There are 1,000 different reasons why the Mossad, MI6 and the CIA might smuggle a nuclear scientist defector out of Iran, former Mossad chief Danny Yatom told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, a day after reports of such an operation.
Though neither the Mossad, CIA or MI6 have publicly confirmed the operation, England’s Daily Mail reported on Sunday that a 47-year-old Iranian nuclear technician was smuggled into England along with 12 migrants on New Year’s Eve.
Moreover, the report said that after smuggling the defector out of Iran and into Europe, he traveled with the migrants on an inflatable boat across the channel from France to England.
Reportedly, the Iranian defector had assisted in developing the plan to assassinate Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist who died in a car explosion in Tehran in 2012.
The Mossad has been credited by Western intelligence and the media for a range of assassinations of Iranian scientists in the last two decades, though it has never admitted involvement.
The most obvious reason to smuggle out an Iranian nuclear scientist would be to obtain information about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as well as to use the scientist as a witness to convince countries who otherwise trust Iran, that Tehran still seeks bomb.
Asked how valuable this information could be, Yatom said, “it depends who he is, how senior he is, what he knows,” noting that Israel, the West and adversaries have all grabbed defectors from one another at times.
Another reason could simply be to save an undercover agent from discovery by Iran.
Explaining, Yatom said that when you turn a foreigner to spy for you “he relies on you. If you don’t save him and they find him, it will be harder to get people” to spy for you in the future.
He said that sometimes intelligence agencies must even help both an agent and their family escape.
Asked about how others would know if an Israeli agent were caught when spy wars are usually kept secret, he said that Iran and other enemies of Israel often publicize when they allegedly catch an Israeli agent.
Pressed that many of these publications may be false Iranian psychological warfare, he said that even if many were false, “there are still correct ones,” and that they must be avoided by saving agents.
Discussing the media report of the operation itself, Yatom said that, “the most complex part of this kind of an operation is to get the scientist out of Iran because they have inspectors for when you try to leave.”
“Once he is out and meets up with intelligence agents to take him all the way to England, it is not a logical tactic to mix him in with a group of migrants because it takes lots of time,” he said.
The former spy chief said that, “You need to undertake every effort at that point [after having left Iran] and knowing that the Iranians are looking for him in Europe,” to spirit the defector off quickly to his final destination.
He said the presumption would be that “the Iranians were chasing him immediately and that anyone with a brain would assume that Iran has agents in Europe to locate him… and why wouldn’t the Iranians have agents among the migrants.”
“It’s completely ridiculous that they would not have found a better way to get to England – to place him as a migrant with migrants on an inflatable boat,” he stated.
Next, he responded to the Daily Mail
report explanation that these extreme measures were taken because the British did not want to be formally connected to the operation in a way that would anger the Iranians.
He said, “There is no connection and even if the British did not want him, in the end he went out of Iran.”
Yatom suggested that MI6 could have flown him to England in a private plane and that they could have obscured his identity by tried and true tricks of the trade like adding a fake mustache and changing his hair with a wig.
The story was so bizarre, that he suggested that the defection might be true, but the narrative of the defection might be a fake cover story to distract everyone from how the defector really was moved around.
He said that if the story was a fake cover story, “it was a very weak cover story.”
Asked about whether he ever struggled as Mossad chief with putting out fake stories to cover up classified operations, he said, “There is no tension. It is part of your day-to-day work. Cover stories for your spies – all of them go out under false cover. It is one of the first tools of spy work. You cannot drop it.”
Also, he said that cover stories with important operations had an important “psychological warfare” element.
He added it was not surprising that the Mossad might still be carrying out operations with MI6 even as they differ on aspects of policy with Iran as they all still want to know if the Islamic Republic is violating the nuclear deal.