Security and Defense: Changing of the guard

How will the new leaders of Israel’s security agencies tackle Iran?

Meir Dagan & Tamir Pardo (photo credit: Courtesy)
Meir Dagan & Tamir Pardo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Monday was a hectic day for the intelligence community. Throughout the day, officers from the Mossad and Military Intelligence were busy poring over the hundreds of thousands of American diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, many of which dealt directly with Israel.
At around the same time as the intelligence officers were reading about Saudi King Abdullah’s request that the US attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and cut off the head of the Iranian snake, an explosion ripped through downtown Teheran killing a top nuclear scientist and wounding another. The Iranians blamed Israel.
A few hours later, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that Tamir Pardo, a former deputy head of the Mossad, was his candidate to replace Meir Dagan as its chief.
While the three events do not appear to be directly related, all have to do with Israel and the West’s efforts to stop Iran’s continued race toward nuclear power and overall regional dominance.
The slain scientist, Majid Shahriari, who reportedly was accompanied by bodyguards, was a member of the nuclear engineering faculty at Shahid Beheshti University and an expert in neutron transport, a field that lies at the heart of nuclear chain reactions.
Accusations that the Mossad was behind the assassination were not pure speculation, since the tactic used to kill Shahriari is a known Mossad modus operandi and has been used successfully in the past.
It is also not the first assassination of Iranian scientists in recent years. In January 2007, Dr. Ardeshir Hosseinpour was found dead in his office at the Isfahan conversion plant, a key facility in Iran’s nuclear program.
He was believed to have been “gassed” to death.
More recently, in January 2010, Dr. Masoud Ali Mohammadi was killed when a motorcycle, loaded with explosives, blew up outside the front door of his home in Teheran.
There have also been countless reports of sabotage over the years. One well-known example was in 2007 when power supplies used to regulate voltage current at the Natanz enrichment plant blew up, destroying dozens of centrifuges. In other cases, European governments and the US recruited companies around the world to purposely do business with Iranians, but to sell them faulty components manufactured with undetectable flaws. Most recently were reports of the Stuxnet virus.
A combination of assassinations and acts of sabotage are clearly having their effect on Iran, which recently admitted to having major technical difficulties at some of its key facilities such as Natanz and Busher. It, for example, would have liked to have today about 30,000 operational centrifuges; instead it has only several thousand.
On the other hand, it has already amassed some three tons of low-enriched uranium and has a proven capability to enrich to higher levels of about 20 percent.
This means it could, if it wanted to, enrich uranium to the 90% levels and higher required for a weapon.
ACCORDING TO Israeli intelligence assessments, Iran is just a decision away from making a bomb. If the Iranians have been working on a weapons system, as Israel has claimed, then once they make the decision making the bomb could take them just a few months.
If they have not been working on a weapons system, it could take them anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
While the Iranians would likely want to wait until they can create an arsenal of five to eight nuclear weapons, from a public relations perspective it would be enough to manufacture and test one since it would immediately bring them into the nuclear club.
That is why even in Israel there is an understanding that in the absence of tougher sanctions and diplomacy or military action, Iran will ultimately succeed in becoming a nuclear power.
The strategy remains mostly the same – urge the international community to ratchet up sanctions, continue preparations for a possible military strike and keep on doing whatever the Mossad is believed to be doing.
This is all the more important today as the heads of all of the relevant agencies that work on the Iran file are being replaced. Last week, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, head of Military Intelligence for the past five years, was replaced by Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz was replaced by Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh.
At the end of the month, Pardo will replace Dagan and in February and May Chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin will also leave their posts.
Some senior defense officials have lamented this unprecedented changeover among the country’s top security brass within such a short time as poor strategic planning by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
“A changeover of this scope and within such a short time is dangerous,” said one senior defense official. “At a time when decisions will need to be made on Iran and war could break out with Hizbullah, it is irresponsible to replace all of the military and intelligence chiefs in the country.”
Whether this is true or not, it is a consolation that all of the incoming intelligence and security chiefs are intimately familiar with the material, and that there is also truth to the counter argument that it is also important to insert fresh blood into the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet.
Pardo, for example, is a veteran Mossad operative who climbed the agency’s ranks after serving as a communications officer in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit under Netanyahu’s brother Yoni, who was killed during the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation. After joining the Mossad, he held a number of operational positions utilizing his technical expertise.
Throughout his career in the Mossad, he established strong ties with the IDF, which will undoubtedly come in handy during his tenure as director. During the Second Lebanon War, for example, Pardo set up an office down the hall from Maj.- Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, then the head of the IDF Operations Directorate, and helped plan dozens of covert missions.
The close work paid off. Relationships were established between IDF generals and their Mossad counterparts and each side learned how the other worked and how they could better utilize one another.
Pardo will have big shoes to fill. Dagan, a former general, was parachuted into the Mossad to rehabilitate the agency which was operationally paralyzed. Numerous sources claim he has succeeded, discounting the possible failure earlier this year in Dubai.
Dagan was also apparently much more than just a spy chief. As demonstrated by the large number of WikiLeaks cables which he starred in, he seemed to meet regularly with almost every American official coming through Tel Aviv. In contrast, Ashkenazi has yet to appear in a single cable.
More than anything, the WikiLeaks cables show that anyone who thought Iran’s nuclear program was strictly an Israeli problem or was somehow connected to the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was mistaken. With Iran just a decision away from making a bomb, the question is whether there is still time to do anything about it. Israel thinks there is.