Toward the end of 1977, Rafi Eitan was summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office for a meeting. The regime of the shah of Iran was faltering, and Israel knew it was only a matter of time before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the exiled Islamic leader, would return to his country.
The 1970s was the honeymoon of Israeli-Iranian ties. Israel had an embassy in Tehran and enjoyed close military and intelligence cooperation with the shah and his pro-Western government, which, according to media reports, included the development of long-range ballistic missiles. Eitan was serving as prime minister Menachem Begin’s adviser on counterterrorism, and Jerusalem wanted to see if there was anything it could do to help stabilize its embattled ally.
Eitan knew Iran well. In his previous post as head of the Mossad’s operations department, Eitan flew frequently to Iran, visiting the country some 50 times in five years. At the time, he was tasked with helping the Iranians establish their own operations team. Until a few years ago, some of Eitan’s old Iranian counterparts still called him ahead of Jewish holidays.
Together with Uri Lubrani who was then the ambassador to Iran, Eitan came up with an idea to establish a special Iranian military force that would work to neutralize Khomeini’s primary supporters in the country. Together with the Iranians, Israel had marked a close-knit group of Islamists who were igniting public unrest in order to pave the way for Khomeini’s return after 14 years of exile. The thinking was that if these people were stopped, the revolution everyone saw coming would be stopped as well.
In the end, the initiative never took off. And despite the 40 years that have passed, Eitan believes Iran can still change and go back to the way it once was: pro-West, allied with Israel and a country that showed the world a moderate version of Islam, as opposed to the extremism it propagates today.
Eitan is something of a legend in Israel. Born in 1926 in a small kibbutz in northern Israel, he played a key role in Israel’s defense and intelligence community for over 70 years. At the age of 12, he joined the Hagana, the underground Jewish fighting force, and later became a member of its elite strike force, the Palmah. After World War II, he got involved in smuggling Jews into the country, at a time when it was controlled by the British.
One memorable escapade involved blowing up a British radar station used to detect illegal ships approaching Haifa Port. To reach the radar, Eitan had to crawl through an underground sewer, gaining him the nickname “Stinky Rafi.”
Eitan’s name often followed mystery and controversy. In 1960, in a daring operation, he led the team of Israeli agents that located and captured Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann in Argentina.
In 1968, and according to US government documents, he paid a visit to a nuclear fuel plant in the United States, from which 200 kilograms of enriched uranium later went missing, widely suspected of having been diverted to Israel’s highly classified nuclear program.
In 1981, while serving as Begin’s adviser, Eitan was appointed head of LAKAM, a shadowy organization that operated under the Defense Ministry and which was responsible for collecting – some might say stealing – scientific and technological know-how. Eitan was responsible for operating Jonathan Pollard as an Israeli spy within US Naval Intelligence, an affair that would strain Israeli-US ties for decades.
In 1987, after taking responsibility for the Pollard affair (now, he prefers not to say anything that could undermine the former agent’s chances of being allowed to leave the US), Eitan resigned from LAKAM, which was eventually disbanded. He then went into business, with a particular focus on agricultural projects in Cuba.
But in 2006, Eitan returned to the public eye, when he was asked to head the new Pensioners Party. The party was the wild card of that election and ended up in the Knesset with an astonishing seven seats and two ministries, placing Eitan inside Ehud Olmert’s government and security cabinet. The party lasted one election.
At 91, Eitan today is a wealth of knowledge, experience and obvious vitality, having returned just a few weeks ago from a long trip to Havana.
I went to see him to hear what he thinks needs to be done in order to ensure the Islamic Republic does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
As a member of the prime minister’s staff in 1981, Eitan was privy from the beginning to Begin’s plans to bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor that Saddam Hussein was building outside of Baghdad. And as a member of the security cabinet in Olmert’s government from 2006 to 2009, Eitan participated in debates on the best way to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
He is worth listening to.
On one hand, Eitan believes that nuclear weapons in the arsenal of Israel’s enemies – such as Iraq or Iran – pose an existential threat.
“Nuclear weapons in the hands of people that are willing to commit suicide in the name of Allah is a danger we cannot live with,” he said. “If you ask: ‘Who in the world today is willing to kill themselves to kill others?’ It is only the Muslims. I don’t know another religion or another place where a person is willing to take a bomb and blow up and kill himself.”
On the other hand, a military strike on Iran is not viable.
Israel and the rest of the world are also mistaken in focusing just on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program. It’s enough, Eitan said, to place a bomb in a shipping container and detonate it off the coast of Tel Aviv or Haifa and destroy both.
“So, how would you stop Iran?” I asked. “As the fate of the Iran deal remains in question – President Donald Trump decertified the agreement in October, but Congress has yet to propose an alternative – would you keep the deal in place or work to modify it, as Trump has said he would like to do?”
Eitan dismissed both options. The only real solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, he said, is for the world to invest more in overthrowing the ayatollahs.
Iran, he said, carefully studied the Israeli air strike against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and understood that it not only needed to disperse its nuclear facilities, but also to bury them deep underground.
“The Iranians asked themselves who would oppose their nuclear program and who would potentially attack,” he explained. “The answer was Israel, and after studying Osirak, they dug tunnels to make it hard for our bombs to destroy their facilities.”
And while the Israel Air Force said it could destroy the openings to the tunnels and delay Iran’s nuclear program by a year, Eitan said such an operation would be a waste of time.
“The only real option to neutralize the facilities is with ground forces – to send soldiers in on the ground and destroy the tunnels,” he said. “This we could not do without the Americans, and there was no logic to use the IAF when the damage would just be for a year or two.”
While he doesn’t know for certain, Eitan believes that Iran already has enough fissionable material to make a nuclear weapon. In other words, he said, with a military strike not feasible and Trump unlikely to dramatically succeed in changing the deal, the only real way to stop Iran is to invest more in changing the regime.
“Iran’s citizens are against the ayatollah regime,” he said. “They are very similar to a Western country in their culture and the way they are as a people. They would prefer a more Western-like regime.”
Eitan doesn’t know how or when this might happen, but he is convinced that 39 years since Khomeini returned to Iran, another revolution is only a matter of time. Trump could try to renegotiate the Iran deal, but the Iranians will con him and ultimately achieve their goal of obtaining the bomb.
“The Iranians are devious and have advanced technological capabilities,” Eitan said. “They will stick to their goal and they will cheat Trump. The only real way to deal with Iran is to switch the regime.”