U.S. Prepared Huge Cyber-Attack on Iran, In Case Israel Bombed Iran and a War Started

In his latest documentary, “Zero Days,” the award-winning Alex Gibney reveals that the Obama Administration believed an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities — which seemed in 2012 to be a very real prospect — would draw the United States into war.  To prepare, the NSA created a set of cyberattacks — code named “Nitro Zeus” — which could have crippled Iranian industry, transport, and other modern services.  

“Zero Days” was the opening feature of the AFI Docs festival in Washington, DC, on June 22.  Gibney was interviewed by Dan Raviv for the CBS News Weekend Roundup radio magazine; and Yossi Melman is seen in the film as an expert commenting on Israeli motivations in confronting Iran’s nuclear program.  Melman also credited in the film as a consultant.

Raviv and Melman are co-authors of five books, including the current history of Israeli intelligence — Spies Against Armageddon.

Here is part of an article Melman wrote for The Jerusalem Post in February 2016, when the documentary was first screened at the Berlin Film Festival.

Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and the NSA, is in the film and claims the goal of a potential Israeli strike on Iran would be to drag the U.S. into war.  The film also quotes other sources in the US intelligence community who accuse Israel of disrupting a joint covert operation to sabotage computers used in Iran’s nuclear program by acting rashly and in opposition to agreed-upon plans.  As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars that were invested in the operation went to waste.
A graphic from the documentary "Zero Days"

A graphic from the documentary “Zero Days”

The film contains testimony from NSA and CIA operatives who worked together with Israeli colleagues – from the 8200 Military Intelligence Unit and Mossad – to develop several versions of a deadly virus that penetrated computers at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in Iran. The testimony is delivered anonymously by an actress whose face remains hidden.

According to the claims in the film, the hasty Israeli action prevented the carrying out of a number of further planned actions that were intended to sabotage computers at a second, more fortified uranium enrichment facility at Fordow. The film also reveals another planned cyber unit covert operation code-named NZ (Nitro Zeus).

“We spent millions on this operation to sabotage all of the computers of the Iranian infrastructure in the instance of a war,” a source quoted in the film said. “We penetrated the government, electricity lines, power stations and most of the infrastructure in Iran.”

 
The deadly virus that was implanted at Natanz was named “Stuxnet” by computer security experts, but it had a different name among the Israeli and American intelligence communities: “Olympic Games” — as revealed by New York Times’ journalist David E. Sanger.
Conventional wisdom holds that the implanting of the virus marked the first time that a country, or two countries in this case (the U.S. and Israel), engaged in cyber warfare against another country (Iran). Up until then, the majority of attacks were carried out by individual hackers for their own enjoyment or for political purposes, by criminals for the purposes of fraud and thievery, or by companies engaged in industrial and commercial espionage.
Vice President Joe Biden is quoted in the film as saying in a meeting that the Israelis “changed the code” of the deadly virus’s software.  As a result, the virus spread from nuclear program computers to many other computers in Iran, and from there to computers around the world — even harming the computers of American companies.
The unplanned spread of the virus led to the exposure of the operation and enabled the Iranians, with the help of information security experts from Belarus and Russia, to invent a “vaccine” for their computers to better defend the nuclear program.

According to the film, the premature exposure of the operation caused by Israel’s action’s also caused the virus software, which was among the most classified and most advanced in the world, to leak to Russian and Iranian intelligence.

“Ironically,” it is said in the film, “the secret formula for writing the code for the virus software fell into the hands of Russia and Iran – the country against which it was developed.”

June 23, 2016

Oil, Intelligence, Suicide Drone — Israel’s Hush-Hush Relations with Azerbaijan (Bordering Iran)

[This post is adapted from an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israel’s intelligence agencies, Spies Against Armageddon.]

The longtime head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who died of cancer on March 17, was known to be a great traveler.  Years ago he went on a journey to central Asia and visited Azerbaijan.  Knowing that he was an avid chess player and “not a bad one” — as he once put it — his hosts  took him to a local chess club.  Dagan had the heady experience of playing simultaneously against a group of teenagers.  He lost to all of them.

His Azeri hosts (apparently counterparts in security agencies, but they have not been identified) felt embarrassed.  They did not want an honored guest from such a friendly country, Israel, to be humiliated.

Israel, the Jewish state, is indeed considered a good friend to the Muslim, former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.  Diplomatic relations were established in 1992, only a few months after Azeri independence was achieved with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Relations are excellent, and the improvement has been based on shared strategic interests.  The two countries are getting even closer, against the background of renewed violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia, another former Soviet republic.  They are fighting over a district, Nagorno Karabakh, where civilians caught in the middle are again suffering death and destruction.

Azerbaijan’s forces have been noticed using Israel-made weapons.

The two nations are certainly an odd couple.  The Azeris are predominantly Shiite Muslims, and while they vote in elections they do not truly have a Western democracy.  The country has been run since 1991 by a single family, which is accused of corruption and suppressing independent media.  Investigative journalists have been harassed and jailed there.

The CIA's Map of Azerbaijan: Nestled Among Strategic Neighbors

The CIA’s Map of Azerbaijan: Nestled Among Strategic Neighbors

Israel, however, has a long record of not being too picky in choosing its undemocratic friends — certainly not when it comes to weapons sales and other national interests.  A quick look at the map can explain Israel’s priorities.  Azerbaijan has borders with four countries including Iran — Israel’s most dangerous enemy.  The capital, Baku, is on the Caspian Sea — which affords interesting ways to get in and out.  Azerbaijan is a major oil producer and invests 5 percent of its GDP in its military.

IAI Harop drone bomb

Israel’s Harop, Displayed for Sale

According to foreign reports, The Mossad runs a big station in Azerbaijan taking advantage of the geography. Iranian spokespersons have accused their neighbor of allowing Israeli intelligence to carry out — from Azeri territory — espionage missions in Iran which include recruiting and planting agents, communications interception, and aerial reconnaissance. More than a year ago, Iran claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone.  Israeli officials have refused to comment on such reports.

Yet it was President Ilham Aliyev himself who was quoted in a cable — published by WikiLeaks — sent from the U.S. Embassy in Baku, as saying: “Bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel are like an iceberg. Nine-tenths are below the surface.”

Another WikiLeaks document from 2007 showed more frankness and openness expressed by Arthur Lenk, then the Israeli ambassador in Baku (now serving in South Africa).  He told the U.S. ambassador that the two countries have a security agreement and that one of Aliyev’s assistants — during a visit to Israel — met with Israel’s deputy defense minister and “Mossad officials.”

In 2009 Azeri security services exposed a joint plot designed by an Iranian intelligence agency and Hezbollah to target the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community in Baku.  That would have been part of their attempt to take revenge for the killing, a year earlier, of Imad Mughniyeh — the “defense minister” in charge of Hezbollah operations.  The car bomb that killed Mughniyeh in Damascus was attributed to the Mossad, and recently a CIA role in the assassination was reliably reported.

Tips from the Mossad to their Azeri counterparts in 2009 foiled the conspiracy in Baku and led to the arrest of several suspects, while others managed to escape to Iran.

The joint combat against terrorism is just one glue strengthening the relations between Azerbaijan and Israel.  Another sign of the prosperous allience can be seen in the annual trade. which is currently $5 billion, more than the total trade between Israel and France.

The details are not fully revealed, but it consists most of Azeri oil sold to Israel — and Israelis weapons and intelligence technologies purchased by Azerbaijan.  The best promoters of the military sales and ties have been Israeli defense minister and officials who have visited the Caucasian nation.  Most recently it was the current minister, Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon, who went to Baku in Otober 2014 to meet with his counterpart — and even with President Aliyev.

The security and intelligence ties began modestly. In the 1990s Israel sold light weapons, mortars, and ammunition worth a few millions of dollars.  In addition, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI, now renamed Israel Aerospace Industries) maintained the aircraft fleet of Azerbaijan Airlines.

Israel Aerospace Industries Exports the Harop: a Drone Bomb

Israel Aerospace Industries Exports the Harop: a Drone Bomb

In recent years, according to foreign reports, the volume expanded to billions.  That made Azerbaijan the second biggest market in Asia, after India, for Israeli weapons.

According to the French newsletter “Intelligence on Line,” Israeli sales include drones, ground stations, control and command posts, and advanced intelligence equipment.

It was also reported that IAI was the first bidder to offer Azerbaijan a spy satellite valued at $150 million — plus the ground station and the launching cost.  U.S., French, and Russian compaanies later joined the bidding, but experts assume that the Israeli company has the best chance of winning the contract because of IAI’s long-standing, intimate contacts with Azerbaijan.

The French publication also reported that Haifa-based Israel Shipyards has an advantage over its French and other competitors to build 12 light vessels for the Azeri coast guard.

This month the Washington Post gave the world a narrow peek into the mostly secret relationship by publishing a video and photos of an Israel-made “suicidal drone,” flying over the frontlines of the civil war in Nagorno-Karabakh — reportedly exploding itself onto a bus carrying Armenian combatants.  Seven people were killed, and the Armenian government protested to Israel.

The drone, called “Harop.” is just one model in a line of products that are hybrids of drones, missiles and bombs.   They can carry cameras and be recalled back to ground by their operator but also are equipped with up to 20 kilograms of explosive which the operator can lead to collide with the target and detonate it .

This past week, a few days after the incident, Israeli military journalists visited IAI facilities and were briefed on the various products from drones to satellites which the company has to offer.  An IAI spokeswoman was asked if the company was behind the Washington Post publication.  She refused to answer, but she clearly smiled when one reporter commented that such photos and video are good for business.   They promote sales which can be labeled “battle proven.”

April 16, 2016

Meir Dagan, Mossad Chief 2002 to 2010, has Died — A Strong Voice for Hitting Iran Quietly, and Keeping America Friendly

Meir Dagan, the head of Israel’s espionage service Mossad from 2002 through the end of 2010, has died at age 71.   He had been battling cancer — the one enemy that he could not outwit and outrun.  

Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, looks back at Dagan’s career — and his role as the key architect of secret sabotage aimed at Iran’s nuclear program.

On Thursday morning, after learning that retired General Meir Dagan had died, the current Mossad chief Yossi Cohen expressed — on behalf of the organization’s employees and its past chiefs — deep sorrow at the news of his death and sent condolences to the Dagan family.

Meir Dagan appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes (with Lesley Stahl) after his retirement

Meir Dagan appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes (with Lesley Stahl) after his retirement

Dagan, the tenth “Ramsad” (Rosh ha-Mossad, meaning Head of the Institution), was appointed by his close friend Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and served atop the organization from 2002 until December 2010.

He is most identified with clandestine operations to prevent and thwart Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions to produce an atomic bomb.

During Dagan’s tenure, he implemented far-reaching structural changes in the Mossad with the aim of making it a more operations-based organization.

While Dagan headed the Mossad, a number of operations were attributed to the organization, including the assassination of five Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotage of equipment in Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the implanting of viruses into the computers that operated the centrifuges to enrich uranium at the Natanz facility in Iran.  Some of these projects — though not the assassinations — were conducted in cooperation with America’s CIA and NSA.

Another important intelligence feat that is attributed to the Mossad under Dagan was a huge amount of information obtained from a laptop computer used by the chairman of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission. That intelligence was the smoking gun which shaped the decision by then-Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, with the tacit approval of President George W. Bush, to bomb the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.  Israel has never publicly confirmed destroying that reactor.

Dagan enjoyed the privilege — which was very rare among Mossad chiefs, and other heads of world intelligence agencies — of befriending President Bush, who liked him and his creative mind very much.

Showing the Mossad’s impressive ability to operate in the capital city of the most hostile Arab country, Hezbollah’s military chief — Imad Mugniyeh — was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. Well placed sources described the operation as a joint effort by Mossad agents on the scene, with the CIA playing a role.

Dagan was born in the Soviet Union in 1945 to parents who were Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel after the founding of the Jewish state. He lived in Bat Yam and enlisted into the Paratroopers Brigade, becoming the commander of the Rimon reconnaissance unit which operated in the Gaza Strip during the height of a Palestinian terror wave in the early 1970s. Afterward, he was promoted to fill a number of roles in the IDF command, reaching the rank of Major General.

Among other things, Dagan is considered one of the developers of guerrilla warfare doctrine in the IDF, based on fighting — often ambushing — Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and later in south Lebanon.  These operations cemented his image as a daring combatant who was ready to sanction any means to achieve his aim or target, including the assassination of terrorists.

During his time in the IDF, and especially during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Dagan was considered a confidant of General Ariel Sharon.  After Sharon became prime minister, he appointed Dagan to head the Mossad, despite some discontent expressed among the rank and file of the organization.

Dagan was known to have, at least in his early days, hawkish political views. He even joined the Likud Party.

However, during the course of his work for the Mossad, and after he left the organization, his world view became more moderate.  He urged that a peace agreement be reached with the Palestinians.  He argued with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minster Ehud Barak about various security and diplomatic issues.

While in the Mossad, and even more so afterward, Dagan expressed his opposition to a military strike on Iran.

Dagan  last year addressed a political rally of  opposition parties that called on the public not to vote for Netanyahu.

In January of last year, Dagan expressed his fears about the future of Israel.  “I don’t trust the leadership. I think that the prime minister and [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett are leading Israel to be a bi-national state, which in my eyes is a disaster and the loss of the Zionist dream.”

Dagan warned that Netanyahu was damaging Israel’s relations with the United States and bringing the ties to the brink of disaster.  That, the ex-Mossad chief insisted, could be extremely costly for Israel.

Living in the shadow of the Holocaust — even showing visitors a photograph of his grandfather being humiliated by German Nazi soldiers — he was a strong advocate that Israel must have a  strong military.  Yet he also insisted that Israel needed to nurture its friendship with the United States and make peace with its Arab neighbors.

“I want to live in a Jewish state. I don’t want to be a slave master and have second class citizens,” Dagan said.

“Unfortunately, between the Jordan River and the sea, there are more than six million Palestinians, some of whom are Israeli citizens, and more than six million Jews.  The policy that we are employing is very problematic on the Palestinian issue.  And on the matter of our behavior toward our greatest ally, the United States. I am very worried,” Dagan added.

“After [the] Yom Kippur [War], I feared for the existence of the state of Israel. If we survived that and managed to make it, I was sure that we could deal with anything. I admit today that I have difficult questions about the directionin which the Israeli leadership is leading us,” the former Mossad chief said.

 

March 17, 2016

Israel Rushed — Iran Computers Could’ve Been Sabotaged More: New Documentary, “Zero Days”

Israeli hastiness blew operation to sabotage Iran’s computers, U.S. officials say:
‘Zero Days’, Alex Gibney’s film premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, explores the joint U.S.-Israeli operation to develop the Stuxnet virus and sabotage Iran’s nuclear program
• By YOSSI MELMAN  (for Maariv and The Jerusalem Post)

If Israel were ever to bomb Iran and its nuclear facilities — according to Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and the NSA — Israel’s goal would be to drag the United States into war.

MIchael Hayden, in the film "Zero Days"

MIchael Hayden, in the film “Zero Days”

Hayden makes the remark in a documentary film premiering this week at the Berlin International Film Festival.  The film also quotes other sources in the U.S. intelligence community who accuse Israel of disrupting a joint covert operation to sabotage computers used in Iran’s nuclear program by acting rashly. The sources say Israel did not stick with the agreed-upon plan.

As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars that were invested in the operation went to waste.

The film, Zero Days, was directed by Alex Gibney, whose film Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2008.

His new film includes testimony from NSA and CIA operatives who worked together with Israeli colleagues – from the 8200 Military Intelligence Unit and Mossad – to develop several versions of a deadly virus that penetrated computers at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in Iran.  The testimony is delivered anonymously by an actress whose face remains hidden.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney

Filmmaker Alex Gibney

According to the claims in the film, the hasty Israeli action prevented the carrying out of a number of further planned actions that were intended to sabotage computers at a second, more fortified uranium enrichment facility at Fordow.

The film also reveals another planned cyber unit covert operation code-named NZ (Nitro Zeus).

“We spent millions on this operation to sabotage all of the computers of the Iranian infrastructure in the instance of a war,” a source quoted in the film said. “We penetrated the government, electricity lines, power stations and most of the infrastructure in Iran.”

As seen in "Zero Days"...

As seen in “Zero Days”…

The deadly virus that was implanted at Natanz was named “Stuxnet” by computer security experts, but it had a different name among the Israeli and American intelligence communities that was not revealed in the film. The code-name of the entire operation, as was revealed by New York Times journalist David Sanger, was “Olympic Games.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the implanting of the virus marked the first time that a country, or two countries in this case (the U.S. and Israel), engaged in cyber warfare against another country (Iran).

Up until then, the majority of attacks were carried out by individual hackers for their own enjoyment or for political purposes, by criminals for the purposes of fraud and thievery, or by companies engaged in industrial and commercial espionage.

America’s Vice President Joe Biden is quoted in the film as saying in a meeting that the Israelis “changed the code” of the deadly virus’s software.  As a result, in contravention of the plan, the virus spread from nuclear program computers to many other computers in Iran, and from there, to computers around the world — even harming the computers of American companies.

LInes of code of Stuxnet, seen in the film

LInes of code of Stuxnet, seen in the film

The unplanned spread of the virus led to the exposure of the operation.  That enabled the Iranians, with the help of information security experts from Belarus and Russia, to invent a “vaccine” for their computers to better defend the nuclear program.

According to the film, the premature exposure of the operation due to Israel’s actions also caused the virus software, which was among the most classified and most advanced in the world, to leak to Russian and Iranian intelligence.

“Ironically,” it is said in the film, “the secret formula for writing the code for the virus software fell into the hands of Russia and of Iran – the country against which it was developed.”

The development of Stuxnet and the planning of Operation Olympic Games began in 2006, during George W. Bush’s term as president.  He fervently wanted to thwart the Iranian nuclear program.

Hayden, with his long experience in both the CIA and the NSA, declares in the film that “President Bush did not want to be left with the choice of ‘to bomb or be bombed.’”

Revealed too much: Ahmadinejad's Visit to Natanz

Revealed too much: Ahmadinejad’s Visit to Natanz

According to the film, experts from both countries came up with the idea of trying to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities, and in particular their computers.  News photographs of then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the Natanz facility helped the experts obtain needed intelligence on the computers.  The computers, their configuration and their rear connections can be seen clearly in the pictures.  Eventually, these entry and exit points served as portals to implant the virus.

Iranian nuclear experts accompanied Ahmadinejad on his tour of the facility.  One of those photographed at Ahmadinejad’s side was assassinated a few years later, in an operation that was attributed to the Mossad.

On Bush’s orders, exact replicas of the centrifuges were built at the national laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which is also used to produce nuclear weapons, and at Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.  The deadly virus was implanted in the centrifuges and their rotors were damaged and broken.

Intelligence operatives brought the broken rotors to the White House situation room, showed them to President Bush and explained what the sabotage could do.  Bush was impressed, saying, “Go and try.”

He ordered a greater investment in offensive, covert cyber warfare and approved the operation.

According to the film, offensive cyber warfare against Iran was increased even more during Barack Obama’s term.  A key reason was his concern that Israel — under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak — would take military action against Iran.

Hayden reveals in the film that America’s fear was that “the real goal of an Israeli attack [against the nuclear facilities in Iran], would be to drag us into war,” because Israel’s own attack capabilities were limited.

Hayden continues: “Israel has an excellent air force, but it’s small. The distance is great and the facilities are spread throughout Iran.”

In order to calm Israel down, and to prove that the administration was working diligently to thwart an Iranian nuclear weapon, Obama ordered the intelligence community to increase its efforts and its cooperation with the Mossad and Unit 8200.

He did so despite having some doubts about the operation. Obama expressed concern that “the Chinese and the Russians will do the same thing to us,” and insert viruses into nuclear facilities and other strategic sites in the United States.

However, Obama’s greater fear was of an Israeli attack.  “The goal was to gain time,” Hayden added, “in order to force Iran to come to the negotiating table.”

According to the film, British intelligence also secretly took part in the operation through GCHQ, its unit responsible for telephone surveillance, communications interception, code-breaking, and cyber warfare.

“But the main partner was Israel,” the film says.  “And in Israel the Mossad ran the show.  8200 provided technical help.  Israel was the key to the whole story.”

In the beginning, the virus succeeded at its mission, according to the film.

“As far as we knew, but they weren’t telling us everything,” an NSA source told Alex Gibney’s team. “The virus was implanted in the computers, probably by the Mossad, through its infiltration of two software companies in Taiwan that were working with the Iranians.”

The plan was for the virus to harm the digital and computerized electric boxes made by the German company Siemens, which were hooked up to the computers that operated the centrifuges.  About a thousand of the 5,000 centrifuges were damaged without the Iranians discovering the cause of the problem.

“The plan did what it was supposed to do,” an anonymous American intelligence operative said. “The centrifuges blew up without leaving a trace.”

The sabotage operation also had a psychological goal: to instill in the Iranian leadership and in the community of scientists a feeling that they were helpless and did not understand what was happening.  An additional goal was to drive a wedge between the scientists on one side — and Iran’s political and military leadership.

It did turn out that Iranian authorities accused their experts of failure and began firing them and threatened them.

According to testimony gathered by the filmmakers, several hundred programmers, mathematicians, and computer engineers worked in Tailored Access Operations (TAO) teams at CIA headquarters and the cyber command in Fort Meade, Maryland.  Only these teams were authorized to infiltrate computers outside of the U.S., including those in Iran.

The sources quoted in the film say the U.S. and Israel developed a few different versions of the Stuxnet virus.  Each new version was more powerful than its predecessor.  The idea was to gradually implant increasingly stronger versions of the virus.

In addition, it was established that each country had the right to act independently, as long as it informed the other of its actions.  However, according to the film, as a result of pressure from Netanyahu on the chief of the Mossad to “show results,” it was decided in Israel to use the most deadly version of the virus prematurely.

“We operated at a low profile,” an NSA source said. “The Israelis, on the other hand, constantly pushed to be more aggressive.”

In this way, after the strongest version of the virus was implanted in order to increase the force of the damage to the centrifuges at Natanz, the virus, according to German information security expert Ralph Langer, began to “jump from computer to computer,” until it was out of control and unintentionally spread to thousands of computers, networks and systems, including computers in the United States.

“Our friends from Israel took a weapon that we developed jointly, among other things in order to defend Israel, and did something crazy with it, and actually blew the operation.  We were very furious,” an American source said.

The film reveals that the presidential orders of Bush and Obama to activate the cyber weapon were based on their authority to use nuclear weapons.

As a result of this American-Israeli cyber warfare, Iran began to develop and to enhance its own attack tools.  A few years ago, in revenge and as a message of deterrence, it attacked 30,000 computers belonging to the Saudi oil company Aramco and computers belonging to American banks.

Against this backdrop, the film also delves into the philosophical-theoretical issue of the world’s need to establish international treaties and rules of what’s legal and illegal in cyber warfare, like the international conventions that govern the laws of conventional warfare.

In addition to Hayden, other U.S. officials are interviewed in the film, including Richard Clarke, an anti-terrorism and cyber warfare consultant in the Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations; John C. Inglis, former deputy NSA chief; Gary Samore, formerly with the Obama National Security Council; and the head of information and computer security branch of the Department of Homeland Security.  The New York Times’ Sanger also served as consultant to the film’s director and producers.

On the Israeli side, interviews were conducted with former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, current National Infrastructure, Energy and Water and former Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, as well as the writer of this article, who also served as a consultant to the filmmakers.

Computer security experts from the American firm Symantec appear in the film, as well as the German expert Ralph Langer and Eugene Kaspersky, who is considered one of the best-known computer security experts in the world.  Kaspersky was formerly a Russian intelligence operative and is considered to have close ties to the Kremlin.

February 16, 2016

Israel’s Official Intelligence Projection — Many Dangers, No Major War on the Horizon

by Yossi Melman [written first for The Jerusalem Report]

Is the glass half empty or is it half full? That is the question one is left asking, after hearing about the contents of Israel’s NIE — the National Intelligence Estimate for 2016.  Depending on one’s point of view, or even bias, Israel’s situation can be viewed in different ways. Objective analysis shows there are risks out there, but also opportunities.

The NIE was drafted by the research department of Aman (the large Military Intelligence agency) with input from the research departments of Mossad (the external espionage agency) and the Israel Security Agency (the domestic service – known as Shin Bet). The Estimate is not published, but the major points were described by senior military officers in strictly limited briefings.

Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)

Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)

The most important part of the new report is the assessment that the probability of war this year is low. Senior military sources tell The Jerusalem Report that this applies on all fronts: from Gaza in the South to Lebanon and Syria in the North. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas have plans or any interest to initiate a war against Israel.

Hezbollah is bleeding in the killing fields of Syria.  Five years from the outbreak of the civil war there, the Lebanese Shi’ites of Hezbollah become ever more deeply embroiled in the conflict — with a permanent contingent of as many as 7,000 fighters, nearly half its conscripts, fighting alongside Iran to defend the regime of Bashar Assad.  The Russian air force has provided significant air support.

These Shi’ites from the neighboring nation also have 15,000 reservists who are called to duty for training or field missions for up to 40 days a year – similar to the IDF reserve system. So far, Hezbollah has lost nearly 1,500 soldiers, killed in action–many of whom belonged to its elite units– and more than 6,000 have been wounded.

Hezbollah’s losses are a heavy blow to its military capabilities and have dented its morale to go to war with Israel. That, of course, is good for Israel.

Furthermore, Hezbollah is suffering from a serious economic crisis. Its annual budget is estimated at around $1 billion, 70 percent of which comes from Iran and the rest from taxes and trade, mainly in drugs and contrabands of cigarettes and electronic appliances. Due to the sanctions imposed on Iran (most soon to be lifted), Tehran in recent years has had difficulties providing much financial aid to its Lebanese proxy.

In the South, Hamas has not yet recovered from the war in the Summer of 2014, which inflicted heavy casualties on its military forces and capabilities and, even more importantly, caused severe damage to the civilian population.

Since the end of that conflict, two dozen rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel. But they all landed in open areas and caused no casualties or damage. None of them was launched by Hamas. All were fired by small renegade groups, either inspired by or identifying with the Islamic State (ISIS), which oppose the Hamas regime and try to provoke Israel into attacking Hamas.

In other words, deterrence is working both vis-à-vis Hezbollah, since the 2006 war in Lebanon, and Hamas, following Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Yet, senior military sources say there is a clear understanding that “deterrence is not forever” and that it is an elusive concept.

Indeed, the NIE takes into account the potential for escalation deriving from a minor incident along the border with either Hamas or Hezbollah that could get out of hand and escalate into a major confrontation.

These scenarios take into consideration,for example, that a rocket fired from Gaza might kill several Israeli citizens. Israel then would retaliate forcefully against Hamas, which it holds responsible for the situation in Gaza. Hamas can’t stand idly by and responds; and the vicious cycle of rockets and Israel Air Force bombings rolls into another major war.

A similar scenario could apply along the northern border if Israel takes advantage of the war in Syria – as it reportedly has done on several occasions – and bombs another convoy of weapons being delivered to Hezbollah or kills another of its commanders near the Golan Heights; and Hezbollah then might retaliate with a salvo of rockets.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are preparing for these scenarios.

Despite its financial and military troubles, Hezbollah has continued its preparation for a war against Israel, amassing an impressive arsenal of nearly 100,000 rockets and missiles capable of reaching every strategic and military site in the country.

But it’s more the quality — rather than the quantity — that is a major concern for Israel. Hezbollah, with the help of Iranian experts, is working hard to improve the accuracy of its missiles.

Israeli war planners estimate that, if war breaks out, Hezbollah will try, for the first time, to dig tunnels into Israel, to shift the battle to Israeli territory and try to conquer settlements near the border.

Thus, Hezbollah is considered the main military threat against Israel. The organization is therefore the prime target for intelligence efforts to gather information about its capabilities and intentions.

“The next war will be different from the wars we’ve seen in the past 20-30 years. The conflict will be very complex,” a senior military source told The Report. “It may last many, many weeks. Hezbollah has turned the majority of its Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon into massive strongholds.”

The sources, however, warn that in case of war, Israel will take a different approach and strike, with all its force, against all Hezbollah positions including inside the villages. That, the source said, “will create a huge refugee problem in Lebanon.”

Though Hamas doesn’t want to be dragged into a new round with Israel and is not ready for it, that Gaza-based group also continues with efforts to improve its preparedness. Hamas is manufacturing rockets and prioritizing efforts to increase their range and accuracy. (In Operation Protective Edge, Hamas hit Tel Aviv and fired unsuccessfully in the direction of the northern port city of Haifa).

Though caught between Israeli and Egyptian blockades and close security and intelligence cooperation, Hamas has never given up its efforts to smuggle weapons, explosives, and rockets via tunnels between Sinai and Gaza — though that has become much more difficult. Hamas is also continuing to dig tunnels and the IDF estimates that some– probably more than 10 – are very close to the Israeli border and may penetrate inside Israel.

The NIE also notes, though in very vague words, that the changes and turmoil in the Middle East have improved Israel’s strategic posture.

Though they occasionally mention Israel in propaganda bulletins, the Islamic State movement — even the branch in Egypt’s Sinai — as well as al-Qaeda in Syria, known as Jabhat al Nusra — have no interest or intention to turn their weapons against Israel. They have other priorities and more immediate enemies.

The Middle East is characterized by the growing schism between Shi’ites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and rifts inside the Sunni world between zealots and terrorists such as Islamic State.

The Iran nuclear deal is also seen by the IDF as an opportunity of sorts, in blatant contrast to the perception and rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There are advantages to the nuclear deal,” an IDF source said. “True, a better deal could’ve been reached, and there’s a bit of frustration because the deal doesn’t take care of the Iranian involvement and efforts to increase its hegemonic aspirations in the region. But the fact is that the amount of enriched uranium has been significantly reduced, as has the number of centrifuges, and Iran’s capability to produce plutonium at its nuclear reactor in Arak has also been dismantled. These are dramatic developments with which you can’t argue.”

The intelligence estimate sees February as a critical time for Iran’s future. Elections for the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, as well as the Assembly of Experts – a small but important body that is in charge of electing or removing the Supreme Leader – will be taking place. Twelve thousand candidates registered, but the election committee disqualified 40 percent of them, eventually leaving just 30 moderate candidates.

The constant rifts and battles between the conservatives and reformists that have taken place in Iran since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, nearly 30 years ago, are reaching a peak. The elections will determine the direction Iran will take in the coming years with serious consequences not only for its own people but also for the rest of the Middle East, Israel included.

“It’s clear,” an Israeli military source said, “that the majority of the Iranian people want more freedom and openness to the West and less religiosity, but will the conservatives in the judiciary, in the religious circles and in the Revolutionary Guards allow it to happen?”

In addition, the IDF estimates that Iran is set to receive tens of billions of dollars from its frozen bank accounts abroad and from the lifting of sanctions. Most of the money will be invested in improving the economy. Some will be used to cover past debts. Nevertheless, oil prices have dramatically dropped from more than$100 per barrel to under $30, endangering Iran’s hopes for quick economic recovery

Yet, Iran hasn’t given up the dream of regional hegemony. It will use some of its bonanza to fund Hamas and attempt to gain a foothold in the West Bank. It is also guiding and paying for terrorist infrastructures in the Syrian Golan Heights.

Military Intelligence and Mossad will continue to monitor Iran to follow its expansionist aspirations and to make sure it doesn’t violate its commitments under the nuclear deal.

Regarding the Palestinians,the NIE is also not fully in sync with the government led by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

The estimate talks about a high potential for escalation in the West Bank if the peace process is not resumed. The IDF hopes that the government will at least continue with its current policy of economic incentives by allowing 120,000 Palestinians to work in Israel and in Jewish settlements — and that the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas will continue to permit the cooperation of its security agencies with Shin Bet and the IDF.

Whether all of the above should be seen as cause for optimism or pessimism is a test of one’s worldview.

February 3, 2016

In-Depth on the New Mossad Chief: Action Man Turns Strategist — Yossi Cohen’s Test Starts Now

[This article was written for The Jerusalem Report, a magazine published by The Jerusalem Post, by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and other books, including the current history of the Mossad and Israeli security agencies: Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]

Yossi Cohen is taking over (on January 6) at Mossad headquarters in Glilot, north of Tel Aviv, as the intelligence organization’s twelfth director.  He is replacing Tamir Pardo who retires after 35 year in the agency, five of them as its head.

Yossi Cohen, Israel's new top spymaster

Yossi Cohen, Israel’s new top spymaster

For the last two and half years Cohen served as national security adviser to the prime minister and as head of the National Security Council. This capacity and proximity to Benjamin Netanyahu gave him the edge over two other senior Mossad officials in the running for the job.

Netanyahu trusts Cohen and assigned him secret and sensitive missions; among them mending relations with Turkey; improving ties with the Obama administration, which he did via his good contacts with his American counterpart Susan Rice; and clandestine meetings with Arab leaders and officials.

Cohen is 54 years old. He is a typical product of the Mossad, where he has served in various operational and managerial capacities since 1983; but he was not a typical recruit. He was born in Jerusalem in 1961 to a right-wing religious family with roots going back eight generations in the city. He graduated from schools affiliated with the National Religious movement, which is today represented by the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party.

When Cohen joined the Mossad as a young cadet it was rare to see a religious candidate wearing a kippa (yarmulka). Cohen, who later stopped wearing a head covering, was the only religious cadet in his class and as a result was the brunt of many jokes.

The Mossad, at the time, was practically off limits to people like him.

As years went by, he was labelled “The Model” by journalists for his dapper suits — with headline writers recently dubbing him “James Bond 007″ — in stark contrast to the typically informal Israeli dress sense.

Cohen was communicative, charming, easygoing, focused and manipulative; all the traits needed to be a good case officer, known in Mossad parlance as “katsa,” the Hebrew acronym for a collection officer.  A Mossad case officer is expected to be able to establish contact with potential agents, and if successful in recruiting an agent, running that agent and extracting the required information the agent may possess. The case officer’s main responsibility is in the field known as HUMINT — human intelligence.

Cohen rose through the espionage agency’s rank and file. He began as a low-level case officer running Arab agents in Europe and later became chief of a Mossad station, operating from the Israeli embassy in a major Western European city. After returning to Israel he was appointed by Meir Dagan, then Mossad chief, as head of the Tzomet (Junction) department in charge of case officers and their agents.

Meir Dagan on CBS's "60 Minutes," 2012

Meir Dagan on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” 2012

Cohen was in charge of covert actions against Iran and its nuclear program.

The years 2006-2010 — before Dagan retired and was replaced by Pardo — were the heyday of Mossad operations to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb.

Dagan put Cohen in charge of these efforts. From his Tzomet office he ran a special operations center that coordinated with all the other relevant departments.

During that period at least five key Iranian nuclear scientists were killed – their deaths were attributed by foreign sources to the Mossad – a few more wounded and probably many more warned that they would be well advised to stop working for the secret military project.

The Mossad, together with the U.S. National Security Agency, was also said to have created the Stuxnet computer worm which targeted systems running the centrifuges in the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran: a cyberattack that caused severe damage.

Other operations included preventing shipments from reaching Iran; either by damaging the equipment at the port of departure; or by threatening companies not to do business with Iran, or by asking local security services to intercept the shipments.

Another important operation during these years was the killing in 2008 in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh ,  the “Defense Minister” of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite-Lebanese organization. According to American media, the assassination was a joint Mossad-CIA operation but other foreign sources claim that though the CIA was privy to the planning and intention, its operational role was marginal and most of the work was “blue and white” – the colors of the Israeli flag.

mossad, kidon, spies against armageddon, israel covert operations, Iran nuclear

Mossad’s official logo

Yet, Cohen’s team was not immune to failure. The most damaging  of his failures was the case of Ben Zygier, an Australian Jew who was recruited to work for a European-based front company of the Mossad, which while selling equipment to Iran tried to penetrate its nuclear program. Zygier boasted about his role and exposed the operation. Agents had to be recalled and tens of millions of dollars were wasted. Zygier was jailed, and he committed suicide in an Israeli prison in 2010, causing some fuss when the case was publicized in the media.

It is hard to assess whether the daring Mossad operations, combined with international sanctions, prevented Iran from assembling a nuclear bomb or whether Tehran made a well calculated decision to stop short of an actual weapon.  Either way, Iranian scientists and military men have already mastered the know-how and acquired the technology, equipment and materials necessary to build a bomb should they decide to do so.

All these anti-Iran operations were carried out simultaneously and required above all agents in the right places, who needed solid and accurate information.  Although the reasons cannot be revealed, in 2011, then president Shimon Peres granted Cohen and his Tzomet team the Israel Security Award, and in the same year he was also promoted to deputy head of the Mossad.

Cohen’s return to the organization where he spent most of his career is being well received. Cohen knows the agency and most of its staff inside out.

The Mossad’s organizational behavior and culture are rooted in years of experience and meticulous care to detail, but the spy agency needs to be responsive and flexible in order to meet the challenges of the new Middle East reality.

This is a region where several states – Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya – are at various stages of collapse; American power and influence are dwindling and Russia is taking full advantage; new actors, such as ISIS and the Kurds are emerging, and the Sunni-Shia rift is widening.

These new realities create opportunities but also risks for Mossad’s new head. Although his years heading the prime minister’s National Security Council helped to upgrade his strategic understanding, Cohen is more of a skillful operative than a thinker and will have his work cut out for him.

Netanyahu decided (government photo)

Netanyahu decided (government photo)

Cohen wants to make the Mossad more combative and daring than it was under Pardo and return to the “good old days” when Dagan led the organization.

He strongly believes, like Netanyahu, that Iran remains Israel’s enemy number one – that it continues to support terrorism and has never abandoned its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. One of his major tasks will be to monitor and to verify that Iran is not once again deceiving the international community and violating the July 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers.

Cohen will also continue to carry out — on behalf of Netanyahu, often authorized solely by the prime minister — sensitive missions. These may include delivering messages to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey. Netanyahu hopes to establish an anti-Iranian coalition with those countries, but their leaders are reluctant to go out into the open and be seen in the company of Israel unless there is progress on the Palestinian issue.

The Mossad has no input on the Palestinian issue, perhaps Israel’s most challenging front.

Colleagues who know Cohen from their work in the agency say that from an early stage he dreamed of reaching the top. Now his dream has come true, and his test will be to provide the prime minister who appointed him a true picture of the reality faced by Israel — and not one that is tainted by politics.

January 5, 2016

Simmering Crises Surround Israel: U.N. in New York is One Battleground Among Many

In the weeks following Congress’s refusal to block the Iran nuclear deal, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to reshuffle his deck of diplomatic cards.

Among other aspects of the current game plan are these:

–Netanyahu will give his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday, Oct. 1, two days after the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s speech.  Abbas has promised a “bombshell,” which probably has something to do with declaring an independent State of Palestine even without agreed borders or sovereignty.  But, frankly, no one knows if anything significant will be said by either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader.

–Russia has begun a military buildup in Syria.  Netanyahu, alarmed that Russian and Israeli forces could somehow get into an unintended conflict in Syrian airspace, made a lightning-quick one-day visit to President Vladimir Putin.  Israeli military and intelligence chiefs went along on the trip, and one result was an arrangement to prevent collisions or hostile encounters.

Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)

Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)

Israel reiterated that its interests in Syria center mostly on preventing the transfer of “advanced weapons systems” to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Yet when it was reported that Russia might be giving Syria’s army some tanks — and perhaps those could be passed on to Hezbollah — Israeli tacticians said they were unconcerned: Tanks are easily seen and hit; and it seems unlikely Hezbollah will deploy them.

–Israel needs a new national police chief, and the leading candidate for the job now is a man known publicly as “R” (the Hebrew letter reysh) — a reminder that identifying employees of Shin Bet (the domestic security agency also known as Shabak) continues to be illegal under Israel’s rickety, leaking censorship regulations.  “R” is Shin Bet’s deputy director, and it is somewhat interesting that he was considered to be the likely successor to the current director — Yoram Cohen.  It is legal to name the heads of the intelligence and security agencies.

–In Gaza, the Hamas leadership claims several of its senior radicals vanished while traveling through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.  Hamas says it has concluded that they are now held secretly in Israeli prisons; adding that Egyptian military commandos snatched the men and handed them to Israel; or Israeli special forces swooped into the Sinai and grabbed them.  No comment from Israel, but it certainly could be true.

–On November 9 at the White House, President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  It is obvious that they will have to kiss and make up — to a degree — after their sharp, public disagreements over the nuclear deal with Iran.

Obama’s Democratic Party is concerned that the Republicans are making huge progress in winning votes among Americans who care deeply about Israel: whether Jewish, or not.  Obama also wants to decrease the chance that Israel will stage a military strike on Iran — which he would see as dangerous destabilization.  So he is expected to offer significant security and military aid to Israel.  We wait to see how Netanyahu handles the offer and the vital Israel-U.S. relationship.

(A self-serving reminder of our book chronicling the history of that from 1948 to 1994: Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.)

September 27, 2015

Did Netanyahu and Barak Truly Intend to Bomb Iran in 2010 and 2012? Barak Wants Us to Think So…

[This post is based on an article written by Yossi Melman — co-author of Spies Against Armageddon — for The Jerusalem Post newspaper.]

An Israeli TV station played audio recordings of Ehud Barak — the former prime minister who served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense minister until March 2013 — in which Barak reminisces about three occasions in which Israel almost dispatched its air force to bomb Iranian nuclear sites.

As for why no attack took place, Barak blames the then-military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, his successor Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and cabinet ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Yuval Steinitz, all of whom opposed a strike on Iran.

According to Barak associates, he feels betrayed by Ilan Kfir and Danny Dor – the authors of a Hebrew-language biography of the former defense minister. Barak let them record interviews, to help their writing process. But the tapes were never supposed to be played publicly.

Barak's official photo while prime minister

Barak’s official photo while prime minister

Prior to the report on Israel’s Channel 2, Barak tried to prevent the airing of the audio clips. He appealed to the Military Censor’s Office, which rejected his request to bar the broadcast. Once Barak revealed information about secret cabinet discussions to journalists, the question of whether he intended to have his position aired publicly is a secondary one – and certainly is not one that concerns the censor.

Even if he did not intend for the information to emerge in audio format, Barak intended to have his opinion known by the public. He is trying to shape the historical narrative by portraying himself as the figure who pushed hardest in favor of a strike on Iran – only to be overruled by the cabinet ministers and military commanders who opposed such a move.

According to Barak, General Ashkenazi told him in 2010 that the IDF simply did not have the operational capacity to execute an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In 2011, Ashkenazi was succeeded as chief of staff by Gantz, who told Barak that the military did indeed have the operational “maturity” for a strike.

benny gantz, israel spy, covert operations, Iran nuclear, Israel-U.S.

Benny Gantz (courtesy IDF)

While Gantz made it clear that the IDF would carry out any directive issued to it by the civilian leadership, he was convinced that an attack was unnecessary.

Barak also said that he was surprised to see ministers Ya’alon and Steinitz “melt” at the last minute after he was led to believe by Netanyahu that the two men supported an attack plan.

Ya’alon and Steinitz instead chose to side with the opposing cabinet ministers – Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. As a result, Netanyahu and Barak were left without the necessary majority in the inner, security cabinet to back an attack.

A year later, Barak and Netanyahu tried again to convince the cabinet to approve an attack plan. This time, weather considerations limited the possible “windows of opportunity” to attack. There were two possible windows, but one of them coincided with a large-scale military exercise with the U.S. military (May to July 2012). The other was around the time of the U.S. presidential election in November 2012.

Barak’s comments should not be taken as absolute truth. They are just one version of events.

Other versions that have not been aired publicly include that of former Mossad director Meir Dagan, and those of Gantz and Ashkenazi themselves. Dagan and Ashkenazi have hinted that Netanyahu and Barak acted in a manipulative fashion on the Iran issue.

There was one claim, first reported by Ma’ariv, according to which Barak told the cabinet that he was personally informed by then-CIA chief Leon Panetta that the Obama administration had reversed its opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran.

When the Americans were informed of Barak’s claim, they were furious. They sent a special emissary to Israel with the exact transcript of the Panetta-Barak conversation in question.

Barak and Netanyahu allegedly went ahead, however, by instructing the chief of staff to “get the system activated” — in effect, to prepare for war.

That would involve mobilization of military reserves and ordering the air force, intelligence services, and home front authorities to take a number of preemptive measures.

“Activating the system” could take more than a month. It could lead to a “miscalculation.”

The risk is that Iran would notice these preparations and launch preemptive actions that would threaten to drag the entire Middle East, as well as the United States, into a regional war.

Was that what Barak and Netanyahu intended? Such a possibility should not be ruled out.

These conflicting versions of events remind one of the Japanese movie Rashomon, in which a number of characters recall events, each through his own lens. The narratives often contradict.

The truth may only be known 70 years from now, if at all, when official records of the meetings are made public. That is not a sure thing. In the most sensitive, secret discussions, there are those who seem talented at directing the conversations — and composing the transcript of meetings — with an eye to the history books.

Even if we were to believe Barak, it’s difficult to be swayed.

If the prime minister and the defense minister really wanted to win cabinet approval for a decision to attack Iran, they could have overcome ministerial opposition. Never in the history of the State of Israel has a determined, dominant prime minister been prevented from getting government approval for his decisions – especially those relating to existential issues – by opposition from other ministers.

One is left wondering whether Netanyahu and Barak really wanted to attack – or whether it was all bluff. If indeed it were a bluff, it was a successful one. They played a game of “Hold me back” with the Israeli public and – more importantly – with the Americans.

One effect was the pressure felt by President Obama to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis — out of concern that Israel might strike and spark a regional war. The result has apparently been an “unintended consequence,” from Netanyahu’s point of view: a nuclear deal with Iran that he considers dangerous.

August 25, 2015

Israel’s New 5-Year “Gideon” Plan for the Military: Iran Nuclear is “A Done Deal” — Where Israel is Adding Strength

[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Report by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon — a history of Israeli intelligence and security.]

In mid-July, IDF Chief-of-Staff  Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot met with military reporters and briefed them off the record on the latest local and regional developments. He also presented a new five-year plan “Gideon”, named after the Israelite judge-warrior who was instructed by God to battle the Midianites and destroy their idols.

The Gideon plan has two purposes: First to avoid cuts and, in fact, obtain yet another increase in the defense budget – currently around NIS 60 billion ($15.3 billion), not final and still growing – at the expense of welfare, education, health and all the other national necessities. Gideon is also another effort – the fourth in recent years – to obtain approval from the government to implement long-term planning. So far, due to never-ending dispute and bickering between the ministries of Defense and Finance various long-term plans have either been rejected or not authorized.

Israel's Top General, Gadi Eizenkot

Israel’s Top General, Gadi Eizenkot

In mid-August, the Chief of Staff’s briefing turned into an official, but sanitized, 33-page document titled “IDF Strategy”. Though the document does not state it in so many words, what emerges is the fact that the Israel Defense Forces is the strongest military structure in the entire region, which spreads from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

The “IDF Strategy” is meant “to serve as a guideline to the IDF and is based on vital national interests and agreed notions of national security and the military thinking and practice.”

Already in 2007, then-minister Dan Meridor wrote a very lengthy and detailed security doctrine defining the “National Goals” for the State of Israel:

  1. To ensure the existence of the state, defend its territorial integrity and the security of its citizens. [It’s worth noting, however, that Israel has never defined its borders.]
  2. To preserve its values and nature as a Jewish and democratic state and home to the Jewish people.
  3. To ensure the social and economic strength of the state.
  4. To strengthen the regional and international status of the state while aspiring to have peace with its neighbors.

Here, it should be noted that while the pursuit of peace is mentioned by the IDF, judging from the actions over the last three years taken by the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it seems that peace with the Palestinian Authority is no longer a possibility.

“IDF Strategy” accepts and reaffirms these four principles. It also acknowledges that, in a democratic state, the military is subjected to the supremacy of the government. Yet, interestingly enough, the document goes beyond this obvious imperative – it states that the IDF obligation is not only to the elected government and Knesset, but also to society and citizens of the state who elect their representatives and ministers. Since he was appointed Chief of Staff less than a year ago, Eizenkot has stressed, on several occasions, that “the people’s trust” is an important element of the way the IDF works, operates and sets its goals. “We have to be sensible” in our demands and “sensitive to other needs of society.”

According to the document, the security doctrine is based on four pillars. Three are as old as the state and were already defined by the first prime minister David Ben-Gurion: deterrence, early warning and decisive outcome. A fourth pillar – defense – was officially added a decade ago.

All in all, the IDF sees its mission as repelling and neutralizing threats, creating effective deterrence; postponing confrontation, if possible, but also to use both defensive and offensive strategies and utilize force in the most determined and effective way, while respecting international law and the rules of war. The IDF also emphasizes the importance of strategic cooperation with the US and the development of strategic ties with other countries.

In the document and in Eizenkot’s briefing, it is clearly stated that, like other nations in the region, Israel was taken by surprise by the spontaneous events of the “Arab Spring” of 2010-2011. As a result, Military Intelligence has since put a lot of emphasis on trying to understand the “zeitgeist,” creating and beefing up research departments that deal with and monitor the social media in Arab states and Iran.

The Arab Spring is now described by the IDF as an “Arab Shakeup,” which relates to the unexpected twists in its results. “The old order has collapsed,” said Eizenkot. Four countries – Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq ‒ are shaped by civil war and the decline of central government.

Egypt barely escaped the same fate due to the determination of its military and the backing of a broad base of civilian society that holds onto a sense of national cohesion.

Egypt, ruled by President Fattah al-Sisi, a former chief of staff and defense minister, which has in the last two years strengthened its military and intelligence ties with Israel, is facing a growing challenge of daring terror attacks in the Sinai Peninsula. The most prominent terror group is Ansar Beit al Maqdis, which less than a year ago pledged its allegiance to the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” of the Islamic State (ISIS). The group now calls itself Sinai district of the Islamic State, in return for financial support. This danger emanating from Sinai has brought Israel and Egypt closer. Indeed, as “IDF Strategy” notes ISIS “is a new and amazing phenomenon that no one anticipated.”

The changes in the Middle East are strongly reflected in the IDF’s strategy document. It contends that the non-conventional weapons threat to Israel has been reduced because of the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and the dismantling of chemical and nuclear programs in the last two decades in Iraq and Libya.

Instead, Israel is confronted by the rising strength of “non-state actors” such as ISIS and other terror groups like Jabhat al Nusra (Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria) and formations on Israeli borders in the south and on the Golan Heights in the north.

“IDF Strategy” also perceives Hezbollah and Hamas as dangerous enemies in possession of nearly 100,000 missiles and rockets that can be directed at almost any military or strategic site in Israel.

Interestingly, Iran is mentioned only twice in the document, which describes it as a “threat” to Israel mainly because of its support of terror groups in the region.

But there is no reference to Iran’s nuclear program ‒ in sharp contrast to the government and Netanyahu who have made the “Iranian threat” the number one priority of their policy and political agenda.

In private sessions, Eizenkot and his top military commanders have criticized the nuclear deal reached recently between the world powers and Iran, but also acknowledge that it contains positive elements. Above all, the senior military commanders say privately, it is a done deal, at least for the 10-year duration of the agreement — unless Iran is caught red-handed, once again cheating.

Accordingly, the IDF has been trying to adjust itself to the emerging reality. Since 1985, it has reduced the number of tanks by 75 percent and its warplanes (usually old and outdated) by 50 percent.

On the other hand, it has invested more money to extend the submarine fleet (soon to be at six), which according to foreign reports, is capable of launching nuclear missiles, thus creating for Israel a “second nuclear strike capability.”

Also, in the last two decades, it has increased by 400 percent the number of drones in its possession and has improved intelligence and cyber capabilities.

“IDF Strategy” is an important document, but not a revolutionary one. In a way, it states the obvious, reflecting in an honest and accurate manner the challenges, risks and opportunities facing Israel. Its main problem, however, is that in many parts it doesn’t reflect the attitudes, beliefs and practices of the government.

August 23, 2015

Russia Will Now Sell Advanced Anti-Aircraft Missile System to Iran — A Game-Changer Preventing an Israeli or US Attack?

by YOSSI MELMAN

(The co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli intelligence and security, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.)

This time it’s final. After nearly a decade of delays, suspensions, pressures, and tough international battles, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and the state-owned manufacturer Almaz-Anety now confirm that the sale of ground-to-air S-300 missile systems to Iran is a done deal.

What is still to be determined is the scope of the deal – whether three or four batteries will be sold.

There is here a great deal of irony. For nearly a decade Israeli prime ministers pushed hard at the gates of the Kremlin and urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to sell the advanced missile and radar system to Tehran.

Until recently it seemed that the Israeli lobbying — backed by a U.S. tailwind — was paying off. Despite a signed contract and an advance payment, Russia found excuses not to honor the deal with Iran and even announced that it wouldn’t deliver the systems.

But now that the missile deal is under way — in the wake of the deal reached in Vienna to restrict Iran’s nuclear program — the depth of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure is exposed.

This story has several layers. The nuclear deal is a major part of it. In his opposition to the emerging agreement with Iran, Netanyahu designed a policy of “all out” on all international fronts. He embarked on a collision course with the President Barack Obama. He tried to appease Putin. He kept pummeling European politicians with stories likening Iran’s hostility to the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Netanyahu acted like a gambler with no exit strategy or fallback position.

But Obama and Putin, in the end, ignored him. Netanyahu’s miscalculations pushed Israel into an undesirable position. It had little influence on the content of the nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers. It also left Israel with no levers to influence Russia or modify its decision to go ahead with the missile deal.

It didn’t have to be this way. A more cautious and sensible approach by Netanyahu would not have prevented the nuclear deal, but it could have given Israel a chance to influence its outcome and ensure the drafting of tougher clauses regarding the inspection of Iranian nuclear sites.

It was recently revealed that the world powers caved in, by leaving some of the inspection rules up to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA, according to a secret side deal, will let Iranians provide photos, videos, and environmental samples from the Parchin site — although the IAEA says it will always be supervising and verifying that what it is handed is authentic.

Netanyahu Could've Influenced the Iran Deal

Netanyahu Could’ve Influenced the Iran Deal

Such verification is unlikely to be reliable.  Israeli and U.S. intelligence say Iran, in the Parchin military base, conducted unlawful experiments to test nuclear chain reactions — simulating, in effect, nuclear explosions.

Had Netanyahu been more measured and surgical in his public opposition to the nuclear deal, he may have been able to reach a secret understanding with Putin about which arms to sell to Iran and which should not be delivered.

Now it’s too late. The sale of the S-300 batteries is a game-changer.

The batteries belong to a family of missiles and radars that were first developed and manufactured by the Soviet Union in the mid ’70s and deployed by the Red Army in 1979. Since then, new generations and models have been upgraded and turned into one of the best of its kind.

True, what Russia agreed to deliver is not the state of the art in this line of batteries. There are already more advanced versions operated only by the Russian army.

But still, what Russia is selling is disturbingly good — providing sufficient grounds to be highly concerned. The battery’s radar is capable of detecting and spotting hostile warplanes at a distance of hundreds of kilometers — and then lock in and accurately launch guided missiles.

Iran is sure to deploy the batteries to defend its nuclear sites. Their presence will make it much more difficult for any air force – be it Israeli or American – to operate, if one day in the future a decision will be made to attack Iran.

President Obama himself has said that “the military option” is very much alive, if Iran violates the nuclear deal and “breaks out” to produce nuclear bombs.

Yet, despite the importance of the deal, the skies are not going to fall. In the cat and mouse game between an attacker and defender, the attacker almost always has the upper hand.

There is no doubt that the Israeli and American air forces will find a way, with clever technological and operational solutions, to circumvent the S-300 systems.

The Israeli and U.S. militaries, perhaps even working together, will be able to execute a mission — if so ordered by their governments.

The Russian deal also has larger implications. Just as we already witness long queues of international corporations courting Iran for lucrative deals in the civilian sectors, once sanctions are lifted next year, we can expect the same in the military field.

It is reported that China is thinking about selling Iran fighter planes, whichincidentally and ironically are equipped with Israeli-made avionics,including radars. These components were produced by Israel Aircraft Industries (now called Israel Aerospace Industries) 30 or so years ago for the Lavi project, the Israeli self-produced fighter plane. In the mid-’80s, under U.S. pressure, Israel canceled the project and sold some of its technological innovations to the apartheid regime of South Africa and to Communist China. The Chinese built their own J-10 fighter plane, based on the Israeli technology.

But will Iran have one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the region? No.

Despite enhanced Iranian efforts to use the nuclear deal as a launching pad to improve and modernize its armed forces, the ayatollahs will still be lagging behind their rivals and enemies in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have much better and more advanced military hardware, and are now negotiating with the U.S. for packages to compensate them for perceived, added dangers from the Iran nuclear deal. And money is not a problem for the Gulf countries.

As for Israel, its defense forces — the IDF — continue to be the strongest military force in the region. Israeli weapons developers are the most innovative on earth. Also, despite political annoyance at Israel’s prime minister, President Obama has pledged to maintain — and even increase — the QME: Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge” in the Middle East.

Even when Iran gets the S-300 anti-aircraft system and other military acquisitions, it will be no match for Israel.

August 23, 2015

Nuclear Irony: Roots of US Strategy Ignoring Israel’s Nukes Revealed in Documents

[This post is based on an article written for The Jerusalem Post newspaper by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli espionage and security, Spies Against Armageddon.]

Israel and the United States worked together to formulate the Jewish State’s nuclear doctrine, archival documents released Tuesday by the US State Department reveal.

The documents detail the secret discussions that took place on Israel’s nuclear program between officials of the two countries.

We would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device,” one of the US memos declares.

The documents reveal that — according to American intelligence — Israel planned to have ten Jericho surface-to-surface missiles (based on a French missile) equipped with nuclear warheads.

The publication of the documents comes as part of a routine release of historical information by the Department of State. However, the timing of the revelations — against the background of the disagreement between Israel and the US over the nuclear agreement with Iran — gives them extra resonance.

There are those who would claim that the timing of the release is not a coincidence, and is in fact intended to embarrass Israel, which staunchly opposes the deal with Iran.

Perhaps pointing to Israel’s unacknowledged — by widely known — nuclear arsenal is an attempt to undermine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues in his efforts to persuade Congress to reject President Barack Obama’ cherished deal with Iran.  Netanyahu argues that the Islamic Republic, partly because it supports terrorist groups, cannot be allowed to keep a nuclear infrastructure.

According to the American documents now released, which cover events from 1969 to 1972, Israel was asked to provide a written obligation neither to arm its Jericho surface-to-surface missiles with nuclear warheads nor to deploy them.

Up until that point, the official policy of Israel — enunciated to the US in the early 1960s by then-deputy defense minister Shimon Peres  — was: “We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region.”

This policy has been defined up until the present day as the hallmark of Israel’s “nuclear ambiguity.”

As a result of the “not be the first” pledge, it was agreed during the administration of President John F. Kennedy that American inspectors would visit — once or twice a year — the nuclear reactor in Dimona where, according to US suspicions, fissile material for a nuclear bomb was being made.

Golda Meir Visits Nixon and Kissinger

Golda Meir Visits Nixon and Kissinger

However, in 1969, as a result of the Six-Day War and on the background of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union — as well as efforts to promote negotiations between Israel and the Arab countries — the administration of President Richard Nixon looked to formulate a new approach centered on preventing, or at least limiting, the further development of Israel’s nuclear program.

The Nixon administration asked Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel had agreed several years beforehand to join the treaty — first signed by other nations in 1968 and in effect as of 1970.  However, Israel employed stalling tactics in order to get out of that obligation.

In secret meetings attended by officials of the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, and Nixon’s National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, American officials discussed how the US would react to a potential attack on Israel by the Soviet Union, which was arming the major Arab nations.

The Nixon administration established a special committee to explore the issues. The committee determined that “our goal is to convince Israel to join the NPT by the end of the year. And to ratify the treaty.”

Later, a meeting was set up between administration officials and then-Israeli ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. According to the documents, Israel was asked “to provide us with written assurances that it will stop creating and will not deploy Jericho missiles or other strategic missiles with nuclear warheads.”

Israel was developing into a pro-American ally, yet there was an assumption that — on nuclear matters — Israel would cheat.  One document expresses American concern that even if Israel joins the NPT, it is liable to continue covertly producing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Kissinger wrote in a memo: “We judge that the introduction of nuclear weapons into the Near East would increase the dangers in an already dangerous situation and therefore not be in our interest. Israel has 12 surface-to-surface missiles delivered from France. It has set up a production line and plans by the end of 1970 to have a total force of 24–30, ten of which are programmed for nuclear warheads.”..

Kissinger also pointed out: “When the Israelis signed the contract buying the Phantom aircraft [from the US] last November, they committed themselves ‘not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons’ into the Near East. But it was plain from the discussion that they interpreted that to mean they could possess nuclear weapons as long as they did not test, deploy, or make them public.

“In signing the contract, we wrote Rabin saying that we believe mere ‘possession’ constitutes ‘introduction’ and that Israel’s introduction of nuclear weapons by our definition would be cause for us to cancel the contract.”

Kissinger claimed that the vow not to “introduce” was not enough, because Israeli officials took this to mean that they could have nuclear weapons as long as they didn’t carry out tests, deploy or make the issue public.

And so, a Kissinger memo suggested the United States would demand a new Israeli pledge: “Reaffirm to the US in writing the assurance that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Near East, specifying that ‘introduction’ shall mean possession of nuclear explosive devices. [For our own internal purposes, we would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device.]  Give us assurances in writing that it will stop production and will not deploy ‘Jericho’ missiles or any other nuclear-capable strategic missile. [NOTE: I do not believe we can ask Israel not to produce missiles. Israel is sovereign in this decision, and I do not see how we can ask it not to produce a weapon just because we do not see it as an effective weapon without nuclear warheads. We might persuade them not to deploy what they produce on grounds that the rest of the world will believe that the missiles must have nuclear warheads.]”

Re-read that paragraph, written by Henry Kissinger on July 19, 1969, to consider the irony of the current issues with Iran: whether Iranian work on ballistic missiles and other military systems can indeed by prevented — whether as part of a nuclear restriction agreement or otherwise.

Did Israel make the commitment that Kissinger intended to demand in 1969 (six months after Nixon took office as president)? That is not clear from the documents just released.

Yet the fact is — as a result of a visit to the US by then-prime minister Golda Meir and her meeting with Nixon — the US stopped its inspections of the Dimona reactor in 1969.

In later foreign reports, it was claimed that ambassador Rabin and Meir promised that, in exchange for a halt to the inspections, Israel agreed not to be the first to deploy or arm nuclear weapons, and likely vowed not to conduct nuclear bomb tests.

To this day, Israel has yet to join the NPT, and it is believed to be, according to multiple foreign reports, the sixth biggest nuclear power in the world with a stockpile numbering around 100 nuclear warheads.

August 18, 2015

What Does Netanyahu Really Want? AIPAC Pushes Congress to Vote “No” — See Dan Raviv

Dan Raviv, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, a history of Israeli intelligence and security agencies, appeared on the CBS News television broadcast “Up To The Minute,” analyzing the nuclear deal with Iran — and why Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is so vociferous in his opposition.

Also — this coming week, when Defense Secretary Ash Carter visits Israel — will significant U.S. “security compensation” be offered to Israel?

Watch the video from CBS News:

 

August 11, 2015

Israel Could Claim Some of the Credit for Delaying (at least) Iran’s Nuclear Bomb — but Chooses to Complain Bitterly

Tuesday (July 14) was historic and memorable, to be sure.  Israel was not able to persuade the United States and other world powers to walk away from a deal with Iran, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately branded the agreement “a mistake of historic proportions.”  

The tradition, in U.S.-Israel relations, is that — when the Israelis feel their security is diminished by something that America is doing — Israel requests and receive new security systems, weapons, intelligence, or even cash as a form of compensation from Washington.

Congress, where Israel has many supporters and sympathizers, will give the Iran nuclear deal a vigorous 60-day review.  As Republicans have the majority on both the Senate and the House, a vote to reject the deal may well succeed.  But then, as President Obama has already declared publicly, he would cast his veto.  Congress almost surely will not vote by two-thirds majorities to override that veto.

Yet the divisions and suspicions will persist.  The effort to restrict Iran’s nuclear work peacefully will be an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.  But the deal will almost surely be a reality.

The analysis (below) is based on an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books including Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance, also co-authored with Dan Raviv.  Note, near the beginning of the article, the Israeli minister’s eye-winking reference to Israel’s own nuclear capability.

In 2007 an Israeli cabinet minister told senior military officials that if a country wants nuclear weapons nothing will stop it.

“I know at least one country that did it,” he remarked.  He had just heard them agree on a strategy to do everything to keep Iran from getting the bomb.

Instead, he advised them to focus on delaying the nuclear program and to ask the U.S. for significant compensation.

Eight years later,  one can say that due to its successful diplomacy, sabotage and assassination operations attributed to Mossad and its demand for sanctions, Israel managed — so far — to prevent Iran from reaching the bomb.

It seems, though, that what Iran really wanted was to be a nuclear-threshold state and not to assemble warheads.  Thus one could say that Iran has succeeded in its goal — for now.

Of course, Israel was not alone in these efforts; it was an impressive international group that presented a unified front.

Another Israeli government could have appropriated the nuclear agreement as its victory. It could have said that as a result of wise diplomacy combined with daring covert actions, Iran was brought to its knees and forced it to sit down, negotiate and compromise on its nuclear program. Tehran had refused to do that from 2002 to 2013.

If we accept the calculations of the U.S. and other teams that negotiated the deal in Vienna, it will lengthen the amount of time it would take for Iran to amass fissile materials and produce a bomb to at least one year — for at least the 10-year term of the agreement.

It’s estimated that before Iran agreed to talk and clinch the interim agreement it was just two to three months from the bomb. The number of centrifuges of the old and outdated models at the uranium-enrichment sites in Natanz and Fordow will be reduced to a third of the current inventory: to 6,000 from 19,000.

Iran is forbidden to enrich uranium above 3.6%; its enriched uranium will be dwindled from 10 tons to a mere 300 kg.; and the nuclear reactor in Arak will be redesigned and won’t be able to produce sufficient plutonium as fissile material.

As for international inspection, even if it is not sufficiently intrusive, it still will be tighter than it is now.

If Iran honors the deal, the chance of a nuclear race in the Middle East by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will be slimmer.

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

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

But Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has decided to take a different path. Instead of working hand-in-hand with the international effort to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and claiming victory, it has preferred to stand alone.

Israel is opposed to the agreement. To any agreement with Iran, a lethal foe that declares it wants the Jewish State wiped off the map.

But Netanyahu tried to create a wedge between the US president and Congress and failed.  Israel exaggerated the Iranian threat and portrayed it in monstrous proportions.

Netanyahu was ridiculed, this week, for a tweet in which he declared that Iran not only aspires to impose its hegemony in the region, but to control the entire world.

True, it may have been better for Israel if the world were to keep harsh sanctions on Iran forever — strangling its economy until it surrendered all of its nuclear facilities, if one believes that Iran would ever have done that.

In any event,  Israel is not the center of the universe. The big powers have their own interests and sometimes they don’t listen to Israeli warnings — just as Israel, in many instances, is not attentive to requests from other nations, including its allies; for example, on the Palestinian question.

The nuclear deal is far from perfect, but the skies are not going to fall tomorrow.

Israel remains the strongest and most technologically advanced state in the Middle East. And, according to foreign reports that Israel declines to confirm, it has an impressive arsenal of nuclear warheads.

It is also true that lifting the sanctions will help revive the Iranian economy. But, according to estimates by US economists, the recovery will be slow. It is very unlikely that a dramatic shift in Iran’s rush for regional hegemony will be seen. Its ambitions are already high.

The deal will not increase Iran’s grip on Hezbollah, which is already full. Its support for terrorist groups and its subversive attempts to undermine and destabilize countries will not necessarily be enhanced. They are already in full gear.

These efforts, after all, are a double-edged sword. The more Iran intervenes in other countries’ domestic problems, the likelier it will be bleeding itself. Look at what happens to Iran in the Syrian mud, Yemen’s slippery slopes, and Iraq.

It is rather surprising to hear our leaders expressing fears about what will happen upon expiration of the agreement 10 years from now when they cannot say what will occur two or three months down the road on our borders with Gaza, Golan, Sinai or Lebanon.

All in all, it is possible to estimate that at least two tangible results will emerge from the nuclear deal. Israel’s military-security establishment will demand that its budget be expanded; and Israel will ask the US to supply it with a security compensation package. That is basically what the cabinet minister suggested eight years ago in the military briefing.

August 10, 2015

Will Key Iranians be Removed from Sanctions Lists? It’s Complicated…

The U.S. Department of the Treasury insists that critics of the nuclear deal with Iran are wrong when they say one of Iran’s notorious exporters of terrorism, General Qassem Suleimani, will be removed from the list of Iranians who are banned from the world’s banking system.  Yet it is true that at least two Iranian nuclear scientists — reliably reported to have been targeted by Israel’s Mossad — will enjoy a lifting of sanctions in just a few years. 

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

The nuclear deal between world powers and Iran aimed at limiting Tehran’s nuclear program is a complicated and hard-to-understand labyrinth. It is 150 pages long, includes five appendices and contains some 30 thousand words.

Two-thirds of it consists of names of companies, corporations, government offices and individuals included on the list of sanctions levied against Iran since 2006 by the UN Security Council, the US and the European Union.

Iran was already a nuclear threshold state three years ago, before the especially painful sanctions were placed on it. Because of the hard blow that the sanctions dealt to Iran’s economy, its leaders understood that it was time to go to the negotiating table, which it had previously refused to approach.

Iran had already achieved its goal of being a nuclear threshold state.

Alongside maintaining the appearance of national pride and its efforts to minimize international inspection of its nuclear facilities, Iran’s main concern in negotiations with the West was to get the smothering sanctions removed. Now Iran is achieving that goal.

A senior Israeli official told journalists that during the 15-year life of the agreement Iran will enjoy – in addition to the unfreezing of around $100 billion of assets in foreign banks – an even greater flow of money from the renewal of oil exports and a renewal of trade with the world.

The blacklist, until now, included the names of some one thousand banks, insurance companies, ships, oil, gas and petrochemical corporations, airlines and aviation companies — as well individuals who are connected directly or indirectly to Iran’s nuclear program, its missile program or its weapons trade.

The assets – both liquid and real estate – of everyone on the blacklist were frozen, and all UN member states were forbidden from allowing them into their territory or engaging in commerce with them.

According to the agreement, the sanctions will be lifted, but in the next five years the conventional arms embargo on Iran will continue, and for eight years Iran will not be allowed to import or export missiles and their parts.

Three names on this list stick out in particular:

Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, a senior nuclear scientist, who served as the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 2011 to 2013. In November 2010, shortly before he got that job, he was wounded in an assassination attempt while entering his vehicle. The failed attempt was attributed to the Mossad. Abbasi Davani’s name was removed from the list of people sanctioned for being part of Iran’s nuclear program, but he will continue to be subject to sanctions connected to involvement in the missile program.

The second is Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, who was, according to foreign reports, responsible for Iran’s military nuclear program, known as “weaponization.” The group, made up of nuclear scientists and engineers, dealt with experiments using highly powerful explosives and computer simulations that checked how to assemble a nuclear weapon and how to miniaturize it and turn it into a warhead on a Shihab missile. If Iran were to assemble a nuclear weapon, Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi could be labeled “the father of the Shi’ite nuclear bomb.”

According to the same reports, he was the Mossad’s number one target for assassination, but he went into hiding.

Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi was put on the blacklist because of his involvement in work on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and because of Iran’s refusal to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to question him. It can be assumed that his name would be taken off the blacklist of those involved in the nuclear program if Iran were to allow IAEA inspectors to question him. As of now, he will remain under sanctions for the next eight years due to his involvement with the Iranian missile program.

The third name, and perhaps the most interesting of them all, is General Qassem Suleimani, the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force. He is considered one of the most influential people in the Islamic Republic and a close confidant of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's Qassem Suleimani visiting Shi'ite Militias in Tikrit, Iraq, fighting ISIS (El Alam News Network)

Iran’s Qassem Suleimani (wearing black headdress) visiting Shi’ite Militias in Tikrit, Iraq, fighting ISIS (El Alam News Network)

The fact that there are two people with the last name “Suleimani” on the list shows how tangled up it is. One of them is Gassen and the second is Qassem. Gassen Suleimani will be taken off the list. As for General Qassem Suleimani, the situation is more complicated.

At the age of 22, with the eruption of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Qassem Suleimani joined the Revolutionary Guards, and took part in the bloody war with Iraq, which lasted eight years. In 2000 he was appointed commander of the Quds Force.

“Al-Quds” is the unit formed in 1980 with the goal of “fighting the Zionist occupation.” However, over the years, its authority was widened and it became Iran’s special forces branch tasked with exporting the Islamic Revolution. The force is responsible for training, arming and providing aid to Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Yemen, for Iran’s ties to Hezbollah, Hamas and more.

Suleimani is responsible for managing the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and for helping the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.

After many years in which he operated invisibly, General Suleimani has resurfaced. He has attended public functions in Iran, given interviews to the media and been filmed on the battlefield in Iraq. However, despite his high position and great influence, his prestige has taken a hit in the past four years and his image as a superman commander has been damaged.

His setbacks occurred amid the “Arab Spring.” When the demonstrations and rebellions began in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, Suleimani believed, and promised to Khamenei, that the table was set for increasing Iran’s influence in the Middle East. But that did not happen as Iran had hoped. The Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt, while in Iraq and Syria, Suleimani, the Quds Force and the militias they ran, struggled to win the war against ISIS and other rebel groups. Assad’s rule has weakened even more in recent months and his people have lost additional land.

General Suleimani was sanctioned from a number of directions: First, the US named the Al-Quds Force a terrorist group. He was also put on the blacklist for exporting weapons to Shi’ite militias.

The United States in particular has a score to settle with Suleimani because Washington sees him as responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers, caused by his people or their proxy Shi’ite militias in Iraq such as “The Bader Force” and “The Mahdi’s Army,” which were responsible for IED attacks against American soldiers in the previous decade.

The second reason is his involvement in an attempt (uncovered by the FBI in 2011) to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, who today serves as the Kingdom’s foreign minister — by blowing up a high-class restaurant.

American officials confirmed that indeed Suleimani’s name will be removed from the sanctions list that appears in the nuclear agreement. But in actuality, only the European Union countries will unblacklist him. In the United States, he will remain on the terrorism black list. Because this is an extra-territorial list, the sanctions will apply to all those who conduct commercial dealings with him, irregardless of where they reside.

At least this is some consolation.

July 21, 2015

Before the Talks with Iran: U.S. and Israel Were Close on Sanctions and Sabotage, but Not on Assassinations (FLASHBACK)

[This is an adaptation from Chapter 1, “Stopping Iran,” in the history of Israeli espionage, Spies Against Armageddon by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman.  We pick up the story somewhere around early 2008.]

Israeli and American intelligence agencies evaluated the sanctions and determined that they were too soft.  The assessment was that only stronger, crippling sanctions might have some effect on Iran’s leadership.

It seemed that the kind of steps required would include a ban on buying Iranian crude oil and its byproducts.  China and Russia refused to lend a hand to that effort.  Sanctions thus were not hobbling the determination of Iran’s leaders to keep up their nuclear work.

Meir Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012

The Mossad concluded that more drastic measures were needed.  Mossad director Meir Dagan’s battle plan called next for sabotage.  That took various shapes.  He encouraged joint planning and, eventually, joint operations on the Middle East’s clandestine fields of battle.

A CIA suggestion was to send a physicist, a Russian who had moved to the United States, to Iran to offer his knowledge to the Iranian nuclear program.  The caper was ridiculously mishandled when the CIA altered a set of nuclear warhead plans that the physicist was carrying, but neglected to tell him.  The Iranians would have received damaging disinformation.  Unfortunately for this scheme, the ex-Russian noticed errors and told the Iranians that something was flawed.  He simply did not know that the CIA wanted him to keep his mouth shut and pass along the materials.

Despite imperfect penetrations at first, the entire concept of “poisoning” both information and equipment was attractive; and the Mossad, the CIA, and the British kept doing it.  These agencies set up front companies that established contact with Iranian purchasing networks.  In order to build up trust, they sold Iran some genuine components.  But at a later stage,  they planted – among the good parts, such as metal tubes and high-speed switches – many bad parts that damaged Iran’s program.

The results of this international sabotage began to show.  Iran found itself having trouble keeping control of the equipment that it had bought from overseas.

The peak of these damage operations was a brilliantly innovative computer worm that would become known as Stuxnet.  Though its origin was never officially announced, Stuxnet was a joint project by the CIA, the Mossad, and Aman’s technological unit.  The malicious software was specifically designed to disrupt a German-made computerized control system that ran the centrifuges in Natanz.

The project required studying, by reverse engineering, precisely how the control panel and computers worked and what effect they had on the centrifuges.  For that purpose,  Germany’sBND– very friendly to Israel, in part based on a long habit of trying to erase Holocaust memories – arranged the cooperation of Siemens, the German corporation that had sold the system to Iran.  The directors of Siemens may have felt pangs of conscience, or were simply reacting to public pressure, as newspapers pointed out that the company was Iran’s largest trading partner in Germany.

For a better understanding of Iran’s enrichment process, old centrifuges – which Israel had obtained many years before – were set up in one of the buildings at Dimona, Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear facility in the southern Negev desert.  They were nearly identical to the centrifuges that were enriching uranium in Natanz.

The Israelis closely watched what the computer worm could do to an industrial process.  The tests, reportedly conducted also at a U.S. government lab in Idaho, took two years.

Virtual weapons of destruction such as Stuxnet can conceivably be e-mailed to the target computer network, or they can be installed in person by plugging in a flash drive.  Whether hidden in an electronic message or plugged in by an agent for the Mossad, the virus did get into the Natanz facility’s control system sometime in 2009.  Stuxnet was in the system for more than a year before it was detected by Iranian cyber-warfare experts.  By then, it was giving the centrifuges confusing instructions, which disrupted their precise synchronization.  They were no longer spinning in concert, and as the equipment sped up and slowed repeatedly, the rotors that did the spinning were severely damaged.

The true beauty of this computer worm was that the operators of the system had no idea that anything was going wrong.  Everything at first seemed normal, and when they noticed the problem it was too late.  Nearly 1,000 centrifuges – about one-fifth of those operating at Natanz – were knocked out of commission.

Iranian intelligence and computer experts were shocked.  The nuclear program was slowing down, barely advancing, and falling way behind schedule.  Stuxnet, more than anything else, made the Iranians realize they were under attack in a shadow war, with hardly any capability to respond.

In late 2011, they announced two more cyber-attacks.  One virus, which computer analysts called Duqu, showed signs of being created by the same high-level, sophisticated hackers who authored Stuxnet: U.S.and Israeli intelligence.

If that were not enough, like the Ten Plagues that befell ancient Egypt, the Iranians were hit by yet another blow – this time, a lethal one.  Between 2007 and 2011, five Iranian scientists were assassinated by a variety of methods.  One supposedly was felled by carbon monoxide from a heater in his home.  Three others were killed by bombs, and one by gunfire: four attacks by men on motorcycles.  That was a method perfected by the Mossad’s Kidon unit.

It was noteworthy that the United States flatly denied any involvement.  American officials even went so far as to publicly criticize the unknown killers for spoiling diplomatic hopes, because the chances of negotiations with Iran became slimmer after every attack.  The Americans, in private, said that they were chiding Israel.

July 13, 2015

Meet the IAEA Official Who’ll Monitor Iran’s Nuclear Program — with Spy Agencies’ Help

[This is adapted from an article by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for The Jerusalem Post.]

Let’s consider Massimo Aparo. He is the international bureaucrat who is to be on the watch to make sure that, in case of an agreement, Iran doesn’t violate it. And, in the absence of a deal, he would aim to be able to tell the world if Iran is rushing to produce its first nuclear bomb.

Massimo Aparo (center) : photo by IAEA

Massimo Aparo (center) : photo by IAEA

In other words, Aparo is the gatekeeper and has to act as the international community’s bad cop in its dealing with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

Aparo, an Italian, heads an elite unit of the International Atomic Energy Agency known as Iran Task Force. It was created three years ago by IAEA’s director-general, Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano.

The Iran Task Force is part of IAEA’s Department of Safeguards and Verification, which is in charge of making sure that all its state members properly use nuclear technology and knowhow for the declared civilian and peaceful purposes: scientific research, medicine, agriculture and industry – and not for illegally producing nuclear weapons.

The only country that is a member of IAEA and is under a unique and particular watch with a specially assigned unit to monitor it is Iran. And rightly so.

Iran has a bad and dubious track record of 12 years of cheating, cover- ups, lies and concealment of the true nature of its nuclear program with its 18 sites, including two uranium- enrichment facilities, reactors, laboratories, waste plants and more.

It established secret purchasing networks operating worldwide to illegally buy equipment and technology for its program by circumventing the sanctions.

It has worked indefatigably to advance its plans to be a nuclear- threshold country, and in doing so it has been in breach of many IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions.

Here enters Aparo. The mere fact that Amano ordered the establishment of the Iran Task Force is evidence of the huge mistrust that even a politically biased UN agency such as the IAEA and certainly the international community feel facing Iran and its leaders.

When the task force was established, its main focus was to collect data and analyze what was happening in the Parchin military base. According to information collected by Western and Israeli intelligence services and forwarded to the IAEA, the base served as a testing laboratory for “weaponization.”

There, Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers were conducting tests with highly sophisticated explosives and simulations to learn the process of a chain reaction to trigger a nuclear explosion.

When asked by Amano to allow Aparo and his task force to visit Parchin, Iran flatly rejected the request. Since then, according to images obtained from commercial satellites, Iran was involved in extensive cleanup works by removing huge chunks of soil, flooding some parts of the base with water and destroying several buildings – all to cover up what really happened in Parchin and to make sure that if task force inspectors were ever to visit the place and take samples, no traces of illegal nuclear activity would be found.

Aparo’s task force has 50 or so inspectors of different nationalities. They are nuclear engineers, physicists, chemists, computer and communication experts and intelligence data analysts.

Iran insisted that neither Americans nor Brits be included in the force. To the Iranian mind, they are spies. Actually, in the Iranian perception, the entire Iran Task Force is an extension of the CIA, Mossad, MI6, you name it. Eventually, Iran had to agree to the inclusion of one American member and one British member.

In the past, Iranian intelligence officers tried to recruit agents among the IAEA inspectors. As Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director-general of the IAEA and head of the Department of Safeguards and Verification told me, he himself faced many Iranian efforts to recruit him by offering him bribes and gifts.

It can be assumed that Iran will continue to disrupt, preempt and gain advance knowledge and understanding of task force plans.

Aparo’s problems are twofold. First are the rigid regulations of IAEA which require that a country be notified in advance – days, sometimes weeks in advance – about the inspection visits.

It gives the host country sufficient time to conceal and cover up whatever it doesn’t want the inspectors to see.

Iran has mastered the measures it has taken in its concealment and stalling tactics. Heinonen recalls that Iran even came up with the excuse “We lost the key” when it was requested to let him and his team into a particular site.

Second, IAEA monitoring equipment is old and outdated. It includes mechanical seals and cameras which are attached to the centrifuges enriching uranium and the cylinders and barrels where the uranium and other nuclear-related materials are stored.

To enhance the inspection, what Aparo needs are provisions that will permit him and his crew to have snap visits, on the spot, with advance notification of only a matter of hours. He also has to be allowed to use much more advanced monitoring equipment, including online cameras and seals, as well as lasers and sensors directly linked to IAEA control rooms in Vienna.

Aparo, in his late 50s, is an expert in nuclear machinery and instruments.

He graduated from Sapienza University of Rome, worked for an Italian agency advancing new technologies, and was employed by the European Space Agency. Around 20 years ago he was recruited by the IAEA.

I was told by former IAEA inspectors that he is a serious and solid nuclear expert but lacks leadership qualities.

Leadership skills are needed not only to lead a complex international force with members of different backgrounds and perhaps different agendas but to be tough and determined in dealing with his Iranian counterparts and hosts, who will do everything possible to sabotage his mission by endlessly arguing about every minor step and detail.

But above all, Aparo – with or without a deal, even with new monitoring equipment and intrusive inspections – will have to rely at the end on outside assistance.

As in the past, the Mossad and Israeli Military Intelligence – along with the CIA, MI6, German BND, French intelligence and others – will have to enhance their efforts and improve intelligence collection on Iran’s nuclear program in order to detect ahead of time whether the Islamic Republic is breaking out to the bomb.

July 12, 2015

Netanyahu Can Breathe a Little — Iran Nuclear Talks Not Ending June 30

[The following article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for The Jerusalem Post.]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be temporarily satisfied. Due to good intelligence the Iran nuclear talks will probably not be finalized before the deadline on Tuesday.

Netanyahu at UN in New York, September 2012

Netanyahu at UN in New York, September 2012

Every day that passes has to be considered an achievement for Netanyahu and anyone else who opposes an agreement. It is very likely the talks will be extended – although not forever.

The US seems anxious to clinch a deal in a matter of days.

If it is achieved by July 4, Congress will have only 30 days to review the agreement. If there is no agreement by July 9, the congressional review period will be 60 days and, then, anything can happen.

Thus, President Barack Obama wishes to stamp the deal as quickly as possible. But it is not entirely in his hands. The power broker is Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He calls the shots.

After three extensive meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif left the talks in Vienna and flew home for consultations with Khamenei.

Zarif and his team feared that their communication lines were intercepted. They don’t even trust their secured and coded phones and computers.

Media and experts publications claimed Israeli intelligence was eavesdropping at the hotels where the various rounds of talks were taking place.

Zarif’s trip is also evidence that he doesn’t have the authority to finalize a deal; a deal that most of its clauses, including the stumbling blocks, have been known for months. Judging from past precedents, it is not sure that Zarif will return to Vienna with his supreme leader’s blessing. In the past, Khamenei authorized his nuclear team to sign an agreement, and then due to domestic pressure from his radicals he backed off. Khamenei’s approach may well be revisited – first let’s sign and then we’ll see.

One has to be completely stupid to dare predicting the chance of a deal being finalized.

The gaps, as stated by the foreign ministers of Germany, France and UK, remain large.

They revolve around all well-known controversial topics: the demand that Iran opens its suspected military sites for international inspection; that it makes its scientists, especially those involved in suspicious military programs in the past available for international questioning; and to accept that sanctions are not lifted until Iran meets its obligations according to the agreement once it is signed.

In short, the chance of clinching a deal remains to be seen.

Yes, logic says an agreement is an Iranian imperative and yes, the US administration is very hot to have it. But once again with Iran’s leader having the final word anything can happen.

Nothing is assured.

June 29, 2015

Longtime #2 in CIA: Warm Intelligence Relations with Israel — Mossad Doesn’t Spin Us

[This article and interview are adapted from an item written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of books including Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars — a history of the Mossad and other security agencies.]

Michael Morell, the CIA veteran who recently retired and wrote his memoirs, understands why Israel’s prime minister rejects President Obama’s strong desire for a deal with Iran. And, having heard that Israel may have some tacit understandings with the al-Qaeda affiliate, Syria, Morell strongly counsels against that path.  

Morell Michael

Michael Morell (on CBS This Morning)

From his vantage point of 33 years as a professional intelligence officer, Morell has strong advice for to Israel. “Don’t make deals with them. Pressure them. Fight them. Turn against them, otherwise they will turn against you.”

The former deputy director of the CIA’s comments were made in response to a question regarding reports in the Arab and international media that – in order to maintain peace and tranquility along its border with Syria — Israel has reached some understandings with the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.  Nusra controls most of the Syrian side of the border along the Golan Heights.

“From my experience following al-Qaeda, I think and believe that you must not try to cut deals with them. Pakistan tried to do it with these guys telling them: ‘We won’t attack you if you don’t attack us.’ But it is a dangerous game. Even if you cut a deal with them, they won’t honor it.”

Morell knows the Israeli intelligence community very well. He has visited Israel and met in Washington many times for professional meetings with his Israeli counterparts from the Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Aman — the military intelligence agency known in foreign encounters as Israeli Defense Intelligence.

Last week, he granted a special interview to The Jerusalem Post, the first of its kind to an Israeli media outlet. It coincides with the publication of his book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qaeda to ISIS, which he wrote with Bill Harlow, a former longtime spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Morell was born in 1958 in a small town in Ohio. He finished his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Akron and Georgetown University, respectively, and was recruited to work as an analyst in the CIA.

He spent most of his career in the Directorate of Intelligence of the agency, and in addition to reaching the No. 2 position in the CIA, he also served twice as acting director: once in 2011, after director Leon Panetta became secretary of defense, and a year later, after Gen. David Petraeus stepped down as a result of his extramarital affair.

After Morell’s retirement two years ago, he joined the private sector as a consultant to Global Beacon Strategies and to CBS News.

One of his most exciting and prestigious assignments was to serve as the CIA’s daily briefer for “Customer No. 1” – the agency’s nickname for the President of the United States. In that capacity, after nine months on the job he found himself traveling with President George W. Bush to visit a school in Florida. It was September 11, 2001. At 8 in the morning, Morell walked into the President’s hotel suite.

“Michael, anything of interest this morning?” Bush asked his intelligence briefer.

“On the most important day of President Bush’s tenure,” recalls Morell, “his intelligence briefing was unremarkable, focusing on the most recent developments in the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Contrary to media reports, there was nothing regarding terrorist threats in the briefing.”

With impressive honesty, Morell admits that when he first heard that an airplane had hit one of the twin towers in New York City, “my guess at the time was a small plane had lost its way in bad weather and, by accident, had crashed into the World Trade Center.”

Later, the Secret Service rushed the President and his staff to Air Force One, and they took off to an undisclosed destination. America was under attack.

Morell was aboard, trying to figure out what really was happening.

When the media reported that the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine, led by Nayef Hawatmeh, was responsible for the attacks on U.S. soil, Morell told Bush that the DFLP “is a Palestinian rejectionist group with a long history of terrorism against Israel, but they do not possess the capability to do this.”

A little later, while the information was still blurry, Morell was ready to take a risk and speculate, “I would bet every dollar I have that it’s al-Qaeda.”

Nevertheless, he doesn’t conceal his self-criticism that 9/11 exposed the failure of the American intelligence community, led by the CIA, to anticipate and prevent the attacks.

At the same time, he is very proud of the agency’s success in eventually tracking Osama Bin Laden and killing him in 2011 in his Pakistani hideout.

Yet the CIA, according to Morell, can’t rest on its laurels. He thinks al-Qaeda is still a very dangerous organization posing a serious threat to the U.S. and the West.

Question: More than Islamic State?

“I distinguish between the two only because everyone does. But I think that both groups have the same goals, both believe in the same ideology, both are equally violent and evil. And actually I believe that al-Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. and the West than Islamic State.”

How so?

“Because al-Qaeda has better and greater capabilities. I am worried about the situation in Yemen where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is located.

In the past, the government there fought against terrorism. But now because of the civil war they stopped. AQAP has very good bomb-makers. The bombs were so sophisticated they were not detected by airport machines. Only due to good intelligence, several of their lethal plans to bomb airplanes were prevented.

I am also concerned about another al-Qaeda entity – Khorasan Group – sent from Pakistan by Ayman al-Zawahiri into Syria. There are indications that the two groups cooperate with each other.”

Al-Qaeda confirmed this week that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of AQAP, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. What is your answer to the claim that both al-Qaeda and Islamic State were created as a result of U.S. involvement in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the ’80s and the U.S. toppling of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003?

“It is ridiculous. It is an attempt to revise history. There are many reasons for extremism and these terrorist groups would have been created regardless of U.S. politics and actions.”

Morell shared an entertaining anecdote about Saddam in his book, which explains why the deposed Iraqi dictator grew a beard during captivity.

Morell says a clean-shaven Saddam was taken for medical treatment under U.S. custody, and tried to flirt with the nurse, to no avail. When he asked his U.S. debriefer – whom Saddam had become friendly with – why the nurse wasn’t interested, the American escort told the Iraqi dictator (in jest) that it was because American women like men with facial hair.

Saddam walked into the courtroom a few weeks later with a wild beard. Commentators concluded that he was trying to look Islamic to appeal to religious elements in court. “It was a humorous example of Saddam’s misjudging Americans,” wrote Morell.

But this could also be said about the United States – that it doesn’t understand the Middle East and that its actions in the war against the terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria are weak.

“Yes, I know. But I am convinced that the Iraqi government in the end will regain the lands Islamic State has captured from them. It will take a few years, maybe three or four, but it will happen. We can’t fight instead of the Iraqis.”

And what about Syria. It seems the U.S. has no clear strategy?

“Yes, Syria is a big mess. Everyone is fighting everyone. There is a war there between a dictator and his people. A war being fought between emissaries of Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Shi’ites and Sunnis, between secular groups and fanatic Islamist organizations.

I don’t think anyone has an idea or plan of how to resume stability in Syria. To be honest, I must admit that I can’t answer how to solve the problem there. I can only say that efforts must be made to ensure that the mess in Syria doesn’t spread to nearby states, like Jordan or Israel.”

You mentioned Israel. Could you describe the relationship between the CIA and the Mossad?

“I won’t go into details, and I am going to be careful. I can say that the CIA has ties with many intelligence agencies in the world. Some of these relationships are more developed, and others are less developed.

With Israel’s intelligence community – not just the Mossad – the relations are some of the best in the world.”

And the political problems and disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama don’t disrupt the cultivation of intelligence ties?

“One of the nice things about intelligence cooperation is that it goes under the political radar. Even in times of political crisis, the ties and cooperation continue and sometimes even help reach a solution.”

What do you think of the Israeli intelligence people you have met with?

“I think they are some of the best in the world. Not just professionally, but as people too. I have only praise and admiration for them.”

In the past, American intelligence officials have made remarks indicating that Israel manipulates intelligence information to influence them, is that true?

“I have never experienced anything like that, and I never thought that Israeli intelligence was trying to ‘sell’ us something that we didn’t believe or that we thought was untrue. Nevertheless, certainly, sometimes your political leaders take stances that are not compatible with your intelligence positions.”

Are you referring to the disagreements between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran’s nuclear program?

“Yes, that is true, with regard to Iran, but I won’t go into details. I can only tell you that the argument is not about whether Iran poses a threat, but rather how close and tangible that threat is.”

Does that mean you agree with the assessment that Iran poses a threat?

“Yes, of course. Completely. But keep in mind that the nuclear program has three foundations. One is to achieve fissile material. The second is to build a bomb, and the third is to have delivery means. Most of the world’s deliberations are focused on the first stage. And here, too, a distinction must be made. Everyone is trying to understand what happens at the facilities designated for enriching uranium. But Iran has already declared them, and we know about them.”

You mean the facilities at Natanz and Fordo?

“Yes. But I think we should be much more concerned that maybe Iran has other secret facilities that we don’t know about.

The facility in Fordo was covert, but it was exposed thanks to good intelligence. So why do we think that they built only one and not more facilities that still haven’t been discovered? That is the great danger.”

Explain the problem with the covert uranium enrichment facilities.

“If they don’t have a covert facility, it will take them three or four years from now to build one. If they started building it three or four years ago, then by today they would already have one that we don’t know about. What I learned in intelligence is that I don’t know what I don’t know.”

How far do you think Iran is today from a bomb?

“When I was working, it was two to three years. Since then, they have advanced in shortening time. Without inspection and a deal, Iran would be able to produce its first bomb in two to three months.”

Do you support a nuclear deal with Iran?

“Because I don’t know the details, I can’t say. There are differences between what the U.S. says and what Iran claims. I think the deal the U.S. agreed to is a pretty good deal because of the inspection regime.

As an intelligence officer, I also ask, what is the alternative? There are two alternatives: To go back to where we were, with no negotiations, sanctions continue and are even harder – and they continue to work on their program. What is the implication of that? That the time to a bomb, would be reduced from two to three months to weeks.

Another alternative is a war, which would send a powerful message that we will not allow them to have a bomb. I am worried about such alternatives. There is a debate in Iran about what they should do with their nuclear program. A military strike would strengthen the hard-liners, who would say it wouldn’t have happened had we had nuclear weapons. That would enhance their efforts to get the bomb.”

Still, do you understand the Israeli prime minister’s position? 

“Yes I do. The difference between the President and the prime minister is easy to explain. The President focuses on getting a nuclear deal, which would take us from two or three months to one year from a bomb. The prime minister is focused on the bigger problem of Iran: What to do about their support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and insurgents in the region, such as in Yemen, and their desire for regional hegemony, and their calls for the destruction of Israel.

The prime minister focuses on all of these in addition to the nuclear program, and he says the sanctions are good, let’s continue – because the Iranian behavior will not change.”

June 19, 2015

Penetrating the Iran Nuclear Talks: Israel — And Others — Use Malware for Cyber-Espionage

By YOSSI MELMAN in Tel Aviv

The Russian internet security company Kaspersky Lab – which is often first to identify hacking efforts and cyber-crises around the world – says someone used an innovative computer virus to spy on the Iran nuclear talks.

Kaspersky and the American anti-virus company Symantec both say the virus resembles Duqu – malware that’s been called a “stepchild” of Stuxnet, the program that’s known to have been created as a joint project of U.S. and Israeli government agencies.

We don’t have to let the Russian software experts knock us off our chairs with surprise.  Founded and still led by Eugene Kaspersky, a product of former KGB technical training schools, the Lab publishes its findings on viruses and computer worms around the world.

The Lab has a financial motive.  Every burst of publicity brings it new, paying clients – especially in Western nations.

Kaspersky logoThe revelations from Kaspersky always point to Western governments (including Israel) or corporations as the villains.  He would not dare point a finger of blame at Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia.  Everyone knows what usually happens to open critics and foes of Putin.

Thus the motivations are not only financial – but also political-ideological.  With a dash of self-preservation.

We also shouldn’t be very surprised that The Wall Street Journal cites officials as saying that the malware that’s spying on nuclear negotiators – dubbed “Duqu 2” – originated with an Israeli intelligence agency.

Eugene Kaspersky is quoted as giving huge praise to Duqu 2 as “a generation ahead of anything we’d seen earlier” – and it’s reported that whoever invented it used it to penetrate Kaspersky Lab’s own systems.

It has become crystal clear that cyber-war is the war of the future: penetrations of government or corporate computer systems by using “Trojan horses” or other sophisticated software, viruses, or worms.  Who is able to do it?  Governments, corporations, terrorist groups, and individual hackers.

The future is now.

The almost mythically powerful malware might be named Stuxnet, and then a similar one is called Flame, and now we hear of two versions of Duqu.  The goal is the same: to intrude into the computers of a rival or enemy: to infect the databases with an overload of nonsense, to pluck out any valuable data, to eavesdrop on conversations whether written or oral, to record and transmit every word typed into the computers, and even to photograph the target facilities.

As the now fabled Stuxnet story shows, the malware can also make industrial control systems go haywire – damaging equipment such as the centrifuges that Iran used to enrich uranium.

Cyber-war is certainly the next big thing in espionage. The leaders in the field are the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, and Israel, with Iran showing significant leaps in capability.

In a way, this is old wine in new bottles.  It is still espionage.  Field agents used to find a way to get into a target facility; they secretly took photographs and used bugging devices to record conversations.

For years now, it’s been reported – and assumed – that every international conference is a target for collecting intelligence information.  Espionage agencies gather whatever they can about participants, especially the ones who travel from country to country, as they can be monitored or recruited as spies.

Meetings that involve traveling Iranians are certainly of high interest – and not only to Israel – especially if the subjects include Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and the local security agency in whatever country is hosting the conference are likely to be just as interested as Israel’s Mossad might be.

Now there’s no need physically to break into a hotel room, embassy, or office.  Electronic penetrations can be aimed at the laptop computer systems, networks set up for temporary offices, or the computer and wi-fi facilities of hotels.  It does not seem to be very hard for an intelligence agency to insert viruses and worms.

The published American report says a “Duqu” virus was injected into computers in three different hotels where the Iran nuclear talks have taken place in recent years: the talks that face a deadline for success on June 30.

There is a double problem. The targets of offensive cyber-warfare – in this case Iran – know about the possibility and use every countermeasure they can.  Thus the developers of malware find they have to raise their game even more: inventing what are, in effect, poisonous software creations.

Somewhat similar to traditional, physical warfare, there is collateral damage.  Computer systems that were not intentionally targeted are also being affected, and that has often led the anti-virus experts such as Kaspersky to find the malware.  E-mail and programs are constantly on the move, so it is hard for cyber-attackers to limit the impact of what they have created.

That is apparently why Kaspersky Lab found the latest poisonous program in its own computers.  It is even possible, however, that Israeli intelligence was trying to penetrate Kaspersky to find out what that company knows.

[Yossi Melman is co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and other books including the new history of Israel’s intelligence and security agencies: Spies Against Armageddon.]

June 10, 2015

Russia Selling Advanced Anti-Aircraft Missiles to Iran — The Lessons

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

Both Israel and the United States were surprised by Russia’s decision, announcedMonday, to unfreeze its sale of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran.

The Missile Man: Vladimir Putin

The Missile Man: Vladimir Putin

Amid American pressure and Israeli persuasion, and mainly because of its own interests, Russia decided several years ago to suspend its decision to sell the weapons system to Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has now announced that, against the backdrop of the emerging Iran nuclear deal, he has decided to cancel the freeze and go through with the transaction.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized that the S-300 is a defensive system.

The decision points to at least four central conclusions:

1. The sanctions regime is disintegrating.

2. To strike Iran’s nuclear facilities will be more difficult, but not impossible, for the Israeli and US air forces. It will undoubtedly be more difficult for the Israel Air Force, which doesn’t possess stealth bombers.

3. Russia is not ready to lose Iran as its “asset” in the Middle East.

4. Despite Israel’s policy of appeasement toward Russia, the influence of Jerusalem’s foreign policy on Putin is negligible.

One of the biggest achievements of the international community, led by the US, in regard to Iran’s nuclear program was the formation of an international consensus that included Russia and China.

Despite the fact that Russia and China had interests that often differed diametrically from those of the US and the EU, they have agreed since 2006 to join in both Security Council and Western sanctions.

This was accomplished in large part because of the wise approach of Washington, which insisted on an Iran policy carried out by consensus.

Without this approach, the harsh sanctions which Israel requested be levied against Iran and which led Tehran to crawl to the negotiating table to reach a deal (which still has not been put in writing or signed and is therefore solely a framework of principles) would not have been put in place.

However, now it seems that Russia has decided to go back to its independent policy toward Iran.

One of the reasons this decision was made is that Moscow fears that, after a final agreement is reached, there will be a thaw in tense relations between Tehran and Washington. Common interests between the two countries are already beginning to surface, such as on the issue of the war against Islamic State. Russia will do all in its power to retain Iran within its sphere of influence and as a massive trade partner. At play are several major deals involving $20 billion worth of oil, grain and more.

Despite Israel’s efforts – led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and which included a number of trips by him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intended to find the way to Putin’s heart, especially as regards arming Iran – when it comes to things that touch upon Moscow’s essential interests, Russia doesn’t take Israel’s opinion into account.

Instead of bashing the Russian decision, the official Israeli response, as expressed by Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, is to blame the US. As Israel sees it, the negotiations and impending deal on Iran’s nuclear program, which the Obama administration is pushing, are responsible.

An Israeli military option – if it exists at all – will become even more remote, if and when the S-300 is delivered to Iran and deployed to defend its skies.

It is one of the most advanced weapons systems in the world, capable of shooting down planes and missiles of every kind, including cruise missiles, with the help of advanced radar with detection abilities up to 300 kilometers.

Despite this, the Israel Air Force can still carry out an attack.

However, the dangers that such a mission would pose and the price in lives that would be lost and in planes that would be shot down will be higher from now on. Much higher.

The US definitely still has the ability to evade and neutralize the S-300 and to carry out a more effective attack than could Israel.

April 15, 2015


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