Editor's Notes: A losing battle, so far

Investigative reporter Ronen Bergman's book on the effort to keep Iran from the bomb charts decades of dismal failure. There's still time, but not much.

By DAVID HOROVITZ
September 4, 2008 22:41

 
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In August 2007, because certain intelligence agencies were not convinced of Israeli claims that President Bashar Assad was engaged in the construction of a nuclear weapons facility, Israel sent sent 12 members of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit into Syria in two helicopters to collect soil samples outside the site in question. Needless to say, this was a highly dangerous operation. And it very nearly went wrong. The commandos were almost exposed when a Syrian patrol drove past the landing site where the helicopters were parked. But it was well worth it. The results provided "clear-cut proof" of the nuclear project," investigative journalist Ronen Bergman writes in his new book, The Secret War with Iran. A month later, Israel bombed the site, and in so doing reemphasized the Begin Doctrine - Israel's insistence that, for the sake of its own survival, it will not allow the deployment by hostile neighbors of weapons that might be used to destroy it. Bergman's book, which will be published next week in the United States, is an expanded, updated version of his Hebrew-language The Point of No Return, which was Israel's best-selling non-fiction work in 2007. The new volume is anything but a mere translation. For one thing, the world has moved on, or more accurately, moved closer to confrontation, in the intervening period. For another, Bergman has added further revelatory content to the 2007 book's disclosures. Plainly, the author has been allowed access to a range of material hitherto kept classified by various intelligence services. Plainly, too, what he is publishing is material that Israel is content to have widely disseminated and some of which cannot be independently verified. The book was submitted to censorship, and not all of its content was approved, he told me when he dropped off a copy a few days ago, though it did sometimes seem as though he had run into the censor on a relatively benign day. Most notable, perhaps, in this context, is the fact that the guardians of Israel's military secrets have allowed Bergman to provide a fairly extensive account of that September 6, 2007, raid on Syria's nuclear facility - whose purpose he states unambiguously was "the production of plutonium for the manufacture of atomic bombs" and whose construction, he reports, was a tripartite endeavor: "At a series of secret meetings between representatives of the three sides, held mainly in Teheran, it was decided that Syria would supply the territory, Iran the money [$1 billion-$2b.], and North Korea the expertise..." Last year's raid was the subject of some of the heaviest military censorship that I have encountered in the past 25 years: Israel was desperate to take no official responsibility for the attack, and in this way to allow Damascus plausible deniability, to avoid a deterioration into war. There was no official confirmation of the raid, and for a long time after it, all references in the Israeli media had to include conditioning phrases such as the "reported" Israeli strike. Apparently such concerns no longer apply. Bergman has been freed to describe, without the censor's usual required attribution to "foreign sources," the entire process by which the Syrian facility was built - with details of the shipments of material from North Korea and the dispatch of Korean scientists. He sets out the circumstances of that high-risk August fact-finding mission by Sayeret Matkal. And he is allowed to note that "a number of North Koreans" were killed in the Israeli attack. Although destroying the site was an Israeli operation, Bergman makes clear further that "the Israelis and the Americans decided to act," and that the two countries coordinated on the official silence policy after the raid was successfully completed. "Prime Minister Olmert and President Bush decided that both countries would maintain a policy of total nonreaction, without exceptions, and without winks or nods. If the Syrians had not been in a hurry to issue their own statements, the whole matter might not have been disclosed at all." If the sanctioning of these details about last year's raid on Syria is interesting, given the immensely sensitive nature of Israeli-Syrian relations and the continued potential for both diplomatic breakthrough and bitter conflict, then the sanctioning of some of Bergman's disclosures about the Iranian nuclear project, and notably the Bush administration's attitude to it, seems potentially incendiary. A few weeks ago, the White House took the unusual step of issuing a specific denial of a report on Army Radio, picked up by the Post, which claimed that a Bush official recently told his Israeli counterparts that the president is planning to strike Iran's nuclear facilities before leaving office. Only this week, a newspaper in The Netherlands claimed that Dutch intelligence has abruptly halted an "extremely successful" ongoing operation to sabotage Iran's nuclear program because of an assessment that such an American strike is indeed just weeks away. In his book, Israel's military censor has allowed Bergman to add two highly significant revelations in this context: The first is that after the American intelligence community issued its controversial National Intelligence Estimate late last year that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, Vice President Richard Cheney sent a message to Olmert stating that despite this conclusion, "the possibility of an American military operation against Iranian nuclear targets and military infrastructure had not been discarded." The second is that, as of May 2008, "the Mossad's estimate" is that Bush, "out of religious and ideological motives, will order a strike." FOR ALL the behind-the-scenes Israeli access granted Bergman, and the censor's apparent generosity, his account of what he calls "the 30-year clandestine struggle against the world's most dangerous terrorist power" overflows with tales of incompetence and outright failure in the battle against Iran - some narrow and specific, some more fundamental - many of which reflect terribly on Israel. He reminds readers who might prefer to forget the uncomfortable truth that Israel supplied arms to Ayatollah Khomeini's regime at the turn of the 1980s, in an operation codenamed "Seashell," which was critical in "turning the tide of the war" against Iraq in Iran's favor. In one illustration of the disastrous consequences for the seller of misguided arms dealing, he points out that one of the machine guns sold by Israel to Iran at that time, a Browning, later transferred to Hizbullah's arsenal, was used to murderous effect in the July 12, 2006, attack on the IDF Humvees patrolling the Lebanon border in which three soldiers were killed and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev fatally wounded and captured - the attack that sparked the Second Lebanon War. (A senior Iranian official who helped broker those arms deals, Bergman further reveals, later became a top Iranian representative in Lebanon and a Hizbullah founder, and pushed for the 2006 abduction-attack on Teheran's orders. Some of the Hizbullah gunmen who carried out that attack, he also writes, were trained in Iran.) He reports how Israel has insistently failed to acknowledge that a November 1982 car bombing by the nascent Hizbullah at Israel's military government headquarters in Tyre, southern Lebanon, in which 75 Israeli security personnel and 27 Lebanese were killed, was an Iranian-sponsored suicide bombing. Indeed, it was the first such suicide attack - "the bomb that spawned a movement,' as he calls it. More Israelis were killed in that blast, which reduced a seven-story building to rubble, than in any since. The car used in the attack, a Peugeot, was identified. The bomber's identity is known: Ahmad Qassir has a monument to his memory in his home village near Baalbek. Yet "to this day," Bergman notes, "Israeli intelligence claims that there was no intelligence failure; that there was not even a terror attack, just a problem with gas cylinders." The refusal to grapple with the reality of the suicide-bomb challenge right away left Israel more vulnerable than it need have been to the relentless series of such bombings that have followed - beginning with another attack in the very same city a year later, in which 28 more Israelis were killed. "This thing has been burning inside me for years," Bergman quotes Haifa Judge Yitzhak Dar as saying. Dar was on a team that investigated the blast for the IDF, concluded it was a car bombing, but saw its report buried. "Despite the conclusions we reached, everybody wanted to believe that it was negligence about gas cylinders, and not a terror attack," laments Dar. "Thus, they wasted a very valuable year of preparations for the next attack, one which could have been prevented with a little awareness of the potential for the use of car bombs." Bergman reports that IDF Military Intelligence got wind in advance of Hizbullah plans to kidnap "a very senior American intelligence officer a week before the CIA station chief in Beirut, Col. William Buckley, was indeed seized (and tortured and killed) in March 1984 in an Imad Mughniyeh-led Hizbullah operation, but that the Mossad doubted the information and didn't bother to pass it on to the CIA. He summarizes Israeli intelligence's grave, ongoing failure to penetrate Hizbullah by reporting that a Mossad man, who for years served in the unit that sought to recruit spies inside the organization, held up his hands, without all the fingers extended, to indicate the number of successes over 24 full years. By contrast, he discusses Hizbullah's staggering penetration of Israeli security circles... and the sometimes ridiculous ease with which this is sometimes achieved. During the Second Lebanon War, for instance, he notes, "militiamen who had learned Hebrew at the so-called Cultural Center of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut listened in to IDF radio networks, using advanced communications equipment and codes supplied to them by IDF members who were working with them in drug trafficking." (My emphasis added.) Hizbullah knew far, far more about Israel's military planning and capabilities for that war than Israel remotely conceived, in short, while Israel knew far, far less than it thought it did about Hizbullah. "In truth," says Bergman, "Israel had gone to war in almost total darkness." One small, very specific illustration: The spacious bunker from which the attack on the Goldwasser-Regev patrol was planned, which had been established over many weeks right under Israel's nose across the border, and which was connected by a fiberoptic cable network to Hizbullah's command headquarters in Beirut, did not merely remain undiscovered before the attack, thus facilitating it. It remained undiscovered "throughout the entire war, even though Israeli soldiers controlled the area from the first day. It was a miracle that Hizbullah guerrillas never took advantage of it to strike at Israeli troops again after the abduction on July 12." The debilitating underestimation of Hizbullah is mirrored, in Bergman's narrative, by other basic failures in trying to grapple with Hizbullah's state sponsor, Iran. Most centrally, he charges, Israel, along with the US and the rest of the West, only recognized relatively recently how far Iran has progressed toward its nuclear goal because for years everybody was looking the wrong way: Most eyes were focused on Russia, which was deemed to be the main potential international maverick that might enable Teheran to attain the bomb. But the real threat - the player that gave Iran the vital resources to stride forward - was Pakistan, via its notorious nuclear salesman Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. THE SAGA Bergman recounts is not unremittingly bleak. The raid on Syria marked an important reassertion of Israeli military capability. The killing of Hizbullah terror chief Mughniyeh in the heart of the Syrian capital in February - for which no party has claimed responsibility - should also have sent a certain deterrent message. The defection to the CIA of top Iranian intelligence adviser Gen. Ali Reza Askari last year was another success. Bergman also lists a series of sabotage operations that have prevented Iran from being even closer still to the bomb: A leading expert on electromagnetics who worked at Iran's Isfahan enrichment facility found dead at his home last year, and reports of an explosion at his laboratory; three or four planes crashing inside Iran in 2006 and 2007 with personnel connected to the security of the nuclear project on board; insulation units for the centrifuge enrichment process discovered to be unusable; various explosions caused by faulty equipment at the main Natanz facility and at Isfahan, including the wrecking of 50 centrifuges when two transformers blew up at Natanz in 2006. In language presumably negotiated painstakingly with the censor, the last of these incidents is attributed to "efforts implemented jointly with the United States." Overall, Bergman writes, "Since Meir Dagan became Mossad director in 2002, Israel has significantly improved its knowledge about goings-on inside Iran, and has even taken certain preemptive actions." Nonetheless, it seems that Iran has essentially cleared its technical hurdles now, and is into the home stretch - racing against the clock to get the bomb before international pressure, of whatever kind, forces a halt. The latest information, according to Bergman's Mossad sources, is that some 3,000 centrifuges, in 18 cascades, are now enriching uranium, "under great technical difficulties," at Natanz. Nearby, the Iranians are building a plant to hold another 30,000 to 50,000 centrifuges - and building it underground to ensure no repeat of Israel's successful raid on Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak. Already, Natanz is protected by no fewer than 26 anti-aircraft missile batteries, and this and other of its nuclear facilities, he writes (despite others' claims to the contrary), already have the advanced Russian-made S-300 missiles among their defenses. Meanwhile, at the Parchin military complex, notwithstanding the complacent conclusion of the NIE last year, the Iranians are hard at work on the final phase of the journey to the bomb - having made "considerable progress" in mastering the process of emplacing enriched uranium into the device that starts the devastating chain reaction. They are also making headway, Bergman writes, "in acquiring the expertise required to manufacture nuclear warheads that can be fitted to their missiles." Satellite images of Parchin, he notes, show the erection of structures that can be used for the assembly of explosives needed in nuclear warheads. "Identical structures had over the years been spotted close to the installations where the Soviet Union developed and manufactured its nuclear warheads." Why, given all this, did the NIE draw the opposite conclusions about Iran's nuclear weapons program? In part, Bergman asserts, because Iran outfoxed the American intelligence services by means that included the calculated leaking of bogus material purporting to indicate that the effort had been frozen in 2003. BERGMAN'S COMBINATION of overview and revelation makes for a horrifying read. Essentially, his book demonstrates an ongoing incapacity - by Israel, the US and the rest of the free world, but, critically, featuring Israel as the first potential casualty - to internalize the extent of the Iranian threat and act effectively to thwart it. The powers that are faced off against expansionist Islam have consistently underestimated the cunning, viciousness and determination of the chief state sponsor of that ideology, Iran, and its various offshoots, proxies and allies, notably including Hizbullah and Hamas. Time and again, Western weakness, capitulation and inaction has emboldened Islamic extremism. Between 1980 and 1997, for instance, Iran assassinated close to 200 "dissidents" in attack after attack across Europe, and European nations, on the whole, barely lifted a finger to stop them. Why would Iran not be emboldened? A relentless campaign of kidnappings, murders and suicide bombings forced the US out of Lebanon, forced the French out of Lebanon, forced Israel out of Lebanon, and ultimately led to Hizbullah's increasingly dominant status in Lebanon. (Among the often forgotten victims were 12 members of Lebanon's tiny lingering Jewish community, who were kidnapped and killed by the nascent Hizbullah from West Beirut, in 1985 and 1986.) Right now, Iran and Hizbullah are plotting to "avenge" Mughniyeh's death with kidnappings of Israeli businessmen, and they are free to act because they have operatives ready and waiting in countries all around the world. Why wouldn't it? The tactic has worked so well over the decades. As Bergman writes in a sober concluding chapter, "Iran and Hizbullah are more sophisticated, effective and determined adversaries than Israel and the United States have previously encountered in the Middle East. These new enemies, the Shi'ites of Iran and Lebanon, have repeatedly outwitted Israel and the West, beating them across the board in politics, in intelligence gathering and in war." Now Iran is on the brink of attaining the ultimate tool for expanding the Islamic Revolution, the nuclear bomb, and still the international community hesitates and bickers and even undermines its own ineffectual trade sanctions. Ten years ago, Dr. Iftikhar Khan Chaudry, a former research officer in Pakistan's nuclear project, sought political asylum in the United States, claiming he would be killed if he returned home. In his affidavit, which was found to be credible and led to his being granted the refuge he sought, he detailed how A.Q. Khan had marketed Pakistan's nuclear expertise and materials to clients including Libya, Iraq and North Korea, exposing the clandestine network for the first time. Outrageously, it took the US until September 2003 to confront Pakistan about Khan's activities. Chaudry also specified how Khan had set up Pakistan's nuclear channel to Iran, having himself been present when five Iranian scientists visited Pakistan at the start of the partnership. The Iranians were "introduced to the method in which uranium is processed for the purpose of creating a nuclear bomb," Chaudry told the Americans. And he added, "It is also apparent that Iran intends to utilize a nuclear weapon - in the future, when a nuclear weapon would be operational - against the State of Israel." "The Secret War with Iran, as waged since the fall of the shah and the arrival of Khomeini, has been a tale of ruthless single-mindedness on their side and confused laxity on ours. Read it and weep? No. Read it and work - before it's too late. ("The Secret War with Iran" will be published in the US next week by Free Press.)

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