Q&A: Ex-Mossad chiefs discuss the Iranian threat

IranSource interviewed several ex-heads of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, to ask their thoughts on Iran. Three of the six living directors agreed to speak.* They painted varying pictures of Iran as a nation and threat in addition to mixed views on the US decision to quit the nuclear agreement in May.

EFRAIM HALEVY: Years in office 1998 – 2002

What are your general thoughts on Iran?
Iran is a multi-faceted country and is also very complex and interconnected, therefore it’s a subject for an article or even a book. I think that Iran is a very ancient country with a very ancient tradition and culture. It’s a large country with a large population—close to 100 million—which is the biggest country in the region comparable to Turkey and Egypt. Whatever way it goes and whatever it does will have vast consequences for the other players in the Middle East and probably on the international scene.

What’s the best way to deal with Iran?
One shouldn’t approach the challenges Iran poses to the international community light-heartedly and believe that by a few brush strokes and a few loud and dramatic sound bites you can solve the problem of confronting Iran today. It’s much more difficult and complex than just writing it off as something which has to be dealt with a couple of threats and sweeteners, which are offers in exchange for major changes in policy. It requires both resilience and knowledge of the details—the devil is always in the details—it also requires a negotiating capability to try and deal with the issues the Iranians are posing to the international community.

I believe after many years of more or less ignoring the issues—a quarter of a century to be precise—former US President Barack Obama was right in deciding that it was necessary to negotiate with Iran on one or two of the major issues: negotiating to talk with them, and to create an international coalition of all of the big powers of the world—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—and to negotiate with them on the immediate threat which Iran imposes which was the military nuclear threat. I think that the countries who negotiated with Iran were right in reaching a resolution which is embodied in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is an imperfect understanding but is preferable to a situation of no understanding. It was the first step in the right direction. Although Iran has a track record for being unreliable and untruthful in reporting their activities, it was preferable to a situation where there is no understanding. This ten-year period should’ve been used as a time in which separate contracts and possibilities are created bilaterally between Iran and the world in hopes that in ten years the Iranians would be in a different place than they are today.

Do you think the United States and Israel are handling Iran in the right manner?
The decision of President Donald Trump to abrogate the JCPOA has created a situation where there is no agreement and no dialogue between the United States and Iran. The coalition that was created is now split between five on the one side and the US on the other, and the Iranians are facing the prospect of dealing with a situation in which they can’t rely or trust their negotiating partners to keep any agreement because it could be torn up by subsequent regime changes or personnel changes in Washington. This is a very stark prospect from every point of view.

Generally speaking, I think Iran is flexing its muscles in the region. It has boots on the ground in Syria, and it’s been a long-time target of Iran to have an immediate border with Israel. I don’t see the American effort to get Iran out of Syria succeeding, or that Russia has the capability to twist Iran’s arm and obtain their expulsion from Syria.

I think the prospect that those who have initiated the prospects of confronting Iran militarily is becoming a viable option with disastrous consequences. You know how to begin a war but never know how to an end a war. As I’ve said, Iran is a massive country and bombing it out of the twentieth century can be a slogan, but to achieve that then the US would have to invest in this military effort. This is a massive military effort that the US isn’t prepared to launch, and I don’t think the public opinion of the US president, regardless of whether they like him or not, would allow a massive war with a country like Iran.

DANNY YATOM: Years in office 1996 – 1998

What are your general thoughts on Iran?
Iran is a rogue country. Iran poses not just a danger to the stability of the Middle East, but the entire world. I’ll give you examples. First, the most dangerous part of the Iranian threat is that, God forbid, it’ll build a military nuclear capability then it’ll be almost very difficult, if at all possible, to act and react in the Middle East. Second, Iran is now active in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, and it even sends from time to time death squads in order to kill their opponents in Europe and South America. Third, Iran provides assistance to terrorist organizations and acts by proxies. They send weapons systems, money—something like $700 million to $1 billion every year to Lebanese Hezbollah—they train, they send experts. Iran does the same and also strengthen its links with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. There are many other terror organizations that are assisted by Iran like the Houthis in Yemen and many countries in Africa. They bear different names. Some are affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), some are affiliated to al-Qaeda, but some of them are also assisted by Iran as well. This is Iran.

What’s the best way to deal with Iran?
I was against, and thought it was a mistake to leave the JCPOA between the Europeans, Russia, China, the United Nations, and Iran because I thought that if the United States remained a part of the agreement, it would be easier for the US—from inside with a coalition of the other countries—to persuade Iran to make much more concessions.

I agree the nuclear agreement has many holes. It doesn’t touch on the ballistic missiles issue. It allows the Iranians to enrich uranium. The centrifuges weren’t destroyed, they were dismantled only, so they can be rebuilt or reconnected in no time. In addition, Iran has to stop its terrorist behavior and invasion—from an influential point of view, so to speak—of other countries, as I mentioned previously. After the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, I think the US should continue to put crippling sanctions on Iran so the Iranians will come back to the table to add more issues to the discussion. By and large those are the issues: diplomacy and show of force.

Do you think the United States and Israel are handling Iran in the right manner?
I think that right now the US and Israel are handling Iran the right way. Israel’s main focus today is to bring all the Iranian forces and its affiliates to leave Syria period. When Israel identifies that Iranians are moving closer to the border or deploying weapons systems, which might endanger our jet fighters and other posts—like it happened in the past—Israel should attack those sites. Israel shouldn’t necessarily publicly admit it was Israel, but by foreign media sources. I learned that they think that all those attacks were by Israel. Whether it was Israel or not, this is the right approach. I think it would be a mistake that the United States leave the area, Syria and the Middle East as a whole, even though President Trump intends to do it.

If the US leaves the region, I’m afraid that the Kurdish enclave will collapse, and it would be another victory to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran. In addition, I think from a global point of view, the US shouldn’t create a vacuum into which Russia can enter the Middle East, the way it has today. Contradictory to what was the situation five or ten years ago, the strongest element in the Middle East isn’t the United States but Russia, which plays against US security interests.

SHABTAI SHAVIT: Years in office 1989 – 1996

What are your general thoughts on Iran?
Iran has a very long history of over 2,000 years. Iran, for all intents and purposes, was a regional empire. The current regime wants to return to the historical stature of Iran as a major player in the region, a number one player. Anyone that deals with Iran in the Middle East should know that though they are Muslims, technically they aren’t Arabs or Semites, which caused them a few problems. For instance, the Iranian presence in Iraq. This point in my eyes is very significant in the future policies and activities of Iran in the Middle East. Other indications detected that they are trying to expand their influence in the greater Middle East is their presence in Syria, Yemen, in addition to Iraq, they are spending a big chunk of their financial resources in foreign countries at a time when their domestic economy is in shambles. Iran witnesses all kinds of opposition activities and protests on almost a daily basis. It’s not yet a phenomenon which is a threat to the regime but if it continues, if the economy deteriorates more than it is today, they can down the road reach a point when the opposition will threaten the regime. So the resumption of US sanctions may play a big role and an aspect of the economic situation in the country. The bottom line of what I’m saying is if the domestic political situation and social economic [situation] keep on deteriorating, it may really affect Iran’s foreign policy.

What’s the best way to deal with Iran?
There is no magic answer to that. If we take the point of time in which we are talking now, President Trump is announcing the resumption of sanctions, and offering Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to meet with him like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in order to try and find the best solution. Now since he met with Kim in Singapore and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland, I can’t identify any real change for the better between the US-North Korea relationship or Russia-US relationship. I’m quite pessimistic at the notion of Trump meeting with the Supreme Leader. It’s an important question that if the Iranians are free to meet with him, who will meet with him? The Supreme Leader or the president of Iran? If such a meeting takes places and the Iranian side arrives with President Hassan Rouhani, I hardly expect him to make decisions. Rouhani will sit with Trump and then go to the Supreme Leader to report and maybe recommend solutions or values, or ideas on how to deal with such a dialogue.

What I really want to tell you is that trying to assess the Iranians on one hand and the Americans on the other hand the unknowns are by far bigger than the knowns. But coming again to the question, the best way is to maintain contact—to talk to each other—because when people are talking to each other, in this environment all kind of ideas are popping up. The lack of communication is the enemy of political solutions.

The other not political option is a situation where a relationship becomes worse and not better. Now the US today is determined to prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear military capability. It seems Trump is saying that he is ready to use any means necessary in order to prevent the Iranians from reaching these capabilities. I believe that the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese will accept a nuclear Iran. So this is the battlefield that we’re in today.

For Israel, a militarily nuclear Iran can be a major threat. On the other hand, I don’t see Israel being the wild child in the neighborhood and trying to attack Iran alone. This happened once in the history that nuclear devices were used in a war. I don’t see Israel being the second country to use this kind of weapons system. So in order to cope with the problem, we must have full cooperation with the US. No matter who is the president. With President Trump, our government has a very good relationship but presidents in the US change. Not so much within Israel, in the last decade. The understanding that we have with Trump, won’t necessarily live with the next US president. So our situation is such that we have to address the Iranian threat to Israel, assuming the worst-case scenario, not the best-case scenario. Meaning, if I had to recommend my government to do anything possible in order to prepare us for such an eventuality. That isn’t to say that I reject the idea of pursuing a political avenue, but my expectation of the political avenue is very small. I consider myself not as a politician, but as a former intelligence officer. I can’t base my recommendations on the more moderate scenarios, but rather the worst. And the worst is that our enemy is a big power, rich country basically with ambitions of becoming the hegemon of the Middle East, which its Supreme Leader said in one of his interviews his mission in this world is to eliminate the state of Israel. That’s how I see it.

Do you think the United States and Israel are handling Iran in the right manner?
I’m not sure that I entirely read Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu correctly. I can also say the same about President Trump. What I can say about Trump is that he’s entirely unpredictable. As for Netanyahu, I very much hope that he won’t make the decision to go into it alone. I’m hesitating to give you an answer. We may be smarter come November, towards the end of the year because of sanctions. On November 5, the US intends to impose really hard sanctions and bearing in mind the economic situation in Iran the public opinion domestically may change the thinking in Tehran towards willing to start negotiating. This may be right, this may be wrong.

*The following three ex-chiefs declined to comment: Tamir Pardo (2011 – 2016), Nahum Admoni (1982 – 1989), and Zvi Zamir (1968 – 1974).

Holly Dagres is editor of the Atlantic Council’s IranSource blog, and a nonresident fellow with the Middle East Security Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She also curates The Iranist newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @hdagres.

Image: Former Mossad chiefs from left to right: Danny Yatom, Tamir Pardo, Zvi Zamir, Shabtai Shavit, Nahum Admoni and Efraim Halevy with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin at a candle lighting ceremony for Hanukkah at the President's residence in Jerusalem on December 18, 2014. (Haim Zach / GPO)