Halting Iran's Nuclear Program Former Mossad Chief Seeks to Avert Israeli Attack


By Ronen Bergman and Juliane von Mittelstaedt in Tel Aviv

Part 2: One End, Different Means

Both Dagan and Netanyahu have made it their mission in life to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but they have different strategies and timetables for accomplishing this goal. Netanyahu wants to attack before it's too late. His model is two past successful air raids -- the one in 1981 against Iraq and the other in 2007 against Syria. In both cases, the regimes did not retaliate.

Dagan says a military strike should be used only as a last resort, or "only when the sword is at our throat." He believes that an attack would trigger a regional war without end. As the head of the Mossad, he fought a shadow war aimed at postponing the moment when the bomb would be built. He achieved this with the help of the Stuxnet virus, suspicious accidents and the "elimination of important forces," as Dagan described it in a private conversation. There is a "white defection," he says, with fewer and fewer Iranian scientists willing to volunteer to work as part of the nuclear program.

The idea is to delay the bomb's construction until the ruling regime in Tehran has been overthrown -- and Dagan believes this is precisely what is about to happen. Now, though, he is afraid that Netanyahu might jump the gun and ruin his plan. After all, waiting is not Netanyahu's forte. For over 10 years, he has been warning about Iran, and he doesn't believe that Dagan's shadow war alone can prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb.

Some high-ranking military officials and politicians have gone so far as to accuse Dagan of actually winning time for the Iranians. But Dagan defends his strategy. He says he feels it is his duty to warn the public. Anyone who orders an attack, he contends, decides on the fate of future generations. This decision cannot be made in small circles, he adds. And, by that, he also means: not by these politicians.

Silencing All Criticism

As Dagan sees it, Netanyahu is incapable of leading Israel and has failed on all fronts. Israel has never been so strong militarily, he argues, yet had such weak political leaders. While he worked together with Netanyahu, Dagan says that the prime minister never informed him of any concrete political or military objectives. It is only when it comes to Iran that Netanyahu has an opinion -- and a goal. In order to achieve this goal, Dagan accuses Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of trying to silence all criticism. The two politicians want to make this decision without involving the rest of the government, Dagan contends. And he views this way of doing things as legally problematic.

Indeed, Dagan says, this is why he and Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from 2007 to 2011, were removed from their positions during the first months of this year, and why Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, was not allowed to succeed him as head of the Mossad. Instead, they were replaced by individuals who reportedly have less critical views on attacking Iran and at least lack enough experience to take a firm stance against such a move.

Dagan calls this a plot, a clandestine putsch by the politicians against the intelligence agencies. "Diskin, Ashkenazi and I succeeded in blocking all dangerous adventures," he says, adding that now there is no one left to stand in their way.

This version is supported by many former military officers, intelligence officials and politicians who defend Dagan and strike similar tones. "Listen to them, in every field," says Tzipi Livni, the parliamentary opposition leader and head of the centrist Kadima party. Open criticism used to be rare in Israel, but that is no longer the case.

Danny Yatom and Efraim Halevy, both former Mossad chiefs, say that Dagan is right to speak up -- and that he apparently has good reasons for doing so. "The public should hear his opinion on Iran," Yatom says. Those who know Dagan -- and, particularly, generals and former colleagues -- confirm he means what he says. They say he is neither interested in launching a political career nor seeking any benefit.

Efforts to Halt an Attack

For a long time, the Americans have also been afraid that Israel would make good on its threat to attack. In the spring of 2008, then-US President George W. Bush flew to Israel for a surprise visit. He demanded to see then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, neither of whom knew the reason for the meeting. "I need you to promise that you won't use the transitional period between me and my successor to attack Iran," Bush reportedly insisted, apparently highly concerned.

A similar visit was made this October by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. All steps against Iran's nuclear program must be coordinated with the international community, he warned Israeli leaders -- so emphatically, in fact, that it sounded as if US intelligence agencies had gotten wind of preparations for an attack.

Has Dagan postponed an attack or perhaps even prevented one? It may be possible to answer that question someday, or we may never know the answer. What is certain, though, is that nothing undermines a secret attack more than talking about it. Menachem Begin, Israel's prime minister from 1977 to 1983, called off the first air operation against Iraq's Osirak reactor after then-opposition leader Shimon Peres found out about it. The pilots were already sitting in their fighter planes. A month later, they destroyed the reactor.

"Forgive me," says Dagan, "but I will continue to speak at every opportunity." He adds that one shouldn't try to stop him. He has a good lawyer, he says, and a good memory.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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