The art of espionage

Former Mossad head Meir Dagan discusses how Israel should respond to the Iranian nuclear threat.

Netanyahu hugs Meir Dagan 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu hugs Meir Dagan 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A chess board sits on the coffee table of Meir Dagan, the man charged for much of the past decade with outwitting the Iranian nuclear weapons program and, according to international media reports, the man responsible for setting back that program through covert operations, computer viruses, assassinations and mysterious explosions. The chess pieces are carved in the Persian style, glazed in tints of blue and white. The elongated, pointed figurines face off against each other ominously, almost mirroring the former head of Mossad’s own standoff with Tehran.
Dagan hosts me at his modest North Tel Aviv apartment, on an upper floor in one of the high-rise towers mushrooming through the city, not far from where Defense Minister Ehud Barak lives in affluence of marked contrast. Dagan is clearly working on softening the image he gained fighting Gazan terrorists in the 1970s; that of a fearless warrior who will stop at nothing to accomplish his mission – a ruthless killer. It is an image that has in many ways been defined by Ariel Sharon’s iconic statement that Dagan’s speciality was “severing an Arab’s head from his body.”
The walls of the apartment are decorated with Dagan’s own paintings – an Arab and his horse, an olive tree, an old man stringing his worry beads, a pot of cyclamens, a horse and cart – that borrow heavily from the Eretz Yisrael style of painters like Reuven Rubin and Nachum Gutman.
With their bright colors and naïveté, Dagan’s paintings could be seen as an antithesis to the darkness and complexity of his previous occupation.
“Why do you think my previous occupation was dark?” asks Dagan when I put the theory to him. “Complex, I agree. Dark? No.”
“Well,” I say, “according to some reports...”
Dagan cuts me off. “I’m not responsible for any report,” he shoots back, “and I have no intention of discussing what I did in the past. As for painting, it’s done for fun. Everyone has a way to express themselves.
One person’s is painting, another’s is hiking, another’s is sport. This is my hobby.”
DAGAN, 67, served as head of the Mossad from August 2002 to November 2010, an unprecedented eight-year term in which he restored the organization’s prestige after the botched assassination attempt on Khaled Mashaal in 1997 under the tenure of Danny Yatom. During that time, again according to international media reports, Dagan oversaw the assassinations of Imad Moughniyeh, Hezbollah’s notorious chief of operations, and Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabhouh, and was instrumental in the strike on Syria’s nuclear project. More than anything, however, his term has been associated with the effort to stop Iran from getting the bomb.
Dagan, who now heads the Gulliver Energy oil and gas exploration firm which this week was awarded a uranium exploration license in the Negev, will not discuss what credit Mossad deserves for putting back the time line of Iran’s nuclear program. He is, however, very keen to talk about why Israel should not portray the battle against Iran as its own and why the time has not yet come for military action.
He has said in previous interviews that he viewed the idea of bombing Iran as “the stupidest idea” he has ever heard.
Talking to The Jerusalem Post he tones down his rhetoric. “The use of the word ‘stupid’ was a harsh expression,” he says.
“It was something that was said in the heat of the discussion; it’s not something that I’m very proud of.”
But while he may show some remorse as to the manner of his expression, when it comes to the content of his remarks he is sticking to his guns. “Those who have a different opinion can keep their opinions,” he says. “I have great respect for them but I’m sorry to tell you that I have a different point of view.”
The problem with military action, he says, is that it can not disarm the core factor of the Iranian program – knowledge.
“Knowledge on the nuclear issue is something that you are not able to prevent because knowledge is something that remains in the brains of people. You are not capable really of eliminating knowledge from people. “ This statement begs the question of whether one might eliminate the brains that encapsulate that knowledge – as in the assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists – but this is a question that remains unasked, knowing that at best it will only be answered with a knowing smile.
“What you can do in some cases is eliminate the industrial infrastructure on the ground that is producing some part of the project,” Dagan continues. “The question is not whether Israel is capable of doing so. Israel no doubt has the ability. We have a unique air force that can launch whatever is going to be needed.
This is not the issue, it’s not the military issue. It’s what will be the outcome of such an attack.”
Dagan believes that the outcome would be a regional war conducted mostly through Tehran’s proxies – Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and perhaps even Syria, which, he says, may choose to divert attention from its internal problems by focusing on a “threat outside the country.”
“When you are going to be involved in a regional war and in a best-case scenario you are able only to delay the project, not to stop it, you can raise the question of whether such an attack is the right and the best solution for it,” he says. “I believe that such a solution should be a tool available to the political level, but I’m not sure it should be the first option.
It should be the last option.”
In any event, he says, the Iranian problem is better off left in the hands of the international community. It would be, he says, a mistake to make it a question of Israel versus Iran. “The Iranian issue is not an Israeli issue,” he says. “I agree that in our case they are stating that they want to see the State of Israel destroyed, and we have to take such threats very seriously in our region. We are living in a rough neighborhood, and in a rough neighborhood when somebody is threatening you you have to take it very seriously.”
But Iran, he continues, is not only a threat to Israel. It has also attacked American targets, in Iraq and elsewhere, through its proxies and, seeking to gain influence, he says, it has played on Shi’ite-Sunni sectarian tensions in the Gulf countries, in Iraq and in Yemen. Worst of all, from the international community’s perspective, Iran armed with a nuclear capability would be a menace to all the oil-producing countries of the region. “I don’t think that anybody has a real interest in Iran being the one to dictate the prices and the policy in the region,” he says.
But what if the world powers lack the political and military will to make Iran back down from its nuclear ambition? What if a few years down the road Israel finds itself facing an intelligence estimate that it can wait no longer? “I never said that such an option [a military strike] should not be an available option. I think that such an option should always remain, but you have to understand what you are doing by this. Let’s say that you do it too soon, then what you are going to create is something unbelievable.
Because today Iran is suffering from internal problems as a result of the international economic crisis. Add to this the problem of sanctions, add to this the different ethnic minorities existing in Iran, who are really now, let’s call it an opposition to the current regime in Iran, and suddenly we are going to unite all of them behind the leadership. And not only are we going to unite all of them behind the leadership if we attack, but we are going to provide them with a justification for going to a nuclear weapon.
Why? Very simple. They will say, ‘look, we were attacked by what is claimed by international media is a nuclear state. Until now we were aiming to produce a peaceful project that was observed by the IAEA in Vienna, and suddenly we are attacked by a state that attacks a facility that is already under observation of the international community. Now we are going to produce a nuclear capability as a deterrent and protection for ourselves.
Not only are we not going to stop the project, we are going to provide the right justification for it.’” For Dagan, the question of a military strike is a question of when such an option should be put on the table. “I think it’s like in the theater when you are seeing a gun appearing in the first act, probably someone is going to shoot in the last act. I prefer that such a weapon be used as a last opportunity.”
PERHAPS, TO paraphrase the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, Dagan is saying that one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.
So why has Dagan chosen to be so outspoken against an Israeli military strike on Iran? Does he not trust the judgment of the elected prime minister of Israel and his defense minister? “I respect very much the prime minister of Israel and the defense minister of Israel, but first of all I am a citizen and as a citizen I can present my point of view. We are still living in a democracy,” he says with a touch of irony.
“Anyone who wants to can present his point of view, especially on issues that are very important to the state. Somebody like me who spent most of his life serving this country, I believe I am entitled and have the right to present my point of view.”
The right to speak his mind is a motif Dagan presses to the point that one gets the impression he feels delegitimized.
“Why should I not be able to?” he asks rhetorically. “Why can every politician in Israel present his point of view and it is nothing? And ex-generals who appear in the media every other day? They are a very respectable source and I have nothing against it.
They are entitled to do so and so am I.
We are not what I call a state in which everything should be censored by the government.”
But your point of view, I note to Dagan, is very different from the point of view being presented by Barak and Netanyahu.
“I respect every point of view,” he says, “but I learned that the fact that somebody is a prime minister taking a decision does not necessarily mean that he is taking the right decision.
Countering a recent comment made by his predecessor, Ephraim Halevy, that former heads of the Mossad should be careful with what they say because of how it can be interpreted, Dagan adds: “I don’t think I am creating any damage to the security of Israel because I am not taking the point of view of the Iranians. If someone like me is speaking against it [attacking Iran], then the Iranians have to understand that Israel is probably considering seriously doing so.
Then in a way it’s helping those efforts, making it a reliable scenario.”
I ask him how he explains his previous statements that the Iranian regime is rational. How does he see a regime that funds and feeds terrorism, that threatens to wipe Israel off the map, or to erase it from the passage of time, as rational? “Let’s define what is rational,” he replies. “Rational is somebody that has calculated, making an assessment about his decision. He is calculating advantage and disadvantage and making a rational decision based on the advantage and the disadvantage. In this aspect, the Iranian regime is very rational. Do they have different goals? The answer is yes. You cannot say it is not a rational regime. I agree that it is not exactly the rationale of Western countries. But if you are remembering what are their goals, what is their ideology and how they are organizing the process of thinking in Iran, it is a very rational process.”
Dagan does not buy into the school of thought that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others in the Iranian regime are driven by an apocalyptic religious ideology.
“He is religious, but don’t take from him what he is not,” says Dagan. “He is a very smart man. He had very good capabilities in managing the town of Tehran. He was very capable in running a few provinces in Iran in the past. He has a PhD in engineering.
He is not a stupid man. When he is referring to the public, he is not referring to the Israeli public. He is referring to the Iranian public. Does it sound rational to the Iranian public? The answer is yes.
Does it sound logical from their point of view? The answer is yes. To claim that half of them are crazy people is a wrong description of those people.”
In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that Dagan admires the Iranians.
“Those people are very serious people.
They are very clever. Their ingenuities you cannot doubt. Their system of education is marvelous. To tell you the truth, in some cases I envy their system of education when I compare it to ours.
It’s not a regime that is taking a decision by itself. It’s a regime that is by definition conducting what I call not exactly a public debate, but a discussion between different groups who are controlling and running the country. It’s a rational regime. They are not going to do something that is going to turn everyone in the country against the regime. Is it a rational regime? The answer is yes. Is it our kind of rational? The answer is no. Remember, their goals are different.”
Dagan’s understanding of the regime is that its ultimate goal is survival and the dissemination of its ideology. “If they were to face a situation where they would have to judge the survival of the regime versus the [nuclear] project, I believe they would choose the survival of the regime,” he says.
SO WHAT could be a possible trade-off that could see Tehran give up its weapons program? “I think that Iran today is in a very serious situation,” he says, “and I would aim for a different goal. I would aim that such a regime be replaced by a much more open one that is much more keen on civil rights and a much more open society, and I believe that today many of the Iranians want to see Iran go in this direction.”
Dagan refuses to discuss whether Israel and the West have done or are doing enough to encourage that option, but says that sanctions are beginning to have the desired effect. “I think that the hardships are reaching almost every household in Iran,” he says. “And they are putting the blame on the Iranian regime as a result of their behavior. I think that the direction that the international community is going is the right direction.”
Is he saying then that if enough time is bought, there could be a change of regime in Iran? “No,” he replies, “I’m saying that...
when the president of the US says that he is not going to allow [Iran] to become a nuclear state and that nuclear military capability will be in the possession of the Iranians, I think I can trust his point of view... Let me put it this way: if the US president says that he is not going to allow Iran to reach nuclear capability, if we are not going to trust him then who are we going to trust? I put to Dagan that relying on another country is a departure from the traditional Israeli policy of leaving its security in its own hands.
“I do not think we are leaving our fate to another country,” he says. “I think we are now in a situation where it’s the main interest of most of the countries in the region and the US and the international community. Personally, I think that it is a mistake to put it as a direct conflict between Israel and Iran. We never ever had anything against the people of Iran, and I think that such a problem that is creating such a great threat to the region and to the stability of the region, the economy of the region and every other aspect should be dealt with as an international issue.”
And if that trust is mistaken? “I believe that theoretically when a sword is put against our necks we will be forced to do so [take military action], but I don’t think it’s the first priority that we have to use it.”
Meir Dagan will discuss the Iranian nuclear threat at the first annual Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on April 29.