Mossad's Yossi Cohen goes to war with coronavirus and Iran

It is not a surprise that Netanyahu would turn to Cohen for a mission of the utmost primacy, after the Mossad chief has led dramatic and daring efforts against Iran for years.

Mossad Director Yossi Cohen (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mossad Director Yossi Cohen
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late Tuesday night that Mossad Director Yossi Cohen was taking over the country’s efforts to purchase medical equipment abroad, it was not a huge surprise.
Already last week, Cohen succeeded in bringing to Israel 100,000 test kits, with an estimated four million more on the way.
The Jerusalem Post learned at the time that the kits were obtained from countries which Israel does not have diplomatic relations with (later reported by al Jazeera to be moderate Arab countries in the Persian Gulf), one reason why the Mossad took the lead.
Since then, there are other eye-popping medical purchases on the way being handled by Cohen and the Mossad, because the spy agency has a global reach and ability to cut through red tape unmatched by any other Israeli agency.
It is also not a surprise that Netanyahu would turn to Cohen for a mission of the utmost primacy after the Mossad chief has led dramatic and daring efforts against Iran for years.   
Even as Cohen takes on the coronavirus crisis, he appears dedicated to being ready for “the day after” it has wrapped up – because all of the same national security challenges confronting Israel, especially Iran, will remain serious dangers.
It’s estimated that the Mossad chief’s view is even that with all the changes the coronavirus will cause, much of what makes the world go around and of long-term rivalries between nations will continue.
Tracking and stopping Iran’s nuclear program and terror activities in the Middle East remains Cohen’s top objective.
How great is the danger posed to Israel by the Islamic Republic at this point?
Numbers and dates help tell the story.
On January 14, IDF Chief-of-staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said that Iran would not obtain enough enriched uranium for a nuclear missile (around 1,000 kilograms) before December, and that it would need another year beyond that to have the capability to fire the missile.
By March 4, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had reported that the ayatollahs already had enough low-enriched nuclear material for 1.5 nuclear bombs, if they chose to enrich the material to weaponized levels.
HOW WAS the IDF prediction so far off, and why was Israel’s response to Iran crossing this key threshold so deafeningly silent?
There are multiple pieces to the answer.
Over time, Cohen and a variety of other national security officials have framed the IDF as viewing Iran as a real threat, but viewing the Iran nuclear issue as less of an imminent threat than the Mossad and Netanyahu. This conforms with repeated IDF official speeches naming Hezbollah as the greatest short-term threat. 
Regarding the overlap with Netanyahu, Cohen seems to very much maintain his own independent personal view, but it just so happens that he and Netanyahu’s views on the threat posed by Iran mostly coincide.
Cohen has declared in public speeches that Iran is trying to influence the world and become the Middle East region’s hegemon, and there are indications that Cohen believes that while the coronavirus crisis has delayed this threat, it has not reduced it.
Part of the difference between the IDF and the Mossad on Iran is that, even as the Mossad has a global mission, its primary focus and resources are devoted to tracking and combating the Islamic Republic (including in Syria.)
In contrast, the IDF’s resources are split between Hamas, Hezbollah, the West Bank and a variety of other threats along with Iran.
There is another piece to the answer of why not only the IDF was silent when Tehran crossed the low-enriched uranium nuclear threshold, but also why Netanyahu was silent.
This piece is that none of Israel’s intelligence agencies believe that Iran, so far, has reached a decision to break out toward a nuclear weapon.
Cohen would likely say that such a decision would be a critical turning point for Israel – even if it was not ready to fire such a missile.
HOW EXACTLY can Israel judge when Iran makes the decision, presuming the crafty ayatollahs would not publicly announce it?
It appears that the Mossad would not look at any one indicator.
Rather, in addition to performing its own surveillance and collecting intelligence, a variety of factors such as moving to enrich uranium from lower levels to higher levels, or expelling IAEA inspectors and other issues, would likely inform the Mossad’s conclusions about Iran’s intentions.
In some ways, the question of pinpointing that moment might be less important to Cohen than preparing for it in advance.
Critically, the Mossad’s view appears to be that for such a preemptive strike to succeed operationally and diplomatically, heavy advanced planning and training will be required long beforehand.
At the point when Iran makes a final decision to break out to a nuclear weapon, Israel will not have a full year to throw everything together.
He would admit that his approach is aggressive, but would say that he is seeing the threat more clearly than others and refuses to pretend that the situation is stable.
Cohen is emboldened and feels tremendous validation with his operatives of late from the IAEA’s recent March report. This is based on the idea that the nuclear agency endorsed all of the intelligence produced by the Mossad’s historic January 2018 operation in the heart of Tehran appropriating many of its nuclear secrets.
The operation led to revelations of exactly what aspects of Iran’s nuclear missile program it was still trying to hide from the IAEA.
It also revealed that the Islamic Republic was concealing nuclear material at a site called Turquzabad.
Cohen seems to see these revelations as having started a ball rolling which set the IAEA on a collision course with Tehran.
The recent public recriminations between the IAEA and Iran have intensified since the ayatollahs are refusing to answer questions about the Turquzabad nuclear material and refusing to grant the agency access to certain new, suspicious sites which the Mossad uncovered.
IN SEPTEMBER 2019, the Post revealed that the Mossad’s biggest accomplishment in its January 2018 operation was to expose what was effectively a map of sites where Iran was likely concealing aspects of its nuclear program.
Cohen would probably say that new IAEA director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi deserves some credit for applying greater pressure on Iran to fulfill its international commitments than his predecessor, Yukiya Amano.
Grossi is ready to rock the boat with the Islamic Republic if it violates its commitments.
In contrast, Amano tried avoiding conflict with Iran over the JCPOA nuclear deal even if it violated its commitments, as long as it was maintaining IAEA inspections. After all, Amano himself signed the agreement.
Cohen thinks that due to the coronavirus crisis, Iran cannot maintain the same pace of uranium enrichment and of its other related nuclear weapons program activities.
He likely believes that Iran is among the hardest hit by the crisis and that there is no part of the country or the leadership, including Iran’s nuclear experts, which have not been compromised by it.
Under this theory, the combination of the coronavirus crisis, together with the massive sanctions which were already weighing Iran down as the crisis broke, potentially pose the deepest threat to the regime’s stability that it has faced.
Israel’s intelligence community thinks that the crisis is far worse than even official reports, which themselves have painted a horrific picture of death and infection.
However, the Mossad will be ready for whatever kind of Iranian threat emerges from the coronavirus crisis.
It is impossible to discuss trends relating to Iran without addressing the impact of the assassination of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani on January 3 by the US.
But was it only the US?
By mid-January, NBC had reported that there had been Israeli assistance to the US in aspects of the targeted killing of Soleimani, a report indirectly confirmed by former defense minister Avigdor Liberman.
The Post understands that there is much more beyond these reports than has been revealed, but that Israel has an interest in keeping its involvement at a low profile – just as it did for around 10 years regarding its attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor.
Still, without revealing more, the New Yorker has reported that Israeli intelligence informed the US in 2018 that Soleimani was trying to stockpile long-range rockets and killer drones in Iraq to establish a new proxy front with Israel.
The report makes it clear that Israeli officials were working with US officials regarding Soleimani long before the year 2020.
How does the Mossad view the IRGC Quds Force in the post-Soleimani era?
Soleimani’s replacement, Maj.-Gen. Esmail Ghaani, is not considered a star or as great a threat as Soleimani was, both because he spent decades as a background and support figure to his predecessor and because he is less familiar with Israel and Middle East operations.
Ghaani spent far more of his career involved in following Iranian operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, although he was heavily involved in moving an Afghan Shi'ite militia to fight in Syria and Yemen.
In contrast, Seyyed Mohammad Hossein-Zadeh Hejazi, who was promoted to become Ghaani’s deputy, is viewed as a much more serious threat.
This is due both to his reputation as a more dynamic figure within the IRGC and his deep involvement in the project to increase the precision of Hezbollah’s missiles for use against Israel.
Still, Soleimani is viewed as irreplaceable – and having Ghaani as the new Quds Force front man is expected to degrade the unit’s influence and ability to act in risky circumstances.
Another key area where Cohen’s name has surfaced are further leaks from Liberman about his involvement in coordinating Qatar’s funds to keep Gaza’s economy from collapsing.
Cohen was probably unimpressed with Liberman’s leak, but the question remains as to why he and the Mossad would be so directly involved in negotiating funding for Gaza – which is run by Hamas.
There is a three-word answer to this question: Israel wants quiet.
The money from Qatar is not to deal with Hamas directly as a military threat. The money is to deal with the broader economic situation in Gaza, to avoid making Hamas feel desperate enough to go to war due to domestic economic pressure, even when it does not want war.
The Mossad chief appears to advocate the vision that the Qatari money is not addressing Hamas’s military threat, a threat which cannot be solved solely by Israeli military power. Anyone who thinks otherwise might be viewed by the Mossad as peddling in myths.
Cohen seems to favor an extended quiet-for-quiet understanding with Hamas, with strong enforcement of any violations by the terrorist organization, balanced with increased economic opportunities for Gaza – as long as there is quiet.
The Mossad is extremely proud of the historic and stunning recent diplomatic progress between Israel and Sudan.
Though Netanyahu gets and deserves much of the public credit, the success was also a product of two other key factors.
Cohen’s repeated efforts – which until the final, successful attempt had not borne fruit and went largely unreported – were key. The timing being ripe on the Sudanese side was another major factor.
Once again though, Cohen came through on a key, complex priority for the country.
There is an unusual amount of strain on all spy agencies during this time, including the Mossad.
This is because all of the talent and brilliant tactics in the world do not protect agents around the world from the biological threat posed by the coronavirus.
Of course, agents can be even more careful about leaving their residences than usual, but some spying activities require excursions.
Cohen would likely say that the Mossad is adapting as best as any agency could under the challenging circumstances, and will still manage to perform its role.
The Mossad is unconcerned about the latest ripples in the US intelligence community after US President Donald Trump fired Joseph Maguire and appointed Richard Grenell as Acting Director of National Intelligence, while also nominating John Ratcliffe to replace Grenell.
Both Grenell and Ratcliffe have been attacked by Trump’s US critics and within the US intelligence community as unqualified, political appointees who will overtly interfere in intelligence processes that are usually left to apolitical career spy agency officials.
To Cohen, his excellent personal relationships with CIA Director Gina Haspel, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and even Trump himself, mean that Israeli bilateral intelligence interests with the US will be kept out of Washington’s internal political battles.
Cohen has also made it clear in a variety of platforms this past year that he is potentially interested in a political career at some point down the road.
Between Iran, Sudan and now his high-profile role in combating the coronavirus, when his turn comes, he will have a long resume to submit for whatever job he seeks.