Israel’s Use of Intelligence

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by John Bolton headlined “Israel’s Use of Intelligence”:

On Jan. 31, 2018, Mossad agents pulled off one of history’s most daring and effective intelligence raids. Under cover of darkness, they seized, from a supposedly secure Tehran warehouse, critical archives documenting Iran’s heavily concealed nuclear-weapons efforts, escaping with a truckload of materials. Locating the archive was a feat; liberating it from the enemy’s capital was a triumph.

For months, Israeli and American experts scrutinized the enormous quantity of recovered data, until Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, decided the time was right to tell the world. He wanted the maximum possible international impact from revealing both the fact of the raid and its payoff. He told Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, “we need not only to convince the world that Iran lied about its nuclear weapons program—we need to show the world.” Rarely has an intelligence play been so directly connected to crucial geopolitical objectives, just as Mossad’s clandestine diplomacy has rarely been equaled by other Western intelligence agencies.

Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar’s “Target Tehran” opens with “the heist,” whose yield is still revealing critical information about Iran’s intricately concealed weapons work. The authors then expand to Israel’s broader covert war against Iran, waged to preserve the Jewish state from a “nuclear holocaust,” as Ariel Sharon once characterized it to George W. Bush. From assassinating key Iranian nuclear and missile scientists and officials, to deploying kinetic cyber weapons to wreak extensive damage throughout Iran’s physical facilities, Mossad and Israeli military intelligence have been unremitting in their efforts for over a decade.

In many respects, “Target Tehran” is a mini-biography of Mr. Cohen, Mossad’s leader from 2016 to 2021 and a close Netanyahu ally. Mr. Cohen’s achievements, both in covert operations and undercover diplomacy, are the stuff of movies. He started as a Mossad case officer, rising to deputy director, and then became Netanyahu’s national security adviser before taking over the legendary spy agency.

Eliminating men trying to incinerate one’s country isn’t for the faint of heart. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, “the Robert Oppenheimer of Iran” in Der Spiegel’s description, was the most prominent nuclear scientist who expired (in November 2020) courtesy of Mossad. Fakhrizadeh had worked with Pakistani nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan, who sold designs for uranium-enrichment facilities and nuclear weapons not just to Iran but also to Libya and North Korea. Indeed, Fakhrizadeh undoubtedly contributed to joint activities by Tehran and Pyongyang, including building a twin of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar in Syria, destroyed by Israeli bombing in September 2007.

Many Iranian casualties are doubtless still classified, but Messrs. Bob and Evyatar provide extensive examples. Top of the list is Qassem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard’s external arm, the Quds Force, in January 2020. This was an American operation, but one that Israel had been planning for years. Soleimani conceived the “ring of fire” strategy to surround Israel with devastating weapons and destroy the “little Satan”; his death had perhaps even more significance for Israel than for America.

“Target Tehran” is replete with anti-Iran cyber-warfare and sabotage successes. Here, Israel has never been shy, teaching the U.S. critical lessons on dealing with nuclear proliferators by bombing Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in 1981. Unfortunately, Washington didn’t catch on, and still hasn’t, notwithstanding Israel’s 2007 refresher course against the Al-Kibar reactor. Israel’s repeated acts of sabotage to cripple key Iranian nuclear and missile infrastructure, such as the Natanz uranium-enrichment facilities, make Lawrence of Arabia’s “revolt in the desert” against the Turks look tame. Often coordinating with anti-regime Iranians, like members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, Israel’s destructive work has significantly delayed Iran’s effort to build a nuclear weapon.

Governments like Israel’s, or our own, face a dilemma in deciding what to publicly reveal—or not—about their successful covert operations. Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s former foreign minister, recently said: “We take actions that are better left unsaid.” While the instinct of clandestine operators is to keep everything under wraps, there are often legitimate reasons to announce the results. If the world thinks Mossad agents are 10 feet tall, what is the harm in that, as a deterrent if nothing else? On the other hand, revealing information that could compromise critical sources and methods, or limit future options, is obviously counterproductive. Deciding to reveal classified operations should be strategic.

Messrs. Bob and Evyatar also reveal, basically for the first time, how Mossad’s work helped create the environment culminating in the Abraham Accords, formalizing full diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other Muslim countries. Relations among their respective intelligence agencies, well below anyone else’s radar, produced a mutual confidence impossible to achieve if conducted by diplomats in full public view. Clandestine Mossad successes, such as extracting Iran’s nuclear archive, made breakthrough impressions with the Emiratis and Saudis. When the Abraham Accords were announced, innumerable political figures rose to take credit, but the real work was done over many years, much of it in the shadows.

The hermetic secrecy surrounding many of Israel’s accomplishments, until they’re made public, raises important questions for U.S.-Israel relations in light of our 2024 presidential election. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s previous support for Israel, his irresponsible handling of classified materials before and after his presidency would give any government in Jerusalem pause. If Mr. Trump were re-elected, how much would Israeli leaders be willing to share?

Whatever the result in November 2024, Messrs. Bob and Evyatar make clear that future Israeli governments will do what they need to do against Iran. If only Washington and our presidential candidates would get the point about Iran and back Israel more vigorously, we would be far closer to real Middle East peace and security. The candidates could start by writing their own reviews of “Target Tehran.”

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, served as national security adviser from April 2018 to September 2019.

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