Can Israel Really Aid Iran’s Opposition, as Meir Dagan Suggests?

Meir Dagan says helping Iran’s opposition is smarter than an attack. Eli Lake on whether it’s possible.

Meir Dagan, Israel’s former spy chief and a key political foe of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, suggested Sunday that the Western world work to topple the Iranian government. In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, Dagan said he still opposes an aerial bombardment of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and that a smarter tactic would be to aid Iran’s opposition. “It’s our duty to help anyone who likes to present an open opposition against their regime in Iran,” he said.

While Dagan is prohibited by his country’s laws from running for office until 2014, in the last year he has entered Israel’s political fray, complaining publicly that he is worried he can no longer thwart Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s war planning on Iran. Dagan remains influential with Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment, and his public opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will likely undermine the public case Netanyahu is seeking to make for military action.

Between 2002 and 2011, Dagan oversaw Israel’s secret war of sabotage against Iran’s nuclear program from his perch as director of the Mossad. One retired Israeli senior national security official told The Daily Beast last year that he believed Dagan’s opposition to a strike stems in part from his belief that these covert actions are effective in delaying Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. “He is like a scientist who has fallen in love with his microbes,” the official said.

Israel has tried a variety of tactics to slow down Iran’s quest for a bomb, with a particular focus on sanctions and sabotage. Nonetheless, a U.S. diplomatic cable from Aug. 17, 2007, disclosed in 2010 by WikiLeaks, details a conversation between Dagan and then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns that notes support for regime change as a pillar of Israeli strategy. In the meeting, Dagan says Israel’s strategy against Iran is composed of five components: “Political Approach,” “Covert Measure,” “Counterproliferation,” “Sanctions,” and “Force Regime Change.” On the last point, Dagan made the case that the United States should try to exploit discontent brought on by the poor economy in Iran and reach out to ethnic and political opposition groups.

Some Israeli national security officials have themselves tried to build rapport with various Iranian opposition groups. Only a few weeks before the June 12, 2009, Iranian elections that brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the streets, the Israeli Ministry of Defense closed a small office run by a former Israeli ambassador to Iran, Uri Lubrani. The unit run by Lubrani—who now works in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, created by Netanyahu and headed by Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, one of the eight senior Israeli ministers that would decide on an airstrike—tracked Iran’s opposition through public websites. But the project never had much of a budget and did not represent a major strategic initiative for Israeli governments, according to Israeli officials familiar with its work.

“The democratic opposition in Iran has not received any support from Israel or any other country,” said Mohsen Sazgara, a founder of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps who immigrated to the United States in 2005 and who now is affiliated with Iran’s Green Movement. “It is very dangerous for the democratic opposition in Iran for Israel to say they want to intervene in Iran or help the Iranian opposition or directly support them. Of course general support in the world, like pressure on the regime for human rights violations, is welcome, but this should never cross the line into covert support from a government like Israel.”

In the United States, some lawmakers also have pushed for more support to Iran’s indigenous opposition. When Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was a senator from Pennsylvania, he supported legislation calling for regime change in Iran and was asked by President Bush to soften the language. “There is no question that regime change in 2004 and 2005 was as sticky a wicket as you can imagine,” Santorum told me in an interview in 2010. “We just did the Iraq War, to use the term regime change again. The war was not going as well as we had hoped; it was a non-starter for the administration. I could not get a single co-sponsor on the bill. After I changed it to free and fair elections, I got 60 co-sponsors.”

Michael Ledeen, a freedom scholar at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and one of the biggest supporters of regime change in Iran, said he was happy to see Dagan’s remarks about aiding Iran’s opposition on 60 Minutes. “It’s nice to see thoughtful people finally realizing that this option exists, that it could very well succeed, and that it is a moral and strategic imperative,” he said.