As in other operations by the Mossad, this one – in late 2006 – also began when
Unit 8200, the IDF’s Signal Intelligence unit, incidentally intercepted a phone
conversation and an electronic reservation a senior Syrian official in Damascus
had made in a London hotel.
According to various reports, Israeli and US
agencies had tapped the Syrian official’s communication lines since 2002. He had
cultivated contacts over the years with North Korea, and his numerous trips to
Pyongyang had attracted the attention of the CIA and Mossad.
stage though, the existence of a Syrian nuclear program was based simply on
speculation and mainly on a number of phone calls between North Korea and a
place in northeastern Syria called al-Kibar intercepted by the US National
Security Agency (NSA).
While antennas at Unit 8200’s base north of Tel
Aviv received the Syrian official’s reservation, a group of young agents sitting
not far away at Mossad headquarters were busy discussing the Second Lebanon
Similar to the rest of the Israeli defense establishment, the Mossad
was not immune to public criticism after the war. For two years, Mossad agents
had carried out dozens of secret missions and had risked their lives to collect
information about Iran and its proxies scattered across the Middle East. They
had paid particular attention to the smuggling routes Iran used for its nuclear
project and scrutinized the smallest clues related to the Iranian Revolutionary
Guard Corps’ activities in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere.
Some of this
information enabled the Israel Air Force to destroy Hezbollah’s long-range
missile arsenal on the first night of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
Nevertheless, the intelligence achievements and successful covert operations
could not prevent the agents at Mossad headquarters from castigating
The young men and women in the espionage agency were part of
the Mossad’s Caesarea Branch, known for its covert operations overseas. Despite
the months that had passed, they were still frustrated for having been “frozen”
during the war. All of the men had served in combat units; almost all of them
had undergone arduous training. But during the war, the Mossad did not let them
enlist with the reserves. “You are too valuable,” explained the head of the
department, himself a graduate of an elite IDF unit. “Besides, think about if
you were needed for an immediate operation here.”
The war was still on
everyone’s mind, and the decision makers were preoccupied with public relations
aimed at saving Prime Minister Olmert’s image and with approving operational
plans for the army. They pushed the Mossad aside.
The call that came
through on the red secure phone startled everyone in the room. On the line was
the head of the department, who updated them about the Syrian official’s trip to
London. The agents were familiar with the protocol in these situations and
immediately set preparations to put a new operation into motion.
later, after studying the Syrian official’s facial features and the layout of
the prestigious London hotel where he was supposed to be staying, the agents
split up and boarded various planes to different destinations. They would
rendezvous at the European capital and wait for their target at the airport and
During their last briefing before leaving on the mission,
their instructions had strongly emphasized gaining access to the official’s
laptop or, to be more exact, the information it contained. Two days after
arriving at the hotel, the intelligence operatives had reportedly succeeded in
installing a Trojan horse on the computer and gleaning all of its
The hard drive contained construction plans, letters, and
hundreds of photos that showed the al-Kibar complex at various stages of its
development. In photos from 2002 the construction site resembled a tree house on
stilts, complete with suspicious-looking pipes leading to a pumping station at
the Euphrates. Later photos showed concrete piers and roofs, which apparently
were meant to make the building look inconspicuous from above or as if a shoebox
had been placed over the structure to conceal it.
The pictures of the
facility’s interior, however, left no room for doubt. The Syrians had built a
Despite the signs and speculations during the two years
preceding the Mossad’s operation, the agents still found this evidence shocking.
No one in Israel’s intelligence establishment had imagined that Syrian president
Bashar Assad, who had succeeded his father seven years earlier, had decided to
break all known taboos and defy all intelligence assessments to develop a
nuclear bomb. Most startling was the advanced stage at which Syria’s program was
The intelligence community also was taken aback by the
discovery that Iran was involved and had provided funding and support so that
Syria could build a reactor right across the border from Israel and at a time
when the future of Iran’s own nuclear program was so unclear. Officials in the
CIA, the Mossad, and the IDF’s Aman scoured old files, searching for clues that
they might have overlooked and categorized as insignificant but could now help
piece together the Syrian nuclear puzzle.
It was possibly the biggest
intelligence discovery since the beginning of the decade.
INTELLIGENCE agencies had reportedly uncovered the first evidence of a
connection between Syria, Iran, and North Korea at Hafez al-Assad’s funeral in
June 2000. An entourage accompanying the funeral procession had included top
Iranian and North Korean officials. Pictures from the funeral had aroused
the suspicions of the Mossad’s nonconventional weapons investigators.
link found between North Korea and Iran was always a point of concern, so the
Mossad, then under the command of Efraim Halevy, had classified the information
that the investigators had collected as top priority.
But the meeting of
these heads of state at the funeral appeared to be a one-time incident. Nothing
seemed more preposterous at the time than the North Koreans and the Syrians
cooperating on the development of such nonconventional means as nuclear
In 2006, the sketches and documents that the Mossad agents
reportedly succeeded in obtaining from the senior Syrian official’s laptop
clearly showed that the reactor project was concealed under a front, that is, a
farm used to conduct agricultural experiments. Few in the Syrian government and
defense establishment, however, were privy to the true nature of the mysterious
The complex was located near the Turkish border and
about 130 kilometers from Iraq, which since 2003 had been under the control of
US and Coalition forces. Dir al-Zur, the desert region in northeast Syria where
al-Kibar is located, was declared a closed military zone even for most of
Syria’s senior commanders.
Syria had invested too much money in the
project for incidental or intentional information leaks regarding its planning
and execution. The vision of the younger Assad and the IRGC, which had financed
the project, was that by the time Israel and the West found out about the
project, it would be too late for an attack.
Each of the involved parties
had a different guiding interest in the project. The North Koreans wanted
to make hundreds of millions of dollars and prove how powerful they were in the
international scene. In line with their reputation as shrewd economists, the
Iranians wanted to spread their nuclear investment to additional locations in
order to deter an Israeli attack and, at the same time, establish a reserve
facility in case their deterrence did not succeed.
assessments made after the reactor was bombed, Iran had spent close to $2
billion on the entire project by bringing the North Korean technology to Syria
and purchasing additional components for operating the reactor.
loaned some of the money to Syria, though Assad could never repay the debt.
During Ahmadinejad’s visit to Syria in 2006, he guaranteed the money.
the Syrians themselves had the greatest interest in the project, given that it
was in their country. Assad built the reactor in spite of Operation Opera, the
Israeli operation in 1981 that destroyed a nuclear reactor in
Assad’s decision must have been made hastily and without prior
serious indepth discussions regarding Israeli intelligence capabilities and the
Israeli response once it learned of the reactor. In the eyes of Syria’s
supreme ruler though, creating additional deterrence against Israel was a way to
strengthen his standing in the Arab world, to position himself as a world
leader, and maybe even to force Israel to return the entire Golan Heights. For
him, nuclear weapons were not only about military might but also about taking
Syria from the backbenches of the region to the forefront of the
In mid-2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert contacted President George
W. Bush directly in an effort to impress upon the US that the Israelis’
assessment was that the pictures showed a nuclear reactor on the verge of
becoming operational. Washington, however, was slightly skeptical and wanted to
study the material further.
In their discussions, Olmert told Bush that
as far as Israel was concerned the reactor “needed to disappear.” Bush did not
dismiss this option, but the professional ranks in his office explained to the
Israelis that before doing so three basic questions needed to be answered:
What is the real purpose of the facility in the pictures?
2. In what stage is
the nuclear program?
3. What can be done to stop Syria from going nuclear?
questions brought about a period of collaboration that continued up until the
week of the attack itself. “The relationship between Israel and the United
States peaked then,” a former top Bush administration official said in an
interview. “There was unprecedented sharing of intelligence and the dialogue
reached an unbelievable level of intimacy.”
In the meantime, to answer
these questions, the Mossad and Aman ramped up their intelligence-gathering
efforts. They thoroughly interrogated people suspected of having knowledge of
the Syrian program, and every piece of information justified a new round of
People from the Israeli defense establishment began
working according to a timeline, trying to discover the so-called point of no
return for the nuclear program, or when it would be too late to attack.
According to former defense minister Amir Peretz, if the reactor were allowed to
go online, they would have to reconsider whether to take military
Therefore, in his mind, the attack had to occur before that
happened. Olmert and Peretz invited a small number of military specialists and
scientists to discuss the potential consequences of both bombing the reactor and
ignoring the project.
ONE OF the participants was retired Maj. Gen. David
Ivry, who in 1981 was the IAF commander during Operation Opera’s attack on the
Iraqi reactor. The arguments for and against a similar strike, as well as about
the operational issues, were the same ones they had addressed almost three
decades earlier. Among the meeting’s participants were those who claimed
that Bashar Assad had built the reactor only in order to impress other Arab
countries. They claimed that he had no intention of taking the reactor to the
stage where it would present an existential threat to Israel. The overwhelming
majority thought otherwise.
In their opinion, Israel’s implicit or quiet
acceptance of a nuclear reactor in a Muslim-majority country in the region (as
had happened in the Iranians’ case, when it first began exploring nuclear power)
would start a nuclear arms race among other Arab countries, even the moderate
Olmert was determined to attack, mainly to rebuild the deterrence
threat that had been crushed during the Second Lebanon War and maybe to prove to
himself and to the Israeli people what he was really made of. According to a
senior US government official, the meetings between Bush and Olmert ended with a
mutual understanding: the reactor posed an “existential threat” to Israel, a
threat that therefore justified a military attack.
After weeks of
discussions and debates in the administration, Bush contacted Olmert and shared
his plan for dealing with the reactor.
According to the senior US
government official, Bush told the Israeli prime minister that in his opinion
the ideal solution was first to approach the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA), headed by the Egyptian Mohamed Mustafa ElBaradei. In the event that the
IAEA did not help, they could take the evidence to the UN Security Council and
ask for sanctions against Syria. If that option failed, then and only then would
the United States contemplate a military option.
Olmert, whom fellow
Israelis perceived as a political dove without any backbone, came out of these
meetings looking as if he knew how to hold his own. He completely dismissed the
American plan. Israel had had a bad experience with ElBaradei, who
systematically had chosen to overlook Iran’s mounting nuclear
violations. In the IAEA’s opinion, Iran was simply a law-abiding country
whose goals and tactics were all part of a legitimate political game. Moreover,
in Israel’s view, sanctions were not a reliable tool. In 2007, when Bush spoke
about future sanctions against Syria, the Israelis already knew that within a
short period of time the Syrian reactor would become active.
“Allow me to
remind you,” Olmert told the president (according to a senior official in the
Bush administration), “that at the beginning of these talks, when I presented
the intelligence material to you, I said all along that the reactor needs to go
away. If we reveal the data to the UN, the Syrians will build a proverbial
kindergarten on top of it and prevent a strike forever.” According to the
same source, at this point Olmert realized that the United States was not going
to attack the Syrian reactor. Had he looked closer, though, Olmert would have
seen the evidence much sooner.
THREE YEARS earlier, during the Sudanese
massacre in Darfur, human rights groups had pressured the American
administration to take military action to prevent the genocide there. Bush had
heard the calls and searched for a viable solution. For him it presented a
classical scenario of the forces of good fighting the forces of evil to prevent
the murder of the weak and oppressed. The military command suggested attacking
the Sudanese Air Force to relay a clear message: no more
genocide. Convinced, the president was about to green-light the
But then his closest advisers convinced him to back down,
claiming that with US troops already in Iraq and Afghanistan, an attack against
another Muslim majority country would only increase hatred toward America and
increase public sentiment against him. They persuaded him it was more important
to solve his current problems. The attack against Sudan never took place. “Had
the Israeli prime minister understood this dilemma,” the American official said,
“he never would have expected Bush to order an air strike against the Syrian
On June 19, 2007, a few months before the Israeli strike,
Olmert arrived in Washington for a meeting with President Bush. While
newspaper headlines claimed the leaders spoke about the Palestinian peace
process, they spent the majority of their meeting discussing the nuclear reactor
under construction in Syria.
“We plan to strike the reactor,” Olmert
reportedly told the president. Bush tried to restrain him, suggesting
alternative modes of action. From the American administration’s standpoint, a
war between Israel and Syria would seriously damage the statebuilding process in
Iraq and would even risk the stability of the Coalition in Afghanistan. But
Israel’s prime minister politely explained that he was not there to ask the
administration for permission; rather, he wanted to update him on Israel’s
“Israel was not looking for approval from the American
government,” the top administration official explained. “Israel made it clear
that there were no traffic lights and no requests for green lights or red
In his memoir Decision Points
, published in November 2010, Bush
himself supported this description. “Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t asked for a
green light, and I hadn’t given one. He had done what he believed was necessary
to protect Israel,” Bush wrote in his book.
The Israelis’ decision to
inform the American administration of its plans derived from a few
considerations. First, the Israeli government under Ehud Olmert enjoyed warm
relations with the Bush administration.
In the meetings held in Israel
prior to the attack, participants had raised the question of how it would affect
Israel’s relationship with the United States. Some of the participants, like
Ivry, remembered the aftermath of Operation Opera.
When Menachem Begin
sent the IAF jets to strike Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, Israel used
American military equipment without prior coordination with the United States,
and the US administration felt it had hurt the chances for peace in the Middle
East. Two weeks after the 1981 attack the UN assembly approved a resolution
denouncing Israel, with support from the United States, which usually prevented
anti-Israel votes. The Reagan administration even decided to freeze deliveries
of F- 16 fighter jets to Israel temporarily.
A decade later, however,
when the American Army was fighting in Iraq, the administration recognized the
importance of the Israeli operation.
The Olmert administration of 2007
showed it had learned its history lesson. Despite the Americans’
opposition, Olmert’s advisers still argued in favor of sharing the operation’s
full itinerary with the Bush administration. This decision proved to be
According to a senior official in the Bush administration, “From
the beginning, both leaders said that Syria could not have a reactor. Bush
agreed and was not disturbed with Israel’s actions, nor did it affect his
relationship with Olmert.”
That same source also referred to the
Israelis’ expectations that Bush would not leave office before stopping Iran’s
nuclear program. “I think that an Israeli who knew of Bush’s decision not to
bomb Sudan and Syria would have been hard-pressed to think that he was going to
bomb Iran, which was a far more dangerous operation,” he said.
which had proven twice that it is capable of destroying an enemy’s nuclear
reactor, intelligence and operations officers continued to ponder the
possibility of a third strike, this time against Iran.
though, that exerting political backbone, as Olmert had done, would not always
be enough. After the successful bombing in Syria, one major question remained
unresolved: how could Israel repeat its success in Iran? This article is adapted
Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War, published in May 2012 by Potomac Books.