Who decides when Iran has gone nuclear enough to attack?

Would it be the Mossad or IDF Intelligence? Trying to find the answer through conversations with former top-ranking officials on one of the most sensitive topics (that is still) on the table.

A SATELLITE view of Iran's Fordow nuclear plant. (photo credit: GOOGLE)
A SATELLITE view of Iran's Fordow nuclear plant.
(photo credit: GOOGLE)
Perhaps the most important task over the next decade when it comes to Israel’s survival will be evaluating intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.
Will Iran keep observing the nuclear deal – as most say it essentially has since signing it a year-and-a-half ago – or will it eventually cheat and try to break out toward a nuclear capability?
Before we can answer those questions, one issue needs to be resolved: which Israeli intelligence agency is responsible for providing the government with intelligence on Iran? Both are responsible for giving intel on Iran – the question is who is the lead intelligence agency? Who gives the decisive word?
Suspected Iran missile launch on Jan. 29, 2017 is "unacceptable" says US UN rep Haley (credit: REUTERS)
Former IDF Military Intelligence chief retired general Amos Yadlin told The Jerusalem Post Magazine that he thinks that when it comes to Iran, the IDF should be the central intelligence authority.
Nevertheless,Yadlin, who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies, acknowledged that Iran is a complex case for determining authority between intelligence agencies.
“On one hand, Iran has no border with Israel so [the central intelligence body] could be the Mossad, but if anyone needs to attack Iran, who does it? The IDF,” he said.
Indeed, the Mossad is usually charged with collecting intelligence on threats and actions that take place far beyond the country’s borders.
Until 1967, he explained, the situation was simple and well defined. The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) handled internal security like the FBI in the US.
“They would go after spies, traitors and sometimes criminals. MI was the primary intelligence source, as it gathered information on nearby countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as on the USSR and general power trends,” said the former MI chief.
“The Mossad also worked (in other ways) in these non-bordering countries and had quiet contacts with countries that had no diplomatic relations with Israel.”
But the head of MI, explained Yadlin, was the senior intelligence authority in the country.
“The logic was that the IDF has to be ready to fight with these other countries and the Mossad doesn’t."
“After 1967, the threats changed. The Shin Bet dealt with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and with Lebanon after the 1982 Lebanon War. Peace with Egypt and Jordan also changed things.”
However, regarding threats from countries with no borders with Israel, like Iran and Iraq, “the lines of authority became blurred,” he said.
Amos Yadlin (right) with then-defense minister Ehud Barak at a press conference in 2009 in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)Amos Yadlin (right) with then-defense minister Ehud Barak at a press conference in 2009 in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was another watershed moment. MI was accused of missing the signs of Egypt’s surprise attack, and it was decided that the prime minister and security cabinet needed a wider array of intelligence opinions, including strengthening the position of the Mossad in the hierarchy.
“After 1973, the principle of intelligence pluralism reigned. There was not one intelligence authority to decide – there were multiple authorities,” Yadlin recounted. “For a long time, this was not set in law. Many commissions tried to standardize the lines of authority, and the state comptroller criticized the fact that the lines of authority were not set."
“They were not set until 2010. [Former national security adviser] Yaakov Amidror and [former intelligence minister] Dan Meridor did eventually fix that,” he said.
“But the one organization with the most responsibility is still MI.” He added that it was always important to be clear about who had ultimate intelligence responsibility, as “when three agencies are responsible, no one is.”
Yadlin explained, “The reforms separated the other intelligence agencies from MI, which reports to the IDF chief of staff, the defense minister and the prime minister, whereas the Shin Bet and the Mossad were closer to the prime minister.”
After explaining both sides, Yadlin said he remained convinced that the IDF’s MI chief was the key figure, since, if an attack is ever launched, the IDF would be the one carrying it out.
SHABTAI SHAVIT, former Mossad chief and current head of the International Institute for Counterterrorism at IDC, disagrees. He believes the Mossad should be the lead intelligence agency on Iran.
Shavit was careful to delineate that even as the Mossad should be the leading agency, MI still had a role and the two agencies had equal opportunities to present their views before the prime minister and the security cabinet, the true decision makers on the issue.
Responding to what Yadlin said about how the MI should be the leading agency because of the IDF’s expected role in a theoretical aerial-specific strike, Shavit said that in the years he served in the Mossad – he was director from 1989 until 1996 – the Mossad was the lead foreign espionage agency because of its seniority in carrying out covert operations overseas.
Outgoing Mossad head Shabtai Shavit (left) hugging his successor, Danny Yatom, during the change of command ceremony in the Prime Minister’s Office in June 1996 (photo credit: SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)Outgoing Mossad head Shabtai Shavit (left) hugging his successor, Danny Yatom, during the change of command ceremony in the Prime Minister’s Office in June 1996 (photo credit: SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)
In contrast to Yadlin and Shavit and others who argued for their institutions, Danny Yatom, a retired IDF general and former Mossad director, took a third approach.
“This [the debate] just shows that the areas and lines of authority are still unresolved,” he said.
“We need to better define the overlaps, otherwise some things can fall between the cracks and then no one does them. But the lead agency could be either one, as defined by the prime minister.”
In the cyber era, he noted, a Mossad hypothetical operation appears to potentially have a smaller footprint, possibly fewer casualties and more plausible deniability. However, he did add that “if the operation is carried out by the air force,” IDF’s MI should take the lead.
In any event, Yatom thought it was crucial, even at great economic cost, to maintain a ready military option to take out Iranian nuclear facilities, saying “Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran.”
He added that Israel should try to get bunker buster bombs from US President Donald Trump or make its own if the Mossad cannot stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold by covert means.
ACCORDING TO Uzi Arad, a Mossad veteran, it is actually the National Security Council’s role to coordinate and execute decisions by the Security Cabinet. Arad, head of the NSC from 2009 to 2011, said it was important to put the limitations of intelligence agencies into perspective.
“One should not be affected too much by the mystique of the omniscience of the intelligence agencies,” he said.
Instead of defining either the Mossad or MI as the leading agency or focusing on the character of individual players, the key, according to Arad, is defining each intelligence agency’s missions and making sure that each organization accomplishes its defined tasks.
He said that the “intelligence agencies should stick to presenting factual information and its implications. The intelligence agencies would do well to avoid long-term speculative analysis, since most of that cannot be grounded in collected information and should not necessarily be the domain of the intelligence community.” In other words, the agencies should confine their analyses to sifting through the intelligence data.
As far as the cabinet is concerned, Arad also argued that sometimes ministers in the security cabinet may have superior prior experience to that of the intelligence and military chiefs. For example, when retired Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz was IDF chief of staff, he used to defer to then-security cabinet minister and former general Ariel Sharon.
Further, recent security cabinets have included former IDF chiefs of staff like Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon, as well as seasoned ministers such as Meridor, Avigdor Liberman and Bennie Begin.
Much of the debate in recent years relates specifically to the larger-than-life role played by Meir Dagan, who served as head of the Mossad from 2002 to 2011. During Dagan’s tenure, Iranian scientists mysteriously disappeared or were assassinated, Syria’s nuclear reactor was secretly destroyed and Stuxnet was launched against Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility, Natanz, setting back that country’s nuclear program.
Former intelligence analysts and officers prefer not to speak publicly about Dagan, who died last March. One notable exception is Yadlin, who told Ari Shavit in his book My Promised Land that under Dagan, at a time when much of Israel was not taking the Iranian threat seriously enough, “it was convenient to say to the Mossad, ‘Take some money and solve this one for us.’ The Mossad took the money but it didn’t solve the problem,” he said.
Overall, Dagan’s legacy showed the powerful impact an individual with a close relationship to the prime minister can have on the political echelon’s decision- making process. While this issue is of an existential nature, the diversity of opinions on the matter can be seen as a strength and affirmation that major threats will not be unaddressed.
It also demonstrates the strength of Israel’s intelligence agencies, whose directors in 2011 and 2012 opposed plans by Netanyahu to attack Iran and succeeded in taking possible military action off the agenda.
At the end of the day though, while the intelligence these agencies provide is critical for the government when it makes its decisions, it is only a tool. It does not substitute for the tough decisions that still need to be made. When defining moments come, the cabinet, led by the prime minister, will hold the ultimate authority in Israel and will need to calculate what they decide based on the assessments and information that support any fateful choice.