Shimon Peres, Last Founder of Israel, Father of Nuclear Program and More…

Shimon Peres, former prime minister, defense minister, and finally (non-political) president of Israel, has died at age 93 — and an impressive array of world figures are mourning.

shimon peres, covert operations, spies against armageddon, iran nuclearThey think of him as a man of peace and reconciliation — dreaming of a Middle East that can be incredibly more positive, creative, and productive than it is now.   Peres proudly declared himself an optimist, saying that that was the secret of his longevity.  He shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Yitzhak Rabin (his rival within the Labor Party, but by the time Rabin was assassinated in 1995 they were close colleagues in exploring peace possibilities with the Palestinians) and the PLO chief, Yasser Arafat.

Peres’s role in strengthening Israel’s defenses — indeed the Jewish state’s survivability — is not widely and fully known.   We have written, in our books, of the work he did — as a young aide who was very close to the first prime minister David Ben-Gurion — to make a deal with France for construction of an atomic reactor near Dimona, in Israel’s Negev Desert.  Peres and Ben-Gurion were the leaders of a small corps of Israelis who knew the real purpose and the real result: an arsenal of nuclear weapons, still not officially acknowledged by Israel.

Peres also made sure that Israel Military Industries would be a world-class manufacturer of arms, and Israel now boasts some of the best defense technology and innovations — which sell well around the world.

We salute him, above all, for speaking publicly about the possibility that if reasonable men and women could come together and make necessary compromises, there could be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.


September 28, 2016

White House Honor for Israel’s Peres, With Critical Issues Looming

By Dan Raviv originally posted in June 2012

Here in Washington, Israel’s President Shimon Peres is enjoying the highest possible American government accolades — receiving the Medal of Freedom Award from President Barack Obama.
shimon peres, israel spy, spies against armageddon, israel covert operationsThe 88-year-old, still in good health and mentally sharp, now holds a ceremonial post; but in past decades Peres was a senior defense official, a cabinet minister in several capacities, and prime minister of Israel.   He pops up often in our book, Spies Against Armageddon, as he was entrusted by Israel’s first prime minister — David Ben-Gurion — with carrying out the fateful, secret decision to develop nuclear weapons.
Peres also has been an active peacemaker, whenever peace efforts seem possible in the Middle East, and he calls on the current coalition government in his country to make stronger efforts at re-starting peace talks with the Palestinians.
In remarks prepared for delivery on Wednesday evening at the White House, President Obama praises the newest Medal of Freedom honoree:

“The United States is fortunate to have many allies and partners around the world.  Of course, one of our strongest allies, and one of our closest friends, is the State of Israel.  And no individual has done so much over so many years to build our alliance and bring our two nations closer as the leader we honor tonight—our friend, Shimon Peres.

“…in him we see the essence of Israel itself—an indomitable spirit that will not be denied. … Shimon knows the necessity of strength.  As Ben-Gurion said, ‘an Israel capable of defending herself—which cannot be destroyed—can bring peace nearer.’

“And so he’s worked with every American President since John F. Kennedy.  And it’s why I’ve worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu to ensure that the security cooperation between the United States and Israel is closer and stronger than it has ever been.  Because the security of the State of Israel is non-negotiable.  And the bonds between us are unbreakable.

“And yet, Shimon knows that a nation’s security depends, not just on the strength of its arms, but upon the righteousness of its deeds—its moral compass.  He knows, as Scripture teaches, that we must not only seek peace, we must pursue it.  And so it has been the cause of his life—peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel’s Arab neighbors.”

September 27, 2016

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 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

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

“When conditions are ripe,” Israel Wouldn’t Oppose Nuclear-Free MidEast — But for Now, Israel Thanks Obama for Blocking the Issue

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

Five more years.  That is the grace period granted to Israel — again — to avoid discussing Arab and international calls to open talks to create a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone.

That is the practical result after the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty failed, over the weekend, to reach a consensus and ended without a final statement.

Once again, it was the United States (together with the U.K. and Canada) that came to the rescue of Israel, taking it off the hook.  Israel won’t have to reveal anything that it has — or pretends perhaps not to have — when it comes to nuclear weapons.

But What Does Israel Have? Netanyahu Doesn't Have to Tell

But What Does Israel Have? Netanyahu Doesn’t Have to Tell

The month-long conference convened in New York City with more than 150 countries in attendance. It collapsed after the U.S. rejected an Egyptian draft resolution, backed by the majority of the member states, echoing decades of calls to dismantle any nuclear weapons that Israel may have, which the Jewish state neither confirms nor denies.

The final paper, drafted by Cairo and opposed by the U.S., would have called upon United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to convene a regional conference on banning nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological, by March 2016.

Egypt, however, also insisted that the conference be held with or without Israel’s participation, without prior agreement on an agenda, and with no discussion of regional security issues.

Any reference to establishing a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone (MENFZ) is perceived as directed against Israel, which, according to international and regional perception, is so far the only possessor of such weapons in the region.

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller announced on Friday that there was “no agreement,” and accused Egypt and other Arab states of demanding “unrealistic and unworkable conditions” in the negotiations. “We have made clear throughout the process that we will not accept the efforts by some to cynically manipulate the [conference] or try to leverage the negotiation to advance their narrow objectives,” she told attendees.

The NPT Review Conference was the fourth since 1995 (they are convened every five years). The purpose of the conferences is to draft a new treaty since the current NPT, which entered into force in 1970, was intended for a limited period of 25 years.

According to the NPT, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, technology, knowhow and equipment that would enable states to build nuclear bombs is universally forbidden, and only the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the U.S., Russia, China, U.K. and France – are permitted to have The Bomb.

Some of the existing clauses of the NPT, and particularly the one just cited, are challenged by emerging powers such as India, Brazil and Argentina, which demand full equality — and urge the five major powers to get rid of their nuclear arsenals.

Since decisions at the Review Conference have to be accepted by consensus and approved by all participants, the U.S. rejection of the Egyptian draft led to the conference’s failure.

While there were disagreements on other aspects of the NPT, the Middle East issue was the most divisive.

Israel, which (like India, Pakistan and North Korea) is not a signatory member of the NPT, for the first time this year agreed to attend the Review Conference in the capacity of an “observer.”

Israel noticed (with displeasure) that at the 2010 Review conference, the U.S. did not oppose an Egyptian final draft. That compelled Israel to take part in nonbinding and preliminary talks with states in the region, brokered by a Finnish diplomat, about the terms and conditions of how and when to convene a conference to discuss the creation of MENFZ.

The talks, which in one round included an Iranian diplomat, led nowhere because of unbridgeable differences between the sides and the disintegration in recent years of states in the region such as Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu phoned Secretary of State John Kerry and thanked him for the Obama Administration’s position and support.

The official position of Israel is that it doesn’t oppose — in principle — the convening in the future of a conference that will discuss the creation of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery (missiles), but only when conditions are ripe.

Israel demands that before that happens, all states in the region, including Iran, must recognize the right of Israel to exist, sign peace treaties with it and put in place concrete security arrangements. The next Review Conference will be convened in 2020.

May 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tamir Pardo, the Mossad director

Tamir Pardo, the Mossad director

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

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

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

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

February 24, 2015

A New Israeli Submarine — Part of Strategic Deterrent and More (Think Nuclear)

[This analysis was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for the website of the independent TV news service broadcasting from Israel,  The original is at:]

A few days ago the submarine INS Tanin (Israeli Navy Ship ‘Crocodile’) began its 5,000-mile voyage from Germany’s North Sea port of Kiel, where it was built, to its future home in Israel’s Mediterranean harbor Haifa.

Tanin is the Israeli Navy’s fourth submarine, joining three previous models of the Dolphin class vessels. Two additional submarines will enter into service within four years, making the Israeli submarine fleet one of the biggest and most powerful in a region from the Indian Ocean, via the Persian (Arab) Gulf, to Europe.

An Israeli Dolphin-class Submarine (photo courtesy shlomiliss)

An Israeli Dolphin-class Submarine (photo courtesy shlomiliss)

Israel began expanding its aging, outdated submarine fleet in the early 1990s, when it only had two British-made vessels. It was partly a strategic decision and partly exploitation of circumstances.

In 1991, during the first Gulf war and Iraq’s Scud missile attacks on Israel, then-German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visited Israel in a gesture of solidarity. He was confronted with revelations that German companies had sold equipment, materials and technology to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. Apparently feeling guilt at the German firms’ involvement in a program that could have threatened to gas the Jewish state, Genscher agreed to Israel’s request to finance its navy’s first two modern-day submarines. The total cost of the six subs is estimated at 2.5 billion euro.

Strategically, this was a visionary approach. Realizing that Iraq already had nuclear aspirations, and anticipating that other nations such as Iran would follow suit, Israeli leaders concluded that their country – which had always tried to maintain a strategic edge over its enemies – needed to have second-strike nuclear capability, according to foreign media reports.

Though Israel’s nuclear policy is defined as ambiguous – neither denying nor confirming reports that it possesses such weapons – it is widely assumed to have a nuclear arsenal.

Such a powerful fleet of submarines will upgrade Israeli military capabilities in two areas.

Firstly, improving its intelligence gathering efforts: a submarine is a launching pad that sails undetected near enemy coasts, listening to communications or landing naval commandos.

Even more importantly, however, as stealth vehicles the submarines can store and fire missiles, either conventional or nuclear, even if the country’s alleged land-based nuclear arsenal is destroyed by an enemy’s first strike.

The arrival of the fourth Tanin submarine has brought back into the public discourse an old reality. Despite the recent Gaza war — and the current panic over the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) as an additional terror threat to Israel, its pro-Western neighbors, Europe and America — the Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still mainly concerned that Iran will eventually have nuclear weapons.

This possibility is even more acute because of IS advances in Iraq and Syria. IS military successes would serve Shi’ite Iran as further justification that Iran actually requires a strategic and deterring weapon against its enemies – not necessarily Israel, but the Sunni Islamist barbarians.

In the last decade, when it became evident that Iran was rushing toward a nuclear threshold, there were voices both in Israel and outside advocating for an Israeli rethinking of its own nuclear possibilities. Scholars – but also some within the defense establishment – wondered about the causality of events, suggesting that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were a reaction to Israel’s alleged nuclear monopoly. Some even suggested that Israel promote a Middle East nuclear-free zone, and thus eventually agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

Fortunately, this advice was rejected by Israeli decision-makers. With the changes and uncertainties in the Middle East, a region which today seems to be in the process of redefining its boundaries and national entities, it is clear once again the extent to which Israel’s founding fathers displayed vision when they decided that the only way to survive in this rough and hostile neighborhood was to have strategic state-of-the-art tools.

The ambiguous nuclear policy must remain in place. It will provide Israel not only with the ultimate insurance policy for its existence and also will give the leadership – though probably not the current government – the self-confidence necessary to take risks in peace negotiations, regional security arrangements and territorial concessions.

September 10, 2014

Three Years into Mossad Director’s Term: It’s Been Rough Going for Tamir Pardo

[This article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon — a fresh history of Israeli intelligence from 1948 to the present day — for the website of the 24-hour TV news service that’s broadcast from Israel: i24news.TV.]

Tamir Pardo

Tamir Pardo

Recent new appointments at the top echelon of the Mossad have coincided with Tamir Pardo’s third anniversary at the helm of Israel’s foreign espionage agency. The names and identities of those who were promoted cannot be published because of security considerations, government policy and censorship.

The appointments are rather routine and certainly don’t signal any major shift in the Mossad’s policy. But three years in office means that Pardo has completed half his term. Now is the right time for a midterm report of his successes and failures.

Pardo, a 61-year-old chain smoker, walks more or less in the footsteps of his predecessor — Meir Dagan. If there is a difference between the two, it’s a matter of style and personality. Unlike the charismatic, smiling and controversial Dagan,Pardo is more, much more, reserved. He looks like a gray bureaucrat who has a businesslike attitude. He is not a man of small talk. But his looks are misleading

He is a professional intelligence officer and skillful operative who served nearly 30 years in the operational departments of the Mossad.

The Mossad – the lethal, feared, respected, almost mythological intelligence agency – is going through tough times, trying to cope with an unprecedented set of challenges for Israel at a time when the Mideast is in turmoil.

The year 2013 was not brilliant for the Mossad. It suffered an unprecedented blow when it was revealed that for the first time in its history, an operative had betrayed the organization and caused severe damage to its operations, morale, and omnipotent image.

The alleged traitor was Ben Zygier, an Australian-born Jew who immigrated to Israel and was recruited by the Mossad in 2005 to work, according to foreign reports, in operations against Iran. After being arrested in 2010, he was known in prison only as Prisoner X, his identity kept secret by Israeli censorship and judicial gag orders. Zygier’s story was unveiled only after he hanged himself in his cell.

Pardo’s unsuccessful damage control showed poor judgment and a misunderstanding of 21st century media. Follwoing the Prisoner X revelations, reports came out that another prisoner, nicknamed X2, was being held behind bars in secret, and his case was described as having “similar characteristics.” No details have ever come out about the second X.

The most important development for Pardo’s Mossad’s agenda was Iran. The Islamic Republic, with its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon and Syria, remained at the top the Mossad’s action options. Yet these options were sharply reduced in 2013. Hezbollah amassed a threatening arsenal of 100,000 rockets and missiles, able to target every strategic site as well Israel’s urban centers.

Perhaps above all, 2013 witnessed the end of the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists — a 4-year campaign attributed (in our book) to the Mossad. The four-year campaign of assassinations ended in 2012 after the killings of five nuclear scientists in Iran. Four were assassinated during Dagan’s tenure and one under Pardo.

It became too dangerous. Iran’s counter-intelligence units were conducting an intensive manhunt, and the Mossad could not risk seeing its best combatants — Israel’s term for its most talented and experienced spies and assassins — arrested and executed. In addition, the Obama Administration signaled to Israel that it did not want acts of violence to continue inside Iran when negotiations with world powers were starting on the Iranian nuclear program.

For the time being, the “Pardo boys” (and some females, of course) are turning their intel gathering and operational capabilities to detecting whether — and how — Iran is cheating on its agreements with the United States and other Western countries  Israel intends to learn what Iran is really up to and could be expected to expose Iranian nuclear work.

The Israeli aim is to show that Iran, now ruled by the seemingly moderate President Hasan Rouhani, is — in the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” tirelessly trying to deceive the international community about the true nature of its nuclear program.

If need be, Pardo will not hesitate to resort to the old, violent ways. Like his predecessors, he is a true gatekeeper of Israel’s national interests.

February 22, 2014

Ex-IAEA Official: Flaws in the Deal — Iran Could Still Have a Nuclear Bomb Within 2 Months

What does a former deputy director of the IAEA think of the deal the United States (as part of the P5+1 group) reached with Iran — to restrict Iranian nuclear activities for six months, while some sanctions against Iran are eased?

“This is not a roll-back of the program. No enrichment capability is dismantled. But it is a temporary halt of many of the elements of the program,” says Olli Heinonen in an interview.

Dr. Heinonen, who is from Finland, spent 27 years at the International Atomic Energy Agency. He is credited with identifying as a danger A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani who was traveling from country to country, selling nuclear knowhow.  Heinonen was also notably critical of his former boss, Mohamed elBaradei, the Egyptian who headed the IAEA for a dozen years until 2009. The hint was that elBaradei was too soft on Iran.

Olli Heinonen (photo from Harvard U.)

Olli Heinonen (photo from Harvard U.)

Heinonen, as head of the IAEA’s Safeguards department, was able to visit nuclear facilities in Iran many times. He is certainly one of the world’s leading experts on Iran’s nuclear work — and one of the few who are very knowledgeable yet able to speak openly. Heinonen, after all, is now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“The agreement says that Iran will not build new facilities, but I would have preferred to have a statement included that Natanz and Fordow are the only ones existing or under construction,” he says. “I also welcome the monitoring of Iran’s yellowcake production, with the understanding that the yellowcake imported or produced until now will be subject to monitoring.”

Concerns have been raised because Iran’s semi-industrial-scale enrichment capacities and its stockpile could be further enriched to weapons-grade uranium.

“Indeed. With its current inventory of 20%-enriched uranium, it would take about two weeks in its new centrifuges to produce enough weapons-grade material for one nuclear device.

“If Iran uses 3 to 5%-enriched uranium as feed material at all 18,000 of its currently installed, old-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, the same result would be achieved in two months.

In terms of stockpiled enriched uranium, Iran has more than 7 metric tons of 3 to 5%-enriched uranium. This amount translates to roughly the amount of fissile material for about four bombs.

A more attractive route to break out for Iran is a covert route. A covert facility with 3,000 more advanced IR-2m centrifuges using 20%-enriched uranium would require less than two weeks to produce one bomb-grade amount of fissile material.”

So how long will it take Iran to produce a nuclear weapon?

“Weapons-grade UF6 still has to be turned into uranium metal, components of the weapon have to be machined, and a nuclear device assembled. This would take about a month or two. At this stage, one would have a crude nuclear device — which could be delivered, for example, by a jet fighter, as was the plan of Pakistan at the time of its nuclear test in 1998.

“Obama has set, as his red line — [the limit] for Iran’s nuclear capability — a nuclear device fitted on a missile. That capability appears to be at least one year away.

The Arak heavy water reactor, unless its construction is truly stopped, is likely to come online by the end of 2014. Would this reactor contribute to Iran’s ability to produce plutonium?

“Pakistan, India and Israel have used similar reactors to produce plutonium for their nuclear weapons. The Arak reactor could produce more than one bomb’s worth of plutonium on an annual basis.

“Once the reactor starts operation, it becomes highly radioactive since the spent fuel it churns out will contain fission products and plutonium. Iran would also need to build a reprocessing plant to extract plutonium from the spent fuel. While there is no present indication that Iran is building such a facility, Iran did conduct plutonium separation experiments in the early 1990s.

“There may still be ways to modify the Arak reactor so that it would produce less plutonium. Since Iran has stated that the reactor will be used for the production of medical isotopes, it could be modified to a more proliferation-friendly and smaller-sized light water reactor.

“At this stage, the most reasonable way forward is to freeze the construction the IR-40 reactor, including the manufacturing of fuel and of reactor components, and to halt the production of additional heavy water pending the completion of any final agreement.

“To sum up, the measures taken by the agreement regarding Arak are good, but I would have also included the manufacturing of key components in the deal.” 

December 12, 2013

‘Spies Against Armageddon’ Now ‘Latest Literary Sensation In Tehran’ — N.Y.Times Says So

[Repeat of a blog item from July 2012]

Revelations about assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists by Israel covert operatives in the new book Spies Against Armageddon, by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, are roiling Iran, according to  journalist Artin Afkhami writing in The New York Times.

israel spy, spies against Armageddon, iran nuclear“The latest literary sensation in Tehran,” he writes, “is a thriller about Iran’s nuclear program that is laden with espionage, cunning and political murder. But its authors are not former Iranian intelligence operatives or Iranian military fiction writers. They are not the Iranian equivalent of Tom Clancy.”

The authors of the new book available here in print and ebook form are in fact Raviv, a CBS News correspondent; and Melman, a respected Israeli reporter on intelligence for decades. The headline: “Tehran Abuzz as Book Says Israel Killed 5 Scientists.”

According to Afkhami, Iranian sources regard the book “as an Israeli-written work exposing something the Israeli authorities do not want the world to know.” He writes further that Iran’s state-owned Press TV reported the Spies Against Armageddon assertion that the Kidon (“Bayonet”) unit of the Mossad was responsible for the hits “over the past five years.”

Afkhami concludes: “The question of the assassins’ nationalities has been of special interest in Iran, where a suspect in one of the attacks was hanged last month. Officials announced the arrest last month of a group of suspects, describing them as agents of what Iran calls the Zionist regime without identifying their nationalities. Though the book is unlikely to end speculation about who is responsible for the covert assassination campaign against Iran’s nuclear scientists, its assertions correspond with a longstanding assumption among many security experts in Washington’s policy circles.”

December 6, 2013

Netanyahu the Spoilsport at the White House and U.N. This Week — But with Intelligence Files

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will see President Obama on Monday (Sept. 30) — aiming to remind Obama that Iran is still dangerous and is lying about having no intention to build nuclear bombs.

Netanyahu (BBC April 2013) — “Debbie Downer” at the White House?

Most of that will be behind closed doors at the White House, but some of his message — and perhaps also Obama’s reaction — will be declared publicly.

Netanyahu will likely grant interviews on American TV on Monday, and on Tuesday he’ll have his turn to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York — from the same podium used by Presidents Obama and Rouhani last week.

The bulk of the conversation, in private between Obama and Netanyahu, is expected to include an intelligence file handed to the President by Israel’s leader. The Mossad apparently was tasked with quickly gathering evidence that Iran — despite the hints of a deal by President Hasan Rouhani — secretly plans to continue working on nuclear weapons.

Israeli newspapers are predicting that Netanyahu’s strong skepticism will not be welcome in the United States.

The Jerusalem Post says Netanyahu will play the role of “spoilsport.”  And Haaretz, surprisingly, calls the prime minister “Debbie Downer” — yes, written in Hebrew letters — and goes on to explain how that was a comedic character on NBC’s Saturday Night Live who always sucked the pleasure out of any situation.

The point, as Haaretz writes, is that Barack Obama just had his best week in foreign affairs — gaining key concessions on Syria and Iran — perhaps averting a war in the Middle East — but the little, yet influential, ally Israel will sound a dissonant chord.

Or will it? A member of Knesset in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, Tzahi Hanegbi, told the American Jewish liberal activist group J Street (at its annual conference of about 3,000 in Washington this weekend): “We’re not party poopers, because we’re not sure there’s a reason for a party.”

September 29, 2013

Priority List for Israeli Intelligence: Spies and Analysts Anxious to Figure Out Iran’s Nuclear Intentions, Syria and Egypt’s Fate, Jordan’s Fragility — and Obama’s Next Move

Will he shake hands with Rouhani?

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will watch the start of delicate diplomacy at the U.N. this week from afar — including speeches to the General Assembly by Presidents Obama (U.S.) and Rouhani (Iran), and the possibility that they will shatter barriers by saying “hello” to each other.

But Israel’s political seismometer will acutely feel any political earthquakes that might occur at United Nations headquarters in New York.

Rouhani: Greet the Great Satan?

Ahead of Netanyahu’s own trip to the United States a week later — to see Obama at the White House and to address the U.N. — Israel’s leader will naturally want updated assessments from his intelligence agencies. The Mossad director Tamir Pardo and the head of the Military Intelligence agency (Aman), Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, are doubtless following these regional issues intensely:

1–Iran: Will the enigmatic Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, agree to stop nuclear enrichment in a verifiable way? He seems to be letting Rouhani try a charm offensive to pave the way for talks with the United States and the West. 

The chief aim for the Iranians is for harsh economic sanctions to be cancelled. The Aman agency chief, Gen. Kochavi, told analysts in Israel recently that above all, Iran’s rulers want to keep ruling. Staying in power could be more important than constructing nuclear bombs (which the Iranians publicly insist they have no desire to do — but no Western intelligence agency believes them).

2–Syria: Now that the civil war, raging since early 2011, has wider international involvement, Israeli espionage is surely hurrying to find out everything it can about the chemical weapons: Will Syria’s Bashar al-Assad really surrender them all? That would be a clear “win” for Israel (having hardly lifted a finger, unless one counts four unacknowledged air raids by Israel on weapons targets in Syria in the past year).

Also, Israel needs to update its assessment of who may emerge as the winner in Syria. If it’s the Western-backed Syrian Free Army under Gen. Salim Idris (totally supported by Senator John McCain and probably by the CIA now), Israel will want to influence Idris’s faction in some way. If it’s the anti-Western affiliates of al-Qaeda, Israel will want to establish ways of monitoring how well armed and organized they may be.

If President Assad survives, the Mossad and Aman agencies will seek to penetrate and monitor his reshuffled regime — in the hope that it is extremely damaged and less able to pose a threat to Israel.

3–Egypt: While the U.S. news media seem unable to pay attention to more than one Arab country at a time, Israeli intelligence has not forgotten Egypt. Will the military — which is cooperative and almost friendly with Israel — hang on to power in Cairo? Will the Muslim Brotherhood (inimical to Israel and seen as allies of the notorious Hamas rulers of Gaza) somehow stage a comeback?

4–Jordan:Israel has repeatedly warned the United States that the pro-Western King Abdullah, son of the much missed Hussein, is teetering on the brink of collapse. Political and economic support for his monarchy is fragile, at best. Now the presence of tens of thousands of refugees from Syria’s civil war makes things much more precarious for the West’s friend Abdullah.

Netanyahu and his cartoon “red line” at the U.N. last year

5–The United States: Israeli intelligence is, without doubt, trying to figure out — and if possible have advance warning — if Barack Obama will embrace Iran’s charm offensive and open talks with President Rouhani’s nuclear negotiators. Israel’s current leaders are concerned that the West, anxious to avoid a possible Middle East war, may accept compromises that would not necessarily prevent Iran from pushing ahead toward nuclear power in all its forms (including military).

Netanyahu — after watching Obama, Rouhani, and other leaders at the U.N. from afar — will try to use his own rhetorical firepower to frame an argument at the U.N. that no one can ignore.

September 22, 2013

Daniel Silva — Author of Mossad-Themed Thrillers — has New One, ‘The English Girl’: Here’s Silva Praising ‘Spies Against Armageddon’

Daniel Silva has a new thriller, starring his fictional Mossad assassin Gabriel Allon. This one’s titled The English Girl, already drawing widespread praise.

Last summer, on NBC-TV’s Today, he kindly said about Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman: “No one knows more about the Mossad than these two guys.”

spies against armageddon, today showOn the NBC Today Show in July 2012, as bestselling thriller writer Daniel Silva was discussing his new book, The Fallen Angel  — again featuring his fictional Israeli intelligence officer and assassin — NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Daniel to name his three favorite books for the summer.
The authors of Spies Against Armageddon, Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, were as surprised as anyone at what Daniel Silva said in the last minute of his appearance on Today.  He recommended Raviv and Melman’s book and told Matt Lauer:  “I write about fictitious Israeli intelligence officers. They write about the real thing.  No one knows more about the Mossad than these two guys.”

It was part of a series on the Today Show called “Sizzling Summer Reads.”

And, from the Today Show website, here are Daniel’s responses, when asked for his favorite books to read this summer — and one of the non-fiction books he mentions is near and dear to this blog’s heart:
At the beach

“The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” by Stephen Carter (Knopf) — “a great alternative history by a great American novelist and legal scholar who also happens to be a great friend.”

For a Rainy Day

“The Quality Instinct: Seeing Art Through a Museum Director’s Eye” by Maxwell Anderson  (American Association of Museums) — “Max will take you behind the scenes of a museum and teach you how to look at pieces of art and understand why they’re important, why they’re worthy of being displayed on a museum’s wall.”

Under the Covers

“Spies Against Armageddon”  by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman (Levant Books) —
“I write about fictitious spies, but Dan and Yossi write about real Israeli operatives. These two journalists know more about the Israeli intelligence community than anyone.”

July 13, 2013

Buoyed by New U.S. Security Pledges, Netanyahu Seems to Postpone Military Threat

by Dan Raviv in Washington

Presidents Obama and Shimon Peres review Israeli troops at Ben-Gurion airport (White House photo)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, answering some questions in public with President Barack Obama alongside in Jerusalem, emphasized that Israeli and U.S. intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear program do not differ.  But there’s a differing sense of what “the timing” means to each country.

Somewhat surprisingly deciding not to disagree with his American guest on how long it might take for Iran to build nuclear bombs, Netanyahu said: “If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon, then it’s true it will take them about a year.”  But he added that Iran’s uranium enrichment can reach a dangerous, unacceptable level even without a bomb being designed and constructed.

Netanyahu made a point of thanking Obama for saying in public that they have instructed their teams to negotiate a new ten-year security cooperation agreement.   Their talks, behind closed doors, almost certainly included secret cooperation on many levels — including covert activities that the Mossad and the CIA have done together to retard Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama has begun a three-day visit to Israel, meant to counter the impression that many people had that he does not like the Jewish state.  At Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport and then in Jerusalem, Obama repeatedly stressed his commitment to Israel’s security as the nation of the Jewish people.

March 20, 2013

Ex-Mossad Chief Meir Dagan Silenced by Cancer in Israel Debate on Stopping Iran’s Nuclear Drive

by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman

One of the most important debates on the world scene has gone silent.  For more than a year, commentators and politicians worldwide had been discussing: How can Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program be stopped, and should Israel be stopped from bombing Iran?

The power of election scheduling is hugely impressive.  In both the United States and Israel, political considerations have dwarfed what seemed until recently the most urgent, pressing strategic questions on Earth.

With Americans voting November 6, and Israelis having their national election on January 22, the debate is mute.

israel spy, covert operations, spies against armageddonIsrael’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in recent years has been an enthusiastic saber-rattler, does not see any advantage in thundering about Iran’s nuclear program right now.  His most recent big statement came at the United Nations in New York in late September, when he held a cartoonish diagram of Iran’s bomb-making progress but truly illustrated a time line that seems to delay any military action until mid-2013.

However, if Netanyahu finds that his opponents start bashing him over failures – or harsh realities – in the providing the social and economic needs of Israelis, the prime minister may well wish to change the subject.  To portray himself as the only true tough guy in town, he would probably start beating the war drums again.  That could occur anytime before January 22.

The defense minister in his lame duck cabinet, Ehud Barak, is leading his own small political party and has changed his tone on Iran. Barak is more obvious now in his reluctance to see Israeli warplanes and missiles strike Iran, but in truth Barak will say almost anything for political advantage — so one does not know what he would do, in the remotely possible scenario that he might return to the post of defense minister.

One man who might have kept the Iran debate alive is Meir Dagan.  After serving as Mossad director from 2002 to 2010 and re-directing the priorities of Israel’s foreign espionage agency – featuring secret, daring sabotage and assassination missions inside Iran — Dagan became surprisingly vocal on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program.

In December 2010, just before his departure from the Mossad, Dagan invited Yossi Melman and a few other Israeli journalists for an unprecedented briefing at the agency’s headquarters north of Tel Aviv.   The spy chief claimed credit for delaying the Iranians’ work on uranium enrichment and bomb development.  And Dagan clearly spoke out against the military option, quite specifically against plans being laid by Netanyahu and Barak.

Within months, Dagan was speaking more frequently about how “stupid” it would be for Israel to launch air force sorties and missiles at Iran.  In 2012, he was interviewed in English on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and warned that Iranian retaliation would make daily life unbearable in Israel.  Dagan said Iran’s leaders are “rational,” in a way, suggesting that they could be persuaded to halt their nuclear work.

The implicit message also was that more covert action could continue to be effective: anything from assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists (actions which our book Spies Against Armageddon clearly ascribes to the Mossad) to cyberwarfare such as the Stuxnet worm which damaged computer-controlled uranium centrifuges in Iran.  (Our book reported that the cyberwarfare, probably including more computer viruses, was and is a joint U.S.-Israel project.)

Dagan, as luck would have it, has been diagnosed with liver cancer.  According to people close to him, he sought diagnosis and possible treatment at the Sloane Kettering cancer center in New York City.  Apparently a liver transplant was recommended, but no donor was available. He found the same dead end in Germany and in India.

In Israel, where naturally a former chief of the Mossad would have some VIP priority (as much as anyone might), no donor was available.  Medical policies in Israel discourage liver transplants for any patient older than 65, because senior citizens are not generally likely to benefit — or survive — for long after a transplant.  Dagan is 67 years old.

An appropriate donor (meaning a “match” who had very recently died) was located in Belarus. Dagan flew to that former Soviet republic, without any public announcement, for the liver transplant.   For some reason, the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko, considered to be Europe’s last dictator, decided last month to reveal that the former Mossad chief was in that country recovering from a transplant.

Sources in Israel said Dagan was “struggling for his life,” and indeed liver cancer is almost always extremely serious and recovery from a liver transplant uncertain.  Dagan has returned to Israel and is hospitalized in a medical center with guards and almost no publicity.

People close to him continue to be very worried.  Four weeks after the surgery, they say he is not showing good signs of recovery.  They describe his condition as “stable” but add that he still battling to survive.

He might have been a powerful voice, during an Israeli election campaign when fateful decisions demand to be discussed.  Although not running for parliament, he would have spoken out against the notion of Israel bombing Iran, Meir Dagan is, however, unavailable.

Behind the scenes, Israel’s military and intelligence agencies are surely preparing for all possibilities — for any orders that any Israeli prime minister might issue to them.

We know this is a perennial statement, but here goes: Something big has to happen in 2013, in one direction or another.  Either Iran will give in to the sanctions and military threats and suspend its uranium enrichment, or the United States – whether under Barack Obama or Mitt Romney – will exercise its military might.

Those are the two possibilities most mentioned by Israelis, but they know that Israel may conclude in 2013 that it has to go it alone and do what it can to damage Iran’s nuclear program.

November 4, 2012

One-on-One Talks: U.S. and Iran, on Iran’s Nuclear Program?

The New York Times has a scoop in the Sunday paper: “U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks.”

The dispatch, datelined Washington, says there have been “intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term” in 2009.  Helen Cooper and Mark Landler write that talks, after America’s Election Day, “could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”

[The White House, on Saturday night, issued a denial: “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections.”  The statement from the National Security Council spokesman adds that, while efforts for “a diplomatic solution” continue through the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council + Germany), the Obama Administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”]

Several Iranian dissidents living in exile have claimed, in recent weeks, that a deal has already been reached — for Iran to freeze or suspend its uranium enrichment in some verifiable way, in exchange for a cancellation of the harshest economic sanctions against Iran.

One of those Iranians, using the false name Reza Kahlili, says he was a Revolutionary Guards member who spied inside his native country for the CIA.  (U.S. officials do not dispute the essence of the story in his book, A Time to Betray.)

“Kahlili” has been distributing an on-line article he wrote that suggests Iran could soon announce it is stopping uranium enrichment — in an effort to ensure an election victory for Barack Obama.  This, he said, was the result of secret talks in an Arabian Gulf country.  [Saturday night, in an e-mail, Kahlili said the Times story is confirmation of what he has been writing.]

Kahlili’s prediction of an October Surprise has not seemed to pick up much traction among think-tank scholars and others who track Western efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

At an appearance this past week at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Peace in Washington, a former chief of Israel’s foreign intelligence service — the Mossad — said the West should be talking with Iran.  Efraim Halevy, the Mossad director from 1998 to 2002, said the best wars are the ones that are won without firing a shot. Halevy suggested that Iran’s leaders must be persuaded that having nuclear weapons would be “more dangerous to them” than to anyone else.

Halevy suggested that “red lines,” demanded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are not conducive to diplomacy.  He also said Iran should not be told repeatedly that its nuclear ambitions are an “existential threat” to Israel — because then you are telling your enemy that if he sticks with his current plan, he will be able to defeat you.

Halevy, 78, expressed confidence that Israel will find solutions and countermeasures to whatever a hostile Iran may develop.

An official response to the report that direct talks are being planned came from Israel’s ambassador in Washington — Michael Oren — who told The New York Times that Israel has not been informed of any negotiations in the works.  Oren also expressed concern that Iran would use talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”


October 21, 2012

Iran Boasts About Lying on Nuclear Program — MidEast Should Live Like This?

by Dan Raviv 

The head of Iran’s delegation at the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna is boasting that Iran “sometimes” gives “false information” to the IAEA.  

In the logic of Fereydoun Abbasi Davani (see Haaretz’s story at, the U.N. agency shares intelligence with spies from Israel, the United States, Britain, and other nations — and one result was the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran.  Therefore, Iran started lying, “to protect our nuclear sites and our interests.”

Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir: He was willing to let her have nukes; the U.S. stopped asking.

Now, on the one hand, a cynic could point out that the history of Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal — told, in unique detail, in our book — included plenty of untruths and half-truths. As we write, after Richard Nixon became president in 1969, the United States more-or-less stopped asking Israel what it had built at the French-provided Dimona nuclear reactor.

Still, the fact is that the Middle East accustomed itself to the general belief that Israel has a potent nuclear force. While no one seems to know precisely why Israel has it — or, as a more precise question — when the Israelis might possibly use nuclear weapons — the region does not seem to fear that “the Jews” will drop an A-bomb on anyone on some sort of whim.

Israel’s leaders, on the other hand, study the official and religious declarations of the Islamic Republic of Iran; and they fear that Iran might feel moved one day to destroy the Jewish state.  Really?  Even though the blast and the fallout would surely kill many, many Muslims — Palestinians and others?

Most Israeli strategists conclude: Probably not.  Iran would more likely use a nuclear arsenal for blackmail purposes — or as a kind of “umbrella” for aggressive political initiatives and support for terrorism and upheavals in various countries.

Yet Israelis don’t seem willing to take that chance, to base their lives or deaths on the whim — or religious doctrines — of Iranian leaders.  All Israelis? Some Israelis? Most Israelis? It’s hard to tell, and Israel is the kind of country where 100 average citizens hold at least 125 contradictory opinions.

The decision, on whether to tolerate an Iranian drive to create nuclear bombs or instead go to war, rests with the prime minister in Jerusalem. Right now, that is Benjamin Netanyahu.  He won’t choose to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.

And when Iran boasts that it is lying about the nuclear program, while that is no surprise to Israel and its intelligence services, the prevarications and inventions provide further justification for a hard line by Israel.

September 22, 2012

Urgency As Major Israeli Voices Oppose Iran Nuclear Attack

By Dan Raviv

No one familiar with the history of modern state of Israel can think of a situation as extreme as the choice facing the Jewish state’s leaders now: whether to order their air force to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities — distant, well protected, and partially underground — so as to delay the suspected Iranian nuclear bomb program for a year or two.

[Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, now 89 years old]

Senior figures in Israeli politics — as well as, more privately, in the military and in intelligence agencies — must feel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are close to a decision: because opponents of an airstrike are stepping up their rhetoric to warn that it would be a terribly dangerous thing to do.

This week, the president of Israel — Shimon Peres, with a long history of involvement with secret projects such as Israel’s own nuclear capability — marked his 89th birthday with a very provocative interview, apparently defying Netanyahu and Barak. Peres said that he puts his trust in President Barack Obama’s declaration that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire or make nuclear weapons.
“I am convinced this is an American interest. I am convinced (Obama) recognizes the American interest and he isn’t saying this just to keep us happy. I have no doubt about it, after having had talks with him,” Peres told (Israel’s) Channel Two television.

“Now, it’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can delay (Iran’s nuclear program). It’s clear to us we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone.”

A flurry of comments by Israeli officials and media reports over the past week have put financial markets on edge by appearing to suggest an attack could be launched before the U.S. presidential election in November.

An unidentified top “decision maker”, widely believed to be Barak, told Haaretz newspaper last Friday that Israel “cannot place the responsibility for its security and future even in the hands of its greatest ally”, a reference to the United States.

Peres said in the interview that he did not believe Israel would launch an attack on Iran before November.

As president, Peres, 89, has little political power in Israel. But he has won the respect of many Israelis while serving in the post and his opposition to any unilateral action poses an additional challenge to Netanyahu.

A political source close to Netanyahu issued an angry response to Peres’ comments shortly after the president’s interview was aired.

“Peres has forgotten what the role of Israel’s president is. He has forgotten that he made three major mistakes in regard to Israel’s security … his greatest mistake was in 1981 when he thought bombing the reactor in Iraq was wrong and, to the fortune of Israel’s citizens, Prime Minister Begin ignored him,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

On Friday night, also on Israel’s Channel Two, a former general who served as defense minister — and, for a short time this year as a deputy prime minister to Netanyahu during a failed attempt to govern with a very broad coalition — warned more explicitly against attacking Iran at this time.  Shaul Mofaz seemed to be speaking as though Netanyahu and Barak might order an attack at any time, perhaps ignoring the reported, private appeal by Obama to Israel’s leaders not to attack — thus sparking a possibly global crisis — before America’s Election Day in November.

[Retired general, Shaul Mofaz]

Again, we quote Reuters, which reports that Mofaz warned against starting “a disastrous war”:

[He] said on Israeli television he thought Israel was “planning a hasty, irresponsible event”.

 As a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet for two months, Mofaz was privy to deliberations on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Naming both Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, he said he was “very worried at what they are preparing”.   He added: “I hope very much we don’t reach such a war because it would be a disaster.”

Days after he quit the cabinet late in July in a dispute about military conscription policy, Mofaz, who heads the centrist Kadima party, cautioned he would not back any Israeli military “adventures”.

His comments echoed those of other former Israeli security officials who have spoken against any unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with some saying such an assault could spur Tehran to speed up uranium enrichment.


August 18, 2012

When Going Undercover Meant Sleeping With Arafat’s Wife

(This is a review of Spies Against Armageddon published by the respected British weekly newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle.)
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By Orlando Radice (, August 17, 2012

In 2004, during the Second Intifada, Israeli intelligence officers invited two journalists to a cafe to discuss corruption stories involving Yassir Arafat, with a view to smearing the then-Palestinian Authority leader.

spies against armageddon, yassir arafat, israel-palestineAs the conversations got going, a third, uninvited journalist dropped in to the café on a tip-off that the meeting was taking place.

Excited by the possibility of taking part in Mossad psychological warfare, he offered to pose as a foreign writer who would seduce and sleep with Afarat’s wife, Suha, in order to extract secrets from her.

Although Mossad declined this particular offer, this tale of espionage-sleaze is just one of many James Bond-worthy episodes in Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, a colourful new history of the history of the intelligence agency by journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman.

The book was a “pure journalistic endeavour”, says Mr Melman. “I didn’t have to swear allegiance to any intelligence agency,” he says, although the book had to be submitted to Israel’s military censorship authority.

Spy-glamour aside, Spies Against Armageddon has a serious aim: to dispel myths about Mossad, the spy agency that inspires the greatest number of conspiracy theories in the world.

On the Munich Olympics murders in 1972, the widely-held view, as disseminated by books and at least two films, was that Mossad embarked on a global vengeance mission against those who carried out the attacks.

The book argues that Mossad targeted Palestinian cells not as revenge but as part of long-term strategy to disrupt the PLO terror infrastructure in Europe.

The proof of this, Mr Melman says, was that two of those assassinated post-Munich were only indirectly involved in the Olympic attack. They were, however, key players involved in ongoing operations against Israel.

“Most of Mossad’s work is in intelligence gathering. Only five per cent are special assignments, and very few of those involve killing,” Mr Melman says.

A case in point was Wolfgang Lotz, who joined Mossad in the early 1960s and was one of the agency’s true 007s. He almost certainly assassinated no-one – his skill was in using his “convivial nature” and “passion for women and wine” to work his way into Egyptian high society and extract defence secrets from generals. Using a tiny radio hidden in a riding boot, he telegraphed reports to Tel Aviv.

As John le Carré noted, the best spooks do not kill their enemies – they make friends with them.

August 18, 2012

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