Monday, February 6, 2012

The secret war to stop the Iranian bomb ...

Published: January 25, 2012

As the Sabbath evening approached on Jan. 13, Ehud Barak paced the wide living-room floor of his home high above a street in north Tel Aviv, its walls lined with thousands of books on subjects ranging from philosophy and poetry to military strategy. Barak, the Israeli defense minister, is the most decorated soldier in the country’s history and one of its most experienced and controversial politicians.

He has served as chief of the general staff for the Israel Defense Forces, interior minister, foreign minister and prime minister. He now faces, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and 12 other members of Israel’s inner security cabinet, the most important decision of his life — whether to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran. We met in the late afternoon, and our conversation — the first of several over the next week — lasted for two and a half hours, long past nightfall.

“This is not about some abstract concept,” Barak said as he gazed out at the lights of Tel Aviv, “but a genuine concern. The Iranians are, after all, a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map.”
The Nuclear Assassinations

When I mentioned to Barak the opinion voiced by the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and the former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi — that the Iranian threat was not as imminent as he and Netanyahu have suggested and that a military strike would be catastrophic (and that they, Barak and Netanyahu, were cynically looking to score populist points at the expense of national security), Barak reacted with uncharacteristic anger. He and Netanyahu, he said, are responsible “in a very direct and concrete way for the existence of the State of Israel — indeed, for the future of the Jewish people.” As for the top-ranking military personnel with whom I’ve spoken who argued that an attack on Iran was either unnecessary or would be ineffective at this stage, Barak said: “It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions.

But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.”

Netanyahu and Barak have both repeatedly stressed that a decision has not yet been made and that a deadline for making one has not been set. As we spoke, however, Barak laid out three categories of questions, which he characterized as “Israel’s ability to act,” “international legitimacy” and “necessity,” all of which require affirmative responses before a decision is made to attack:

1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project? And can the military and the Israeli people withstand the inevitable counterattack?

2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?

3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?

For the first time since the Iranian nuclear threat emerged in the mid-1990s, at least some of Israel’s most powerful leaders believe that the response to all of these questions is yes.

At various points in our conversation, Barak underscored that if Israel or the rest of the world waits too long, the moment will arrive — sometime in the coming year, he says — beyond which it will no longer be possible to act. “It will not be possible to use any surgical means to bring about a significant delay,” he said. “Not for us, not for Europe and not for the United States. After that, the question will remain very important, but it will become purely theoretical and pass out of our hands — the statesmen and decision-makers — and into yours — the journalists and historians.”

Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s vice prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, is the third leg in the triangle supporting a very aggressive stance toward Iran. When I spoke with him on the afternoon of Jan. 18, the same day that Barak stated publicly that any decision to strike pre-emptively was “very far off,” Ya’alon, while reiterating that an attack was the last option, took pains to emphasize Israel’s resolve. “Our policy is that in one way or another, Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped,” he said. “It is a matter of months before the Iranians will be able to attain military nuclear capability.

Israel should not have to lead the struggle against Iran. It is up to the international community to confront the regime, but nevertheless Israel has to be ready to defend itself. And we are prepared to defend ourselves,” Ya’alon went on, “in any way and anywhere that we see fit.”

For years, Israeli and American intelligence agencies assumed that if Iran were to gain the ability to build a bomb, it would be a result of its relationship with Russia, which was building a nuclear reactor for Iran at a site called Bushehr and had assisted the Iranians in their missile-development program. Throughout the 1990s, Israel and the United States devoted vast resources to weakening the nuclear links between Russia and Iran and applied enormous diplomatic pressure on Russia to cut off the relationship.

Ultimately, the Russians made it clear that they would do all in their power to slow down construction on the Iranian reactor and assured Israel that even if it was completed (which it later was), it wouldn’t be possible to produce the refined uranium or plutonium needed for nuclear weapons there.

But the Russians weren’t Iran’s only connection to nuclear power. Robert Einhorn, currently special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control at the U. S. State Department, told me in 2003: “Both countries invested huge efforts, overt and covert, in order to find out what exactly Russia was supplying to Iran and in attempts to prevent that supply. We were convinced that this was the main path taken by Iran to secure the Doomsday weapon. But only very belatedly did it emerge that if Iran one day achieved its goal, it will not be by the Russian path at all.

It made its great advance toward nuclear weaponry on another path altogether — a secret one — that was concealed from our sight.”

That secret path was Iran’s clandestine relationship with the network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb. Cooperation between American, British and Israeli intelligence services led to the discovery in 2002 of a uranium-enrichment facility built with Khan’s assistance at Natanz, 200 miles south of Tehran. When this information was verified, a great outcry erupted throughout Israel’s military and intelligence establishment, with some demanding that the site be bombed at once. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not authorize an attack.

Instead, information about the site was leaked to a dissident Iranian group, the National Resistance Council, which announced that Iran was building a centrifuge installation at Natanz. This led to a visit to the site by a team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who were surprised to discover that Iran was well on its way to completing the nuclear fuel cycle — the series of processes for the enrichment of uranium that is a critical stage in producing a bomb.

Despite the discovery of the Natanz site and the international sanctions that followed, Israeli intelligence reported in early 2004 that Iran’s nuclear project was still progressing. Sharon assigned responsibility for putting an end to the program to Meir Dagan, then head of the Mossad.

The two knew each other from the 1970s, when Sharon was the general in charge of the southern command of the Israel Defense Forces and Dagan was a young officer whom he put in charge of a top-secret unit whose purpose was the systematic assassination of Palestine Liberation Organization militiamen in the Gaza Strip.

As Sharon put it at the time: “Dagan’s specialty is separating an Arab from his head.”

Sharon granted the Mossad virtually unlimited funds and powers to “stop the Iranian bomb.” As one recently retired senior Mossad officer told me: “There was no operation, there was no project that was not carried out because of a lack of funding.”

At a number of secret meetings with U.S. officials between 2004 and 2007, Dagan detailed a “five-front strategy” that involved political pressure, covert measures, counterproliferation, sanctions and regime change. In a secret cable sent to the U.S. in August 2007, he stressed that “the United States, Israel and like-minded countries must push on all five fronts in a simultaneous joint effort.” He went on to say: “Some are bearing fruit now. Others” — and here he emphasized efforts to encourage ethnic resistance in Iran — “will bear fruit in due time, especially if they are given more attention.”

From 2005 onward, various intelligence arms and the U.S. Treasury, working together with the Mossad, began a worldwide campaign to locate and sabotage the financial underpinnings of the Iranian nuclear project. The Mossad provided the Americans with information on Iranian firms that served as fronts for the country’s nuclear acquisitions and financial institutions that assisted in the financing of terrorist organizations, as well as a banking front established by Iran and Syria to handle all of these activities.

The Americans subsequently tried to persuade several large corporations and European governments — especially France, Germany and Britain — to cease cooperating with Iranian financial institutions, and last month the Senate approved sanctions against Iran’s central bank.

In addition to these interventions, as well as to efforts to disrupt the supply of nuclear materials to Iran, since 2005 the Iranian nuclear project has been hit by a series of mishaps and disasters, for which the Iranians hold Western intelligence services — especially the Mossad — responsible.

According to the Iranian media, two transformers blew up and 50 centrifuges were ruined during the first attempt to enrich uranium at Natanz in April 2006. A spokesman for the Iranian Atomic Energy Council stated that the raw materials had been “tampered with.” Between January 2006 and July 2007, three airplanes belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards crashed under mysterious circumstances. Some reports said the planes had simply “stopped working.” The Iranians suspected the Mossad, as they did when they discovered that two lethal computer viruses had penetrated the computer system of the nuclear project and caused widespread damage, knocking out a large number of centrifuges.

In January 2007, several insulation units in the connecting fixtures of the centrifuges, which were purchased from a middleman on the black market in Eastern Europe, turned out to be flawed and unusable. Iran concluded that some of the merchants were actually straw companies that were set up to outfit the Iranian nuclear effort with faulty parts.

Of all the covert operations, the most controversial have been the assassinations of Iranian scientists working on the nuclear project. In January 2007, Dr. Ardeshir Husseinpour, a 44-year-old nuclear scientist working at the Isfahan uranium plant, died under mysterious circumstances. The official announcement of his death said he was asphyxiated “following a gas leak,” but Iranian intelligence is convinced that he was the victim of an Israeli assassination.

Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a particle physicist, was killed in January 2010, when a booby-trapped motorcycle parked nearby exploded as he was getting into his car. (Some contend that Mohammadi was not killed by the Mossad, but by Iranian agents because of his supposed support for the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi.)

Later that year, on Nov. 29, a manhunt took place in the streets of Tehran for two motorcyclists who had just blown up the cars of two senior figures in the Iranian nuclear project, Majid Shahriari and Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani. The motorcyclists attached limpet mines (also known as magnet bombs) to the cars and then sped away. Shahriari was killed by the blast in his Peugeot 405, but Abbassi-Davani and his wife managed to escape their car before it exploded.

Following this assassination attempt, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Abbassi-Davani vice president of Iran and head of the country’s atomic agency. Today he is heavily guarded wherever he goes, as is the scientific head of the nuclear project, Mohsin Fakhri-Zadeh, whose lectures at Tehran University were discontinued as a precautionary measure.

This past July, a motorcyclist ambushed Darioush Rezaei Nejad, a nuclear physicist and a researcher for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, as he sat in his car outside his house. The biker drew a pistol and shot the scientist dead through the car window.

Four months later, in November, a huge explosion occurred at a Revolutionary Guards base 30 miles west of Tehran. The cloud of smoke was visible from the city, where residents could feel the ground shake and hear their windows rattle, and satellite photos showed that almost the entire base was obliterated. Brig. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ missile-development division, was killed, as were 16 of his personnel. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, paid respect by coming to the funeral service for the general and visiting the widow at her home, where he called Moghaddam a martyr.

Just this month, on Jan. 11, two years after his colleague and friend Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed, a deputy director at the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility named Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan left his home and headed for a laboratory in downtown Tehran. A few months earlier, a photograph of him accompanying Ahmadinejad on a tour of nuclear installations appeared in newspapers across the globe. Two motorcyclists drove up to his car and attached a limpet mine that killed him on the spot.

Israelis cannot enter Iran, so Israel, Iranian officials believe, has devoted huge resources to recruiting Iranians who leave the country on business trips and turning them into agents. Some have been recruited under a false flag, meaning that the organization’s recruiters pose as other nationalities, so that the Iranian agents won’t know they are on the payroll of “the Zionist enemy,” as Israel is called in Iran.

Also, as much as possible, the Mossad prefers to carry out its violent operations based on the blue-and-white principle, a reference to the colors of Israel’s national flag, which means that they are executed only by Israeli citizens who are regular Mossad operatives and not by assassins recruited in the target country. Operating in Iran, however, is impossible for the Mossad’s sabotage-and-assassination unit, known as Caesarea, so the assassins must come from elsewhere. Iranian intelligence believes that over the last several years, the Mossad has financed and armed two Iranian opposition groups, the Muhjahedin Khalq (MEK) and the Jundallah, and has set up a forward base in Kurdistan to mobilize the Kurdish minority in Iran, as well as other minorities, training some of them at a secret base near Tel Aviv.

Officially, Israel has never admitted any involvement in these assassinations, and after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against the killing of Ahmadi-Roshan this month, President Shimon Peres said he had no knowledge of Israeli involvement.

The Iranians vowed revenge after the murder, and on Jan. 13, as I spoke with Ehud Barak at his home in Tel Aviv, the country’s intelligence community was conducting an emergency operation to thwart a joint attack by Iran and Hezbollah against Israeli and Jewish targets in Bangkok. Local Thai forces, reportedly acting on information supplied by the Mossad, raided a Hezbollah hideout in Bangkok and later apprehended a member of the terror cell as he tried to flee the country. The prisoner reportedly confessed that he and his fellow cell members intended to blow up the Israeli Embassy and a synagogue.

Meir Dagan, while not taking credit for the assassinations, has praised the hits against Iranian scientists attributed to the Mossad, saying that beyond “the removal of important brains” from the project, the killings have brought about what is referred to in the Mossad as white defection — in other words, the Iranian scientists are so frightened that many have requested to be transferred to civilian projects.

“There is no doubt,” a former top Mossad official told me over breakfast on Jan. 11, just a few hours after news of Ahmadi-Roshan’s assassination came from Tehran, “that being a scientist in a prestigious nuclear project that is generously financed by the state carries with it advantages like status, advancement, research budgets and fat salaries. On the other hand, when a scientist — one who is not a trained soldier or used to facing life-threatening situations, who has a wife and children — watches his colleagues being bumped off one after the other, he definitely begins to fear that the day will come when a man on a motorbike knocks on his car window.”

As we spoke, a man approached and, having recognized me as a journalist who reports on these issues, apologized before asking: “When is the war going to break out? When will the Iranians bomb us?” The Mossad official smiled as I tried to reassure the man that we wouldn’t be nuked tomorrow. Similar scenes occur almost every day — Israelis watch the news, have heard that bomb shelters are being prepared, know that Israel test-fired a missile into the sea two months ago — and a kind of panic has begun to overtake Israeli society, anxiety that missiles will start raining down soon.

Dagan believes that his five-fronts strategy has succeeded in significantly delaying Iran’s progress toward developing nuclear weapons; specifically “the use of all the weapons together,” he told me and a small group of Israeli journalists early last year. “In the mind of the Iranian citizen, a link has been created between his economic difficulties and the nuclear project. Today in Iran, there is a profound internal debate about this matter, which has divided the Iranian leadership.” He beamed when he added, “It pleases me that the timeline of the project has been pushed forward several times since 2003 because of these mysterious disruptions.”

Barak and Netanyahu are less convinced of the Mossad’s long-term success. From the beginning of their terms (Barak as defense minister in June 2007, Netanyahu as prime minister in March 2009), they have held the opinion that Israel must have a military option ready in case covert efforts fail. Barak ordered extensive military preparations for an attack on Iran that continue to this day and have become more frequent in recent months. He was not alone in fearing that the Mossad’s covert operations, combined with sanctions, would not be sufficient.

The I.D.F. and military intelligence have also experienced waning enthusiasm. Three very senior military intelligence officers, one who is still serving and two who retired recently, told me that with all due respect for Dagan’s success in slowing down the Iranian nuclear project, Iran was still making progress. One recalled Israel’s operations against Iraq’s nuclear program in the late 1970s, when the Mossad eliminated some of the scientists working on the project and intimidated others. On the night of April 6, 1979, a team of Mossad operatives entered the French port town La Seyne-sur-Mer and blew up a shipment necessary for the cooling system of the Iraqi reactor’s core that was being manufactured in France.

The French police found no trace of the perpetrators. An unknown organization for the defense of the environment claimed responsibility.

The attack was successful, but a year later the damage was repaired and further sabotage efforts were thwarted. The project advanced until late in 1980, when it was discovered that a shipment of fuel rods containing enriched uranium had been sent from France to Baghdad, and they were about to be fed into the reactor’s core. Israel determined that it had no other option but to launch Operation Opera, a surprise airstrike in June 1981 on the Tammuz-Osirak reactor just outside Baghdad.

Similarly, Dagan’s critics say, the Iranians have managed to overcome most setbacks and to replace the slain scientists. According to latest intelligence, Iran now has some 10,000 functioning centrifuges, and they have streamlined the enrichment process. Iran today has five tons of low-grade fissile material, enough, when converted to high-grade material, to make about five to six bombs; it also has about 175 pounds of medium-grade material, of which it would need about 500 pounds to make a bomb. It is believed that Iran’s nuclear scientists estimate that it will take them nine months, from the moment they are given the order, to assemble their first explosive device and another six months to be able to reduce it to the dimensions of a payload for their Shahab-3 missiles, which are capable of reaching Israel.

They are holding the fissile material at sites across the country, most notably at the Fordo facility, near the holy city Qom, in a bunker that Israeli intelligence estimates is 220 feet deep, beyond the reach of even the most advanced bunker-busting bombs possessed by the United States.


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