Open Secrets (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. An investigative reporter shines light on the quiet fight to foil Iran's expansionist ambitions Despite military censorship, few secrets can be kept forever, at least not in Israel with its aggressive media, loquacious folk and insatiable public. For 15 years, no one knew that the Californian killed in a mysterious motorcycle accident one stormy night in Vienna in 1993 was actually a Mossad agent tracking a treasonous Israeli businessman selling chemical weapons to Iran. The censor still does not permit publication of the name of the young man nor that of his partner, who was also killed. But the censor has allowed details of this incident and many, many more to finally be revealed in "The Secret War with Iran," by Ronen Bergman, a top investigative security affairs journalist with the mass circulation Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Uncovering and making sense out of the covert 30-year intelligence war between the West and Iran demands more than listing the failures and successes of the dramatic struggle. The book is packed with these, including many revealed for the first time, but the added value that Bergman delivers is the historical context. The bottom line is that Iran's sponsorship of global terror is a far greater danger than Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Al-Qaeda ever were, and urgent action must be taken to halt Iran's race to get the bomb. The book starts with the amazing but well-known story of how 30 years ago the American Central Intelligence Agency dismissed warnings from the Mossad and other sources that the Shah's iron-fisted rule in Iran was on the verge of collapse. The Americans had faith in the Shah, who seemed to ignore reality until the end. In late 1978, at the urging of the commander of the Iranian Air Force Gen. Amir Hossein Rabiei, then Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan donned a wig and sunglasses to hide his iconic eye patch and flew secretly to Tehran to warn the Shah that his regime was tottering. A few weeks later, the Shah was in exile in Egypt, Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Tehran and in Jerusalem there was nervousness, not over the emergence of extreme Islamic ideology across the Middle East, but over the $5 billion Iran had paid in advance for Israeli weapons that were never delivered. For Israel, Iran had been a major arms market. In the first decade of Khomeini's rule, Israel had been blinded to the radical nature and aims of the new regime by a desire to cash in on Tehran's urgent need for weapons in the intensifying Iran-Iraq war. Thus Operation Seashell, in which hundreds of tons of Israeli weapons were airlifted or shipped to Iran, was conceived. More would follow in what became known as the Iran-contra affair. "I don't remember even one discussion about the ethics of the matter," one key figure from the Israeli Defense Ministry is quoted as saying. "All that interested us was to sell, sell, sell." No one in the security establishment claims to have foreseen then that post-revolution Iran was to become the main exporter of Islamic fundamentalism and a vital supplier of Israel's front-line enemies with money, weapons, and know-how. According to Bergman, one of the Browning machine guns sold to Iran by Israel was used by Hizballah 25 years later to kill Israeli soldiers during the kidnapping of two troops on July 12, 2006, an incident that sparked the Second Lebanon War. Some of the Hizballah fighters had also trained in Iran. "The Secret War with Iran" is an expanded and updated version of Bergman's Hebrew language "Point of No Return," which became an Israeli bestseller. It is written in a compelling, lucid style, packed full of facts and anecdotes that often leave the reader open-mouthed at both the incredible failures and the audacious successes. It is obvious that Bergman was given access to loads of classified documents. He boasts that he interviewed over 300 people in over 20 countries, including scores of Mossad and defense officials. Indeed, one of the most repeated phrases in the book is "disclosed here for the first time." A good example of this is the revelation that Israel came close to assassinating al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. According to Bergman, in 1995 the Mossad was the first Western intelligence agency to set up a special desk to deal with al-Qaeda. Senior intelligence officials are quoted in the book saying that bin Laden's personal secretary was lured into poisoning bin Laden in return for securing business permits for her family in an unnamed Middle East country. The scheme fell through due to "terror and hooliganism by Jewish extremists in the West Bank" and the failure of Israeli-Arab peace talks. IDF intelligence later tried to reactivate the secretary, but without success. "This is the closest any intelligence service has ever come to the world's public enemy No.1," Bergman writes. One sobering revelation is the failure of the Israeli security establishment to pick up on the suicide-bombing trend. It began in November 1982 when a car bomber drove into a seven-story Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, reducing it to a pile of rubble and killing 75 Israeli servicemen and 27 Lebanese. Bergman uncovered a buried internal inquiry that determined it was a terror attack, yet even now Israeli intelligence claims it was due to faulty gas cylinders. Soon after, suicide bombings became the poor man's smart bomb, used to kill hundreds of U.S. Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut the following year. The mastermind of these and other attacks was Iranian-backed Hizballah terrorist Imad Moughniyeh. After a quarter of a century of orchestrating bloody kidnappings and attacks, the ultra-careful Moughniyeh was finally assassinated in Damascus by a mysterious explosion in his new Mitsubishi Pajero SUV. Israel denied responsibility. However, Bergman quotes an Israeli intelligence official as telling him with a chuckle, "Pity about that new Pajero," in an attempt to convey the message that Israel knew more about the affair than it was willing to admit. "Although Israel has denied responsibility for the assassination," Bergman notes, "the Moughniyeh hit was exactly the kind of thing needed to restore the country's faith in and, more importantly, the enemy's fear of Israel's intelligence services." The danger of Iran lies not only in its unrelenting quest to get nuclear weapons, but in its support for global terrorism, including the establishment and arming of Hizballah in Lebanon, Iraqi insurgents killing U.S. troops and, in recent years, Hamas. However, this support has not been enough to save Hamas from a mauling by the IDF in Operation Cast Lead. The Secret War with Iran is a comprehensive and compelling read, packed with details, excellently translated by The Jerusalem Report's chief copy editor Ronnie Hope, and will certainly be a main reference on the topic for years to come. • Arieh O'Sullivan is a freelance journalist on security affairs and former defense correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.