07.07.12

Are Israeli Agents Assassinating Iranian Scientists? A New Book Argues

In an excerpt from their new book, Spies Against Armageddon, Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman argue that Mossad special agents are behind the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. But will it be enough to stop Iran from getting nukes?

Another wave of hangings by Iran’s Islamic government is expected, after officials announced that 20 Iranians were arrested, allegedly for helping Israel assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists.

Executions are just a matter of time, as Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) is out to show that it is not completely helpless in the face of four assassinations and one failed attempt in the streets of the capital, Tehran, over the last two years. Israeli officials refuse to comment on who specifically might be guilty or innocent, but they publicly expressed their joy that “God’s finger” had acted against Iran’s nuclear program. They also indicate that no credence should be placed in the “confessions” that will doubtless be televised by Iran.

Before Majid Jamali Fashi was hanged two months ago, as the convicted “murderer” of a nuclear scientist in January 2010, the 24-year-old kick boxer was shown on official TV reciting a tale of having been flown to Israel for training by the Mossad. His interrogators, who probably wrote the confession for him, had seen far too many B-movies about spies and were wrong on many details, including the location of Mossad headquarters.

Our in-depth study of 50 years of assassinations by Israel’s foreign-espionage agency—including conversations with current and former Mossad operatives and those who work with them in countries friendly to Israel—yields the conclusion that Fashi and the 20 other suspects now being held were not the killers. The methods, communications, transportation, and even the innovative bombs used in the Tehran killings are too sensitive for the Mossad to share with foreign freelancers.

Instead, the assassinations are likely the work of Israel’s special spy unit for the most delicate missions: a kind of Mossad within the Mossad called Kidon (Bayonet). Kidon operatives are even more innovative, braver, and physically fitter than other Mossad men and women. Again and again, they have fulfilled their missions without leaving much of a trace. The Israeli government has never confirmed Kidon’s existence or its actions.

The assassinations of physicists and nuclear scientists in Iran have been what Israelis call “blue and white” operations, referring to the colors of their nation’s flag. Without giving full details, senior Israeli officials have revealed that fact to counterparts in the CIA and the White House. In at least one instance, U.S. officials were obviously displeased that the Mossad took action at a delicate juncture in multilateral nuclear talks with Iran.

Although Iran has no diplomatic relations with Israel and bans any visits by Israelis, Mossad operatives seem to have no trouble entering and leaving the country. Despite being a heavily patrolled police state, Iran has long borders that stretch across mountains and wasteland. Two of the neighboring former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, provide an excellent launching pad for cross-border penetrations. Also, for more than half a century now, the Mossad has cultivated close cooperation with Kurds—who were stateless, but now run the Kurdish autonomous zone of northern Iraq, which borders Iran. Israel used to secretly help Kurds when they were oppressed by Iraq’s government, and the Mossad has excelled in living by the ancient dictum that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Israeli intelligence has also expressed an interest in collaborating with disaffected minority groups inside Iran. Meir Dagan, the director of the Mossad from 2002 through 2010, was quoted in a State Department cable obtained and released by WikiLeaks. He is said to have told a senior American official in 2007 that disaffection among Baluchi, Azeri, and Kurdish minorities could be exploited by the United States and Israel. In addition, Dagan suggested supporting student pro-democracy activists, if only to cause unrest inside Iran.

The official summary said Dagan felt sure that the U.S. and Israel could “change the ruling regime in Iran and its attitude toward backing terror regimes,” and that “we could also get them to delay their nuclear project.” According to the cable, Dagan said, “The economy is hurting, and this is provoking a real crisis among Iran’s leaders.” The minority groups that the Mossad and CIA could support or exploit are “raising their heads and are tempted to resort to violence.”

Economic woes and high unemployment have only become worse in Iran, as U.S.-led sanctions have begun to bite. From the Mossad’s perspective, unhappy and aimless young males in Iran represent an opportunity to recruit sources of information, agents who can be trained, and even mercenary or rebel armies.

Yet for such a sensitive, dangerous, and daring mission as a series of assassinations in Iran’s capital, the Mossad would not depend on hired-gun mercenaries. They would be considered far less trustworthy, and there was hardly any chance that the Mossad would reveal to non-Israelis the unique methods developed by the Kidon unit.

Mossad chief Dagan was pleased by the missions in Iran and the “cleanliness” of their execution: no clues, no fingerprints, not even motorcycles left behind.

Naturally, no one in Jerusalem was talking about any operational details of how Israelis entered and left Iran—or where they stayed while inside the Islamic Republic. Since the beginning of the State of Israel in 1948, its covert operatives have never found it difficult to masquerade as locals in every corner of the vast Middle East.

There were many possibilities. Obviously, Israeli operatives traveled using the passports of other countries, including bogus documents produced by skilled Mossad forgers and genuine passports where the photographs might be altered slightly. The spy agency’s use of phony, borrowed, and probably stolen non-Israeli passports has been inadvertently revealed several times, over many years. After a Mossad team led by Kidon assassins killed a Palestinian Islamist militant in a hotel in Dubai in January 2010, the local police chief gleefully displayed video footage from security cameras that showed surveillance teams doing their shadowy work—frequently changing wigs and eyeglasses—and even the men wearing tennis whites, shorts, and others with baseball caps who were almost certainly the killers.

spies against armageddon
“Spies Against Armageddon.” By Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman. $16.99; Levant Books; 356 pages. ()

The police chief, General Dahi Khalfan, showed the visages of 27 men and women, displaying photos from their apparently bogus passports. Although the British, Australian, and Irish governments expressed anger at the Mossad for abusing their passports, diplomatic damage to Israel was minimal. In fact, Meir Dagan was fully satisfied with the outcome of the Dubai operation: the target—Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in charge of arms acquisition for Hamas—was dead. All the Mossad operatives returned safely to Israel. And no one was arrested or even accurately named.

Over the years, some stories about Kidon’s prowess have leaked to the public. With the little that was known about them, the team’s operatives were considered synonymous—in Israel and outside—with assassins, liquidators, and murderers.

More broadly, there is a Mossad mythology that is based on decades of half-truths and rumors. Many of those stemmed from the secret agency’s “war of the spooks” against Palestinian radicals in the 1970s all over Europe—as a response to the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, in September 1972.

“Our attitude was that in order to defend ourselves, we have to go on the attack,” former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir told us. “Those who accuse us of being motivated simply by revenge are talking nonsense. We didn’t wage a vendetta campaign against individuals. It was a war against an organization, aiming to halt and prevent concrete terrorist plans. We concentrated on what was expected to happen.”

Zamir’s analysts found it satisfying that PLO activists in Europe and at their headquarters in Beirut—rather than devoting their energies to terrorist planning—were now looking over their shoulders, out of fear that they themselves were about to be attacked.

The truth, however, about the myth is that since the Mossad’s creation in the early 1950s, it has been involved in only a few dozen killing operations—certainly fewer than 50. But the public imagination worldwide has been captured by the notion of constant assassinations, and the Mossad might find it difficult to refute the image with facts. So it does not bother.

Dagan clearly believed in assassinations, and he did not shy away from planning missions in the heart of enemy countries. A Kidon squad managed to plant itself in Damascus, Syria, long enough to locate and kill Imad Mughniyeh in February 2008. Mughniyeh, the Hizbullah faction’s military chief and a veteran hijacker and bomber, had long been on America’s list of most wanted terrorists.

Overall, Dagan could be proud that during his eight years in charge, there were more killings by the Mossad in enemy or “target” countries—Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates—than ever before. In the past, such activities had mostly been confined to the safer “base” countries where Israelis did not necessarily have to pretend to be something else. The change to a bolder pattern was the “dagger between the Mossad’s teeth” that Ariel Sharon, the prime minister who appointed Dagan, had demanded.

Despite tactical successes in Iran, the Mossad and its top political master—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—know that the entire Iranian nuclear-weapons program will not be demolished by assassinations of nuclear scientists and military officers.

Yet, any delay in Iran’s nuclear work represents an achievement for Israel. Their strategic thinking—exercised in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere—holds that temporary disruptions to an enemy’s dangerous projects are sufficient cause for taking significant risks.

This was even truer when it came to killing Iranian specialists, who worked on unique tasks that required years of study.  These men were not available in abundant supply, despite Iran’s relatively large and advanced technological infrastructure. The assassinations have also had a strong psychological objective: sending a loud and clear message to scientists that working for the nuclear program was dangerous. The Mossad was telling them, in effect: Stay in your classrooms. Do your academic work. Get your research published. Enjoy the university life. But do not help Iran go nuclear. Otherwise, your career could be cut short by a bullet or a bomb.

Indeed, Israeli intelligence noticed that the assassination campaign was paying off, with what it called “white defections”: Iranian scientists were scared, many contemplated leaving the program, and some actually did.

With rare exceptions, they did not depart Iran and defect to the Western or Israeli side, but they dissociated themselves from the nuclear program. There were also indications of scientists being reluctant to join the program, despite lucrative terms offered by the Iranian government.

The intimidation campaign definitely showed an impact on foreigners. While in the past, Chinese, Russians, Pakistanis, and others were happily accepting invitations—and high pay—to work in Iran, the only ones who still seemed attracted were North Koreans.

Mossad chief Dagan was pleased by the missions in Iran and the “cleanliness” of their execution: no clues, no fingerprints, not even motorcycles left behind. Iranian authorities could only guess who was attacking, in broad daylight, in their capital.

Yet the deeply intimidating impact that Dagan aimed to create in Iran seems to be exhausted. This is apparent to Tamir Pardo, the new head of the Mossad who had been Dagan’s deputy. (Dagan actually advised Netanyahu to appoint another candidate.) The baby-faced Pardo is soft-spoken, but his body language is misleading. Pardo is no less shrewd and cunning than his predecessor.

But the new director has a reputation for knowing that one should not push one’s luck too far. Iran is becoming more dangerous for Mossad and other foreign-intelligence operatives. One can expect a halt, at least temporarily, of the assassination campaign.

Dagan, in retirement, has become outspoken in his opposition to a military strike by Israel against Iran. He warns that retaliation by Iran and its proxies could be highly damaging to normal life in the Jewish state. Dagan also believes that an attack by Israel would unite most Iranians around their regime and would give Iran’s scientists and engineers a major reason to speed up their underground nuclear work.

His private advice boils down to pointing out that there is still plenty of disruption to be accomplished within Iran by sabotage, assassinations, and a truly innovative weapon—cyberwarfare. The worm called Stuxnet, that took over Iranian nuclear-lab computers, was a product of Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies working together, and it was not the only computer virus created by the highly skilled programmers in both nations.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seem highly skeptical that international economic sanctions will persuade Iran to cancel its nuclear-bomb program, Dagan and other former and current intelligence officials believe that sanctions are biting and could be a major factor in the ayatollahs’ thinking.

Dagan, in particular, seemed unconcerned by Barak’s public warning that Iran was entering a “zone of immunity”—a situation in which air raids by Israel’s limited air force could not reliably destroy a good deal of Iran’s nuclear potential. Dagan seems confident that, in order to prevent Iran from developing nukes, the United States would attack Iran. His analysis is guided by years of close ties with the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations. “I always prefer that Americans will do it,” he told the very few journalists he has met since he left office.

Dagan sees a strong possibility that, depending on circumstances, the United States will strike at Iran. He told Mossad staff members that economic factors in the modern world are powerful. He explained that he carefully studied the motivations of American leaders in formulating foreign policy and realized that the United States went to war in Iraq—twice—because of energy interests.

Dagan, it seems, has reached the conclusion that the U.S. would not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons—not only out of concern that a messianic Shi’ite regime might use the bomb or intimidate Israel—but mainly because Iran would become the most powerful nation among energy producers.

The United States, in the world according to Dagan, would not permit that to happen.