Israel's Shadowy War on Iran Mossad Zeros in on Tehran's Nuclear Program

By and Ronen Bergman


Part 3: Can a Military Strike on Iran Be Avoided?

One murder that changed the course of Middle Eastern history was the assassination of Sheikh Abbas al-Mussawi, the secretary-general of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. Al-Mussawi was killed in a helicopter attack on his motorcade in February 1992. The original plan had been simply to abduct him to use as a bargaining chip for the release of Israeli prisoners. But Ehud Barak, Israeli chief of staff at the time, forced through a last-minute change, convincing Prime Minister Shamir to order the cleric's assassination instead.

It seems clear that nobody gave serious thought to the possible consequences of such a flagrant act. Although the operation was a tactical success, it proved a strategic catastrophe -- and the reaction was not long in coming. A month after al-Mussawi's murder, a bomb exploded at the Israeli embassy in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, killing 29 Israelis as well as local staff.

Furthermore, al-Mussawi was replaced as Hezbollah leader by Hassan Nasrallah, who subsequently built the organization into a powerful and well-armed fighting force that controls southern Lebanon and has the power to hold all of northern Israel in check, as it demonstrated in the second Lebanon conflict of 2006. Today, Nasrallah is the decisive figure in his nation's political landscape. Only last week, the resignation of his Hezbollah ministers from the Lebanese cabinet plunged the entire country into disarray.

Worse still from Tel Aviv's point of view, the people it assassinated could have become successful negotiators in future peace talks. Take Arafat's erstwhile deputy, Khalil al-Wazer, better known by his nom-de-guerre, Abu Jihad. Many Israelis still think his execution in 1988 was a tragic mistake. Had Abu Jihad remained alive, he may well have been a more charismatic leader than Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian Authority president, and perhaps been in a position to end the simmering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Unintended Consequences

Regardless of whether or not such executions are morally justifiable, Mossad murders have had unintended consequences. There's no better evidence for this than the chain of events which began with the attempt to kill deputy Hamas leader Khalid Mashal in the Jordanian capital in 1997. Mossad agents attacked Mashal in Amman with a neurotoxin, but were caught red-handed by the Jordanian police. As part of the agreement for the return of its agents, Israel had to both provide the Jordanian authorities with the antidote for the poison and release Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison. Shortly after his liberation, Sheikh Yassin toured Arab countries collecting donations that he used to launch a wave of murderous assaults on Israel beginning in 2000 and continuing until he was killed by an Israeli helicopter gunship attack in 2004. In the meantime, the failed attempt on Mashal gave him so much prestige that he took over the leadership of Hamas in exile soon after Yassin's death, and was able to forge closer ties to Shiite Iran than the fundamentalist Sunni Yassin would have ever permitted.

When Mossad targeted scientists who helped Israel's enemies make weapons of mass destruction, the operations were often justified in public as countering an existential threat to Israel and its citizens. This line of reasoning often centered on the Holocaust and the persecution of Europe's Jews. When Israel found itself under the greatest threat, Ben-Gurion is said to have told staff that his greatest fear was that he may have brought the survivors of the European Jewry to Israel only to have them suffer a second Holocaust.

Whenever the threat to the very existence of Israel is debated, there is always someone who equates Israel's enemies with Hitler. In the 1950s and 1960s Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was the bogeyman. In the 1970s it was Arafat. In the 1990s it was Saddam Hussein, and today it is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Israel's leaders have always worried about the possible physical annihilation of their country, and it is this perceived threat that has formed their justification for the policy of assassination, even though it constitutes a breach of international law and the sovereignty of other nations.

Sowing Fear

The number of such killings increased dramatically under Meir Dagan. Following his appointment as Mossad director in 2002, Dagan took advantage of this policy, primarily with respect to Iran. Dagan sees the regime in Tehran as representing two basic dangers that threaten the current generation of Israelis: terrorism and nuclear warfare.

Dagan, whom Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said was particularly skilled at separating Arabs from their heads, has always been surprisingly moderate in his attitude toward military action by the Israeli army. He firmly believes that war should be a weapon of last resort. Dagan only recently spoke out against attacking Iran -- in contrast to the more hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak.

Although Dagan thinks Iran poses a threat to Israel's existence and that the Iranian regime would use nuclear weapons against Israel should it ever obtain them, he is convinced that concerted action can, at the very least, lead to a significant delay in Iran's nuclear program, if not a scrapping of the project altogether. This would require a combination of international diplomatic pressure, tough economic sanctions, the prevention of the sale of nuclear technology and hardware, support for non-Shiite opposition forces in Iran -- and, last but not least, secret Mossad operations.

He also presents evidence to back his theory up: He says the death of Iranian nuclear scientists has slowed the development of the nuclear program and sowed fear among their colleagues, many of whom subsequently failed to turn up for work on the following days.

It's still anyone's guess whether Prime Minister Netanyahu will be swayed by the optimistic assessment of his former intelligence chief that there's still plenty of time to continue mounting secret operations against Tehran. And it could well be that Netanyahu still prefers a far more dangerous solution to the Iranian problem.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt and Ella Ornstein

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