Nuclear Crisis Deepens In Covert Espionage War Between Israel, Iran

The Summer Olympics in London aren’t over yet, but knock-on-wood there haven’t been any significant security issues.  While Israeli officials have accused Iran and its terrorist allies of “warfare” against the Jewish state, the Mossad was not predicting any attacks at the Olympics.

 (below: Israel’s Olympic team at the opening ceremony in London)


This year, however, Israel’s government says “excellent intelligence” has prevented attacks on Israelis in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Thailand, and other countries.  In a litany of Iranian and Hezbollah sins, Israeli officials – to get the attention of Americans – always include the plot, alleged by federal prosecutors, in which an Iranian agent based in Texas was planning to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador by bombing a restaurant in Washington, DC.


The Olympics do always remind Israelis of their countrymen — 11 Israeli athletes — murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Games in Munich, Germany, in 1972.  But Israeli analysts did not feel that Iran or the radical group it finances, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, had similar aims at the London Olympics.  Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization – disguising its role in 1972 by having the attackers call themselves Black September – had concrete reasons to try to grab the world’s attention at the Olympics.  The PLO felt that no one was doing anything to help the Palestinians, five years after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the Six-Day War.


Western intelligence agencies do believe that Hezbollah and agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) are plotting more attacks against Israelis – after the rare, but shocking, success by a suicide bomber in Bulgaria last month that killed five Israeli tourists.


The Iranians, however, are more likely to select low-profile, soft targets.  They have no need to confront the massive, multi-layered security mounted by the British army, among others, in London.


“It is a one-sided attack,” Israel’s President Shimon Peres insisted to CNN recently. “Israel is not threatening Iran.”  He refused to comment on statements, from high-level sources familiar with Israel’s campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, that Israeli operatives have been committing acts of violence inside Iran.  Specifically, the sources said, Mossad operatives – in the espionage agency’s special operations unit called Kidon (“Bayonet”) have assassinated at least four nuclear scientists in Tehran in the past three years.


The Mossad’s intention was to intimidate other scientists, so that they would shun the nuclear program.  Peres would say only that Israel has a right of self-defense, and “our policy is prevention.”  He seemed to be referring to possible retaliation for terrorist strikes such as the one in Bulgaria, but his words apply equally to what Israel’s intelligence community is doing inside Iran.


Well-placed sources have also pointed out an extra concern that Mossad’s Kidon (Bayonet) unit faces when it operates in Iran: the need to stay far away from Iran’s Jewish minority.


Kidon – somewhat comparable to America’s Navy Seals who found and killed Osama bin Laden last year – managed, over the decades, to infiltrate into several enemy capitals.  In Damascus, Syria, in early 2008, Kidon operatives planted a car bomb which killed the Hezbollah military chief, Imad Mughniyeh.  He had been on America’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists since the mid-1980s.


According to officials who have revealed a little bit about Kidon, it is a highly secretive group – its operatives never using their real names, not even around Mossad colleagues – that keeps to itself and might seem to be beyond the reach of the spy agency’s standard rules.


Yet the Kidon unit respects a strong, if unwritten, regulation: not to use local Jews as spies or saboteurs in their home countries.


There are approximately 25,000 Jews still living in Iran, long after most fled in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.  Despite what some published reports have suggested – in part misreading hints in our book about transportation routes and safe houses – the Mossad has not used them in sabotage and assassination missions in Iran.


Israeli spies may well feel conflicted, however, because much of their work has involved protecting or rescuing Jews.  Ever since declaring independence in 1948, the nation took upon itself the responsibility of being not only a Jewish democratic state, but the homeland for Jews anywhere on the globe.


Intelligence agency chiefs have always felt obliged to be guardians of their brethren, far and wide. This self-appointed duty can put Jewish communities in a delicate situation, as their governments and neighbors may accuse them of dual loyalty.


Two units of Israel’s intelligence community – Nativ, which specialized in helping Soviet Jews, and Bitzur, part of the Mossad – organized Hebrew education, self-defense, and secret emigration to Israel.  The Israelis learned – at a painful cost of seeing Jews tortured and executed in Egypt and Iraq in the 1950’s – not to use local Jews as spies inside what the Mossad calls “target countries.”


In Iraq, in late 1951, around one hundred Jews who had agreed to spy for Israel were arrested – and two were hanged.  In Egypt, dozens of young Jews – involved in an Israeli sabotage campaign aimed at humiliating then-President Gamal abdel Nasser – were rounded up in 1954. Two members of the group were hanged, and six others were given harsh prison sentences.  An Israeli intelligence officer, Max Bennett, committed suicide in an Egyptian jail cell.


In any Arab country where Jewish citizens were accused of spying for Israel, life quickly became intolerable for the entire Jewish community.

The Mossad felt that this applied to every nation on earth, not only Arab lands, and agency directors decided to avoid putting local Jews in sensitive situations anywhere. There were minor exceptions: A Jew might be used for a little bit of logistical advice or assistance – a low-level relationship which the Israelis referred to as being a sayan (“helper”) – but never to act as an agent or a spy in their own home country.

    There was one glaring violation of the rule, and it has roiled United States-Israel relations for 27 years: the arrest in Washington of Jonathan Jay Pollard, a civilian who abused his job in U.S. Naval Intelligence to procure secret documents for Israeli handlers.  It turned out that the Mossad did not run Pollard.  He had offered his services to an Israeli military officer, and it was a special unit of the defense ministry in Tel Aviv that accepted Pollard’s offer.


The head of that unit, known as Lakam (a Hebrew acronym for Science Liaison Bureau), was Rafi Eitan, an unusually adventurous Israel intelligence operative whose career included the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960.


Eitan gambled, by running an American Jew as a spy; and it was the American spy who lost.  Pollard was sentenced to life in prison.  Other American Jews working in the defense and intelligence fields immediately found themselves under suspicion of disloyalty.  Eitan, however, turned out fine: Lakam was disbanded, but he got a cushy government-sponsored job and later served as a cabinet minister.


The bitter Pollard experience only strengthened the Mossad’s resolve not to use Jewish locals as spies.  Thus the agency carefully avoids contact with Jews living in Iran.  Yet Israeli officials say privately that they will continue to act in innovative, secret ways against Iran’s nuclear program – because that is far preferable to having all-out war break out.

August 7, 2012

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