Meir Dagan’s Iran legacy

Ariel Sharon appointed Dagan in October 2002, telling him, the story goes, that he wanted “a Mossad with a knife between its teeth.”

Dagan 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dagan 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Looking back at Meir Dagan’s eight-year leadership of the Mossad, one is struck by how starkly it differed, at least in the public perception and the ramifications, from that of his predecessor, the English-born Efraim Halevy.
The debonair Halevy, a nephew of Cambridge philosopher Isaiah Berlin, had focused, among other areas, on improving international relations in friendly countries and quiet intelligence gathering. Whatever daring missions he approved made few headlines.
In contrast, Dagan’s rough-and-tumble stint was chock full of controversial operations that restored the Mossad’s public reputation for ruthless, bold actions.
This approach sometimes strained diplomatic relations – see, for instance, the fallout from the Mahmoud al- Mabhouh assassination in Dubai last January. It also evidently meant the Mossad had a wealth of attractive intelligence to bring to the table in its dealings with the CIA, MI6 and other friendly parallel organizations. It is no wonder that Dagan has been prominently mentioned in numerous WikiLeaks documents released so far, as a sought-after source of information.
Dagan’s strong Jewish identity seems to have been a major motivating force. The post-Holocaust “never again” mantra was central to his worldview.
He was born in 1945, reportedly in a train somewhere between Poland and Russia, to two survivors. On his first day as director, it is said, he hung a photo on the wall of his office at Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv of an elderly bearded Jew draped in a prayer shawl kneeling down in front of two Nazi soldiers with fists in the air.
“Look at this picture,” Dagan would often urge visitors, according to an interview that appeared this past Holocaust Remembrance Day in Yediot Aharonot. “This man, kneeling down before the Nazis, was my grandfather just before he was murdered. I look at this picture every day and promise that the Holocaust will never happen again.”
Ariel Sharon appointed Dagan in October 2002, telling him, the story goes, that he wanted “a Mossad with a knife between its teeth.”
The two men had been close for decades. In 1970 Sharon, as head of the IDF’s Southern Command, had selected Dagan to command the Rimon counterterrorism unit that operated in the Gaza Strip. Rimon members disguised themselves as Palestinian taxi drivers, farmers and even women to carry out assassinations of Fatah terrorists.
In the years preceding Dagan’s ascendancy – and preceding Halevy’s too, for that matter – the Mossad had experienced several embarrassing failures. There was the failed attempt to assassinate Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in 1996, which sparked a crisis that Halevy played a central role in resolving. And there were the arrests of four Mossad agents caught attempting to tap the phone of Hizbullah operative Abdallah el-Zein in Switzerland in early 1998.
DAGAN’S MOSSAD has focused principally on Iran – its nuclear weapons drive and its jihadist proxies Hamas and Hizbullah. Since he took office, along with the killing of Hamas arms dealer Mabhouh in Dubai a year ago, Hizbullah’s terror chief Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in early 2008 when the headrest of his car seat exploded, and Syria’s liaison to North Korea’s nuclear program Gen. Mohammed Suleiman was shot through the head a few months later while relaxing in the back garden of his villa on the Mediterranean shore.
Israel, it should be stressed, has never acknowledged involvement in any of these incidents.
The Mossad may or may not be connected to a string of “setbacks” to Iran’s nuclear program: scientist Shahram Amiri temporarily disappeared last year while another scientist, Majid Shahriari, was shot dead in November; two planes carrying cargo relating to the project crashed; two nuclear labs burst into flames; equipment sent to Iran for the program arrived broken; and the Stuxnet worm wreaked havoc in Iranian nuclear facilities’ computer control systems.
If not for these “developments” and others, it is very possible that Iran would by now have achieved the level of uranium enrichment needed for a bomb.
If it ultimately turns out that the Mossad was linked to some of these “setbacks,” and they proved significant in the struggle to thwart Teheran, this would be Dagan’s biggest legacy. Making sure those are not the last such “setbacks” could be incoming Mossad head Tamir Pardo’s biggest challenge.

International economic sanctions, though they are starting to bite, have so far failed to persuade the regime in Teheran to abandon the program. A major military offense, while still “on the table,” is deemed by many to be unlikely, due in part to the prohibitively high risk of a major regional conflagration that could follow. For now, quiet but effective behind-the-scenes work may be the most important obstacle to a nuclear Iran.
Obviously, sabotage cannot delay the Iranians indefinitely. But it can buy time. Meir Dagan may have bought the free world a lot of that already.