apparently Holland.

The approach Israel adopted since the start of the discussions on the various issues is one of deliberate foot-dragging, fearing that it would have to pay hundreds if not billions of dollars. For years Israel even refused to pay the salaries and expenses of the arbitration.

Representing Iran in the arbitration are its legal advisers who operate in Europe, including its legal adviser at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Lawyers from Switzerland have been conducting the arbitration sessions.

There have been developments in the case of late, when the arbitrators ruled that the Iranian claims carried some weight, and that Israel must compensate Iran — by paying some tens of millions of dollars.

Not exactly the billions Iran demanded. Still Israel appealed the ruling, claiming that there was no legal basis to force it to pay the sums at this time. The arbitration and legal procedures, to Israel’s relief, will continue: the longer, the better.

December 16, 2014

Will Iran Sip from the Poisoned Chalice — and Make a Deal to Reduce its Nuclear Potential?

[Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, traveled to Vienna to assess the state of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 nations led by the United States.  He wrote this article jointly with Ilan Evyatar for the English-language Israeli magazine, The Jerusalem Report.]

With the ball firmly in Tehran’s court, after the extension of nuclear talks, the question is whether Iran’s supreme leader will give his negotiators the flexibility needed to conclude a deal

Iran’s supreme leader will have to drink from the poisoned chalice and swallow the Islamic Republic’s pride if the Iranian nuclear crisis is to come to a satisfactory, final and comprehensive conclusion. That at least was the metaphor that a former senior Obama administration arms control advisor chose to use while speaking to The Jerusalem Report on the sidelines of a conference in the Austrian capital.

IAEA logoTalking after delivering a speech at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, Robert Einhorn, assistant secretary for nonproliferation during the Clinton administration and a special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control during the Obama administration, discussed the possible outcome of the talks between Iran and the P5+1, the group of five permanent Security Council member plus Germany.

The metaphor that Einhorn employed referred back to the Iran-Iraq war fought between the two countries from September 1980 to August 1988. For many years, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and its first supreme leader, reportedly refused to allow his generals, despite defeats on the battlefield and the suffering of the Iranian people, to negotiate a cease-fire.

Yet at the final stages of the war the generals led by Mohsen Rezaee, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), persuaded the supreme leader that they could no longer bear the consequences of the war. Khomeini reportedly told them that he would allow them to sign a cease-fire agreement with Saddam Hussein’s army, but for him that was worse than surrender, it was like drinking from a poisoned chalice.

So argued Einhorn there is a precedent. If Khomeini ended that bloody conflict, the 20th century’s longest conventional war, which caused the death of some one million in total on both sides, his successor Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, can, at least theoretically, swallow his and his nation’s pride, and order his negotiators to reach a deal with the international community to substantially reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons potential.

The P5+1 talks held at the historic Coburg Palace, now a luxury hotel catering to wealthy American and Saudi Arabian tourists, ended with no agreement, but since ultimately neither side has any interest in bringing an abrupt end to negotiations, they decided to extend the talks for a second time until the end of June 2015.

A year ago, the two sides reached an interim agreement in Geneva known as the Joint Plan of Action that partially halted Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. That agreement stipulated that the Islamic Republic would be allowed to operate only 10,000 centrifuges out of its 19,000 installed. It also forbade Iran to increase the level of 20 percent enriched uranium to over 220 kilograms, the minimal sufficient quantity required to build a nuclear bomb once that amount has been further enriched to 90 percent.

But since then the two sides have failed to overcome the enormous obstacles on the way to a desired comprehensive agreement. Among the issues under contention is the number of operational centrifuges that Iran would be allowed to keep. On this matter, the Israeli stance has been zero tolerance – in other words, Tehran would not be allowed any centrifuges whatsoever – but as a senior Israeli official familiar with the negotiations has told The Report, the international community is not buying into that position.

There are several possible explanations as to why the Israeli line has been ignored. One is because of the deteriorating relations between the administration of President Barack Obama and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another is the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

But above all, the reason is that Israel is perceived as being alarmist and exaggerating with regard to Iran. In this sense Israeli policy vis-a-vis Iran as designed by Netanyahu has failed.

Israel has in the last decade invested huge financial resources and a great deal of diplomatic and political capital on three fronts. First, according to foreign reports, was to equip the Mossad and authorize it to carry out covert operations that included the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotaging materials and equipment related to the program and cyber warfare aimed at slowing down Tehran’s nuclear project. Despite some impressive tactical successes, strategically that has not worked out.

Secondly, Israel enlarged the IDF’s budget reportedly to allow the air force to practice and simulate aerial attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites. Even if the leadership comprising Netanyahu and the previous defense minister Ehud Barak, his partner in this scheme, did not mean to launch an attack, that investment had to be made in order to create a credible impression that Israel was able and serious regarding the military option.

The third front was the diplomatic effort to persuade the US to impose punitive sanctions against Iran. It’s hard to assess how much Israel influenced the American decision-making process, nonetheless Netanyahu has taken the credit. Meanwhile, with negotiations ongoing, Israel’s theoretical military option has been distanced.

Another point of contention between Israel and the US and EU position is that Israeli intelligence analysis sees Iran as being between three to six months, if it so decides, from breaking out and building a bomb. The US estimate on the other hand, as Einhorn related, is that Iran is at least one year from that point.

The US and EU attitude has been less rigid.  Originally they demanded that Iran be restricted to 1,500 centrifuges – around 3,000 centrifuges are sufficient to enrich uranium to the 90 percent level needed to produce fissile material required in order to make a nuclear weapon – but they are now ready to raise the threshold to between 4,000 to 5,000 centrifuges which surely would enhance the potential of Iran to breakout within a shorter period. However it’s hard to imagine that Iran would agree even to accept that, American proposed, compromise.

The number of centrifuges is not the only unsolved issue between Iran and the P5+1. Another problem is the amount of enriched uranium Iran would be allowed to stockpile and how much of it has to be exported – most likely to Russia to be converted into uranium rods to be used as fuel for nuclear reactors generating electricity.

Yet even greater stumbling blocks are the issue of the longevity of the agreement and how intrusive the verification mechanism will be. The international community would like to see limitations on Iran’s nuclear capabilities in place for 15-20 years; Iran on the other hand would like to see a much shorter period of no more than a few years. Regarding the verification mechanism, the US, EU argument is that the verification regime, given the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Tehran’s program, would need to be much more aggressive than the standard International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification protocol.

Iran argues that it should not be singled out, but, the US, EU position is, as Einhorn noted, that Tehran “has to restore confidence due to its track record.” Einhorn was referring to nearly 20 years of lack of Iranian cooperation with the IAEA and attempts to conceal parts of its program, mainly suspected possible military dimensions, as indicated by repeated IAEA reports.

The issue of PMDs is of special interest. On the one hand it is a point of contention between Israel and the US: In 2007, the American national intelligence estimate stated that Iran had stopped its military program four years earlier in 2003; Israeli intelligence however countered that the program has not been discontinued and most likely has been going on even to the present day.

Robert Einhorn (courtesy Brookings Institution)

Robert Einhorn (courtesy Brookings Institution)

Regardless of whether or not the military dimension of the program has been stopped, the IAEA and the P5+1 are still demanding full disclosure and transparency of Iran’s nuclear military record. Knowing what Iran has been up to in the past would improve understanding of what capabilities Iran possess and what they are capable of achieving in the future.

Iran has been dancing around the PMD issue for a long time, first with the IAEA and now in talks with the P5+1 – for example, refusing to allow inspections at its Parchin military base which is suspected by the CIA, MI6, Mossad and other Western intelligence agencies of being the site of weaponization capabilities testing.

“The US understands that it’s unrealistic that Iran confesses its entire past activities,” says Einhorn.  In other words, he doesn’t share the optimism expressed by the Iranian, French and US foreign ministers after the latest round of Vienna talks.

The ball, in Einhorn’s analysis, is firmly in the Iranian court. The question is whether the supreme leader, despite his understanding that the Iranian people and the government of President Hassan Rouhani would like to see the lifting of sanctions in return for a final agreement, will drink the poisoned chalice and give his negotiators the flexibility necessary to conclude a deal.

December 13, 2014

Nuclear Talks with Iran were Extended: Did Israel’s Mossad Actually Fail to Stop Iran’s Nuclear Program? Looks That Way

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — currently ensnarled in political controversies at home, with an eye toward scheduling elections early in 2015 and perhaps forming a new coalition — took some time out to express satisfaction with what has happened in the P5+1 talks with Iran on the nuclear issue.

He likes the failure to reach a new agreement, because any new accord would permit Iran to keep enriching uranium — and, though Iran denies, continue to build the potential of producing nuclear bombs.

Did Meir Dagan and the Mossad fail? (Dagan on CBS' "60 Minutes," 2012)

Did Meir Dagan and the Mossad fail? (Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012)

Netanyahu is happy enough with the decision to extend the deadline for success for another seven months.  He will keep warning the P5+1 — those are the U.N. Security Council’s Permanent 5 (U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France) + Germany — that “no deal would be better than signing a bad deal.”

What would Israel and the world powers do, if no deal is reached by July 2015?  That is left intentionally ambiguous, even as Netanyahu has returned to a bit of saber-rattling by repeating that Israel reserves the right to defend itself by all possible means.

Netanyahu and his intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz (who is also “minister of strategic affairs”), have lobbied the Western countries — and apparently Russia and China — to clamp down hard on Iran’s nuclear potential: to demand that all uranium enrichment in Iran stop, and that Iran be compelled to export all the enriched uranium it has amassed.

Yet the P5+1 countries were clearly negotiating with Iran on how many centrifuges for uranium enrichment it may continue to operate and what type of centrifuges — while demanding more intensive monitoring by U.N. nuclear inspectors.  Still unknown is how Iran might convince Western governments that it is not running secret nuclear facilities. In addition, Iran resists any inspections or oversight of its military technology programs, including the development of medium- and long-range missiles.

We shall write more — soon — on the question of whether Israel has actually succeeded in stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

The former Mossad chief under Netanyahu and his predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert — Meir Dagan — has publicly claimed that a combination of covert action and sanctions did prevent Iran from marching nuclear bomb capability. Yet we are finding plentiful, though disturbing, reasons to declare that Iran is already a “nuclear threshhold state.”

Iran could, if it so chooses, advance quickly to the status of being “one turn of screwdriver” away from building a nuclear bomb.  Is that not failure, more than a decade (so far) of Israel’s secret war to stop Iran’s nuclear potential?

November 30, 2014

Iran and the West: No Nuclear Deal — Israel and Saudi Arabia Covertly Worked to Block an Accord

[This analysis by Yossi Melman, co-author of SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON: INSIDE ISRAEL’S SECRET WARS, was written for The Jerusalem Post.]

The decision to extend the deadline to clinch a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers until July 2015 is a defeat for Iran and an achievement for the US and the European Union.

The Iranians threatened during the talks held in Vienna that if by Monday a final agreement is not reached and the sanctions imposed on them lifted, they would walk away. Iran’s approach was “everything, now or never.”

Yet they had to swallow their words and pride and agree for another extension – the second of its kind – while the sanctions are still in place and their nuclear program is restrained, as far as the number of centrifuges and the quantity of the enriched uranium are concerned.

True, the world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) agreed to unfreeze $700 million from Iran’s frozen bank accounts all over the world every month. The P5+1 negotiators realized that they have to grant a minor concession as a reward to the moderates in Iran led by President Hassan Rouhani and his chief nuclear negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

They didn’t want them to return to Tehran with empty hands and pockets. But frankly, unfreezing $2 billion to $3b. out of $100b. in frozen assets is no more than throwing crumbs to a hungry person.

No doubt the moderates will be lashed out at by the radicals who would accuse them of failure. But as long as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is calling the shots, is backing the negotiating team, there is a hope, though it is still slim, for a final agreement to be signed.

There is a simple reason to explain why Iran backed out on the last day and agreed for more talks. This is because Iran is anxious to rid itself of the sanctions hurting its economy, which has further deteriorated over the last few months with the drastic drop in oil prices.

The Iranian budget for 2014/15 is based on a $140 per barrel price – whereas the current price is $80 per barrel. This means a huge deficit in the Iranian budget. Iran can cover it by austerity measures – cutting subsidies of food, fuel and housing – but its leaders fear that such steps will bring upon them the wrath of the masses, which already suffer from the recession. Iran’s government prefers to print money and raise inflation.

One should not be mistaken. Iran has not given up its wish to get as close as possible – a screwdriver turn away – from a nuclear bomb. It is already almost there.

It is three to six months away from assembling nuclear bombs if it decides in the future to turn from the negotiation table and “break out” to the bomb.

Iran already has the know-how and technology to build a bomb. Neither a diplomatic nor a technical deal, nor even a military assault, can take that away from Iran. With however many centrifuges and enriched uranium it is and will be allowed to keep, it is clear that Iran has reached the status of a nuclear threshold state.

Ultimately, any deal with Iran boils down to a single question: How long will an agreement delay Iran from assembling a nuclear bomb – one year? Two years? Three years?

Watching actively from the sidelines are Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been working in close covert and unprecedented cooperation to sabotage the deal.

For these countries, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said numerous times, a bad deal – which the West is prepared to accept – is worse than having no deal at all. But it seems that these efforts have had limited effect, if any.

The realization that Iran has not made the required concessions and thus that the time and terms are not yet ripe at this stage for a comprehensive deal is to the credit of the US and EU governments. Certainly, Israel under Netanyahu (considering the bad blood between him and US President Barack Obama) is limited in the levers it can use to influence the process.

The outcome of the Vienna talks derives from two facts. First, the gaps between the sides are still big. Second, neither side is interested to end the diplomatic option. Second, the alternative – of not having any deal, neither interim nor comprehensive – is much more dangerous to the world.

November 24, 2014

Massacre in a Jerusalem Synagogue — ‘Palestinian Leader Didn’t Order It’

The head of Shin Bet (the domestic security services also known as ISA, Israel Security Agency) — Yoram Cohen — has declared that Palestinians who have murderously attacked Israelis in recent months were not sent or authorized by any Palestinian organizations.

From Shin Bet's Website shabak.gov.il

From Shin Bet’s Website shabak.gov.il

Cohen was briefing the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of Israel’s parliament, the K’nesset, hours after two Palestinian cousins invaded a synagogue in West Jerusalem — using a meat cleaver and a gun to kill four rabbis (three of them who were U.S.-Israeli dual citizens) and a police officer.

Cohen said the two attackers did not train and are not known to have planned their assault.

When terrorists have no training camp and don’t visibly practice, it is of course very difficult for counter-terrorism forces — such as the ubiquitious and ever-watching Shin Bet — to detect a terrorist attack in the making.

Cohen’s analysis, based on Israeli intelligence’s best available information about the recent upsurge in Palestinian violence against Jews, is generally considered a significant disagreement with his boss — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The prime minister has repeatedly charged that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), has been inciting violence — by spreading the impression that Israeli authorities plan a Jewish takeover of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Naftali Bennett, a rightwing cabinet minister who doesn’t believe it would be safe to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank, also blames Mahmoud Abbas for the upsurge in bloodshed.  So does Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, the defense minister who suggests Palestinians would be satisfied with some form of autonomy — but without independence and sovereignty.

In fact though Cohen told parliamentarians that Abbas does not favor violence — and has no reason to want a third intifada (uprising) — the Shin Bet chief also declared that Abbas’s statements about Jews trying to take over all of Jerusalem had incited attacks by Palestinians.

The security agency director also cast some blame on right-wing Jews. Cohen said there is a highly negative effect — igniting dangerous tension — when Jews act on their claims to the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuaryby marching onto the area surrounding the famous golden- and silver-domed mosques that crown the holy city.

<Lone Wolves are Very Hard to Detect>

All in all, when terrorist attacks are carried out by individuals with no organizational affiliation — Shin Bet is now calling that “popular terror” — and the attackers don’t have jail records (so they are not on surveillance lists), it is very difficult for counter-terrorism agencies to gather information about them and prevent their murderous actions.

November 18, 2014

The Gaza War and Israeli Intelligence Agencies — Competing Claims, and a Clash of Egos

[This article was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the new, updated history of Israeli intelligence and security agencies, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]

It was a silly and unnecessary battle about ego, credit and public relations that has now ended with a face-saving clarification by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which practically has to be read as an apology to the Israel Defense Forces and Aman (the IDF’s military intelligence agency).

Shin Bet's logo: Hebrew words mean "The Defender That Won't Be Seen"

Shin Bet’s logo: Hebrew words mean “The Defender That Won’t Be Seen”

Trying to mend an unprecedented rift with the army and restore close cooperation, Shin Bet admitted that it did not provide an early warning that Hamas had planned to initiate an all-out war with Israel last summer, which became known as Operation Protective Edge.

The clash began already during the first days of the war, when the head of Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen, said during a cabinet meeting that his agency had issued a warning of a pending war. Ministers responded angrily, telling him that they did not recall such a warning.

Yoram Cohen, Shin Bet chief (official photo, found at Haaretz.com)

Yoram Cohen, Shin Bet chief (official photo, found at Haaretz.com)

Actually, the exchange should have served as a warning for Cohen himself and Shin Bet to restrain themselves in their search for glory and credit. But they didn’t stop there. After the war, Shin Bet continued its PR campaign by leaking the same claim off the record and briefing journalists who published it.

Despite being furious, the IDF at least publicly swallowed its pride. But this week it could no longer tolerate what it has perceived as systematic and deliberate efforts by Shin Bet not only to grab the credit — but also to defame the army.

< Defamation of the Army’s Character>

The trigger that got on the IDF’s nerves was the prestigious, highly rated TV program — Uvda (“Fact”) — on Channel 2, which aired the whole story, not just the facts and information. The program interviewed two very senior Shin Bet officials – one of whom is a candidate to replace Cohen when his term ends in two years.

IDF photo of Chief of Staff, Gen. Benny Gantz

IDF photo of Chief of Staff, Gen. Benny Gantz

This was an unprecedented act. Never before had Shin Bet officials on active duty gone public on television, even if their faces were blurred and names not given, as the law requires. No doubt the two appeared on the show with the authorization, blessing and encouragement of Cohen.

Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz could no longer remain silent. He exploded, along with the previous chief of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. The three interpreted the ongoing saga as a direct assault on them for not preparing the army for the war.

Going out of his way, Gantz wrote a letter to his boss, Ya’alon, and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is responsible for the Shin Bet. The letter, not surprisingly, reached the media. In his letter Gantz complained that Shin Bet did not provide any warning of Hamas’s plans for a July war.

“Never, not in any meeting headed by me, was the issue of the possible war or [terrorist] operation presented, let alone [any] discussion at the beginning of 2014 on the matter of a coming war,” the letter stated.

For Gantz, the security service had crossed a red line by cooperating with a “television show, which glorified the organization while tarnishing the political echelon.” This, the military chief of staff declared, was “a moral and ethical breach.”

Netanyahu called a special meeting on Wednesday night with Ya’alon, Gantz and Cohen. He called Cohen and Gantz to order, reprimanded them and demanded in the name of “national responsibility for security” that they stop quarreling and “continue to fully cooperate for the safety of the citizens of Israel.”

<Was There Warning of a War with Hamas — or Not?>

The truth is that, already in January, Shin Bet had gleaned information mainly from its impressive SIGINT (electronic intelligence) capabilities pointing to the start of “preparations and training by Hamas of a possible conflict with Israel.”

But, as Shin Bet admitted in its statement, “It was only at the end of April that Shin Bet issued a warning of Hamas’s intentions to conduct a large terrorist attack that could lead to a conflict.”

Most probably Hamas planned to launch an attack through one of its tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel.

It is worth mentioning that, in the field of intelligence, an early warning of a war has a very clear meaning. It has to contain precise information, answering questions as when, where, and how. The Shin Bet information in the months leading to the war didn’t have this.

It goes without saying that, being a terrorist organization and not a regular army, Hamas was not in a position to launch a war against Israel; it could only plot a series of big and even coordinated terrorist or semi-military attacks.

All experts agree that the recent war in Gaza was the result of undesired escalation by both sides, which got out of control. It was not premeditated.

There are two main victims of this battle – the public trust in its security chiefs and Yoram Cohen. Cohen is emerging from the incident battered and less sophisticated than had been thought about him.

The Shin Bet chief is now viewed by the prime minister, defense minister and cabinet as a man who cares more about his image than the truth. He is less respected by his subordinates for dragging the agency into an unwanted rift with its military peers.

November 14, 2014

Significant if True — Syrian Nuclear Experts Assassinated: Wouldn’t That Please Israel?

It’s only an unconfirmed report, but it is starting to get attention in parts of the Middle East: that five nuclear experts were killed in an ambush while riding a bus to their workplace in Syria’s capital, Damascus, a few days ago.

The story immediately fueled conspiratorial theories that Israeli intelligence, namely the Mossad, may have accomplished a daring mass assassination.

This all began with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that this attack occurred on Sunday near the Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus.

Barzeh is the site of a small nuclear laboratory run by President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Barzeh has a Chinese-built miniature neutron source reactor, a compact research reactor copied from a Canadian design.

This reactor, from its inception, has been under the supervision of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA inspectors have visited the site many times.

The CIA's Reconnaissance Photos of Syria's Reactor in 2007 -- Before and After Israel's Air Raid

The CIA’s Reconnaissance Photos of Syria’s Reactor in 2007 — Before and After Israel’s Air Raid

The truth — it turned out — was that the small Barzeh reactor, fueled by highly enriched uranium supplied in miniscule amounts by China and a few other nuclear facilities, served as a decoy. While its presence and work were fully registered with the UN’s IAEA, Barzeh was diverting attention from the secret construction of a much bigger nuclear reactor in eastern Syria being built by North Korea — the one that was bombed by Israel’s air force in 2007, with no announcement or official confirmation by Israel.

The Syrian government has not yet reacted to this week’s reports. The Iranian media also ignored it, until Iran’s Press TV put out a short item about the incident — although it fails to mention that probably one of the five dead experts was an Iranian engineer.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred in an area controlled by forces loyal to President Assad.

As exciting or intriguing as it may be to attribute the attack to Israel, there is no evidence to back up such an assertion. Israeli involvement is, in fact, unlikely.

Israeli analysts believe that after the nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria was destroyed in September 2007, when it was on the verge of being operational and capable of producing plutonium as fissile material for nuclear bombs, the threat of Syria becoming a nuclear power was removed.

According to foreign news reports, Israel has occasionally interfered in the civil war by sending its air force to bomb convoys of Syrian trucks transporting sophisticated weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel perceives any ground, sea and air missiles supplied to Hezbollah as a threat.

But that is not how Syria’s practically non-existent nuclear program is seen.

Thus, there is no incentive for Israel to risk its intelligence-gathering operatives and military forces by launching an assassination mission. Put simply, Syria no longer poses a serious military – not to mention nuclear – threat to Israel. So why bother?

Furthermore, it is not the first time that Syrian nuclear scientists were targeted during the civil war. In a similar incident in July of last year, six people who also worked at Barzeh were killed in a mortar attack carried out by anti-government militants.

It thus seems likely that a murder of five nuclear experts was not the work of Israel — but another act of violence by one of the rival groups fighting the Assad regime.

We shouldn’t even rule out the possibility that it was an act of revenge – an inside job by the regime itself, for reasons unknown in the fog of a civil war that has raged for nearly five years.

November 11, 2014


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