INTELLIGENCE AFFAIRS: As Biden prepares to take office, Israel is in a better place in efforts to prevent Iran’s nuclear program.
Given that the incoming Biden administration continues to forecast a readiness to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal without necessarily addressing all of Israel’s objections, did Mossad director Yossi Cohen succeed at his own goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear program?
Put differently, will Biden rejoin the nuclear deal in 2021, and if he does, were all of Cohen and the Mossad’s undeniably impressive operations mere tactical victories which did not help them change the broader strategic picture?
The Jerusalem Post has learned that Israeli intelligence’s view is that despite deep uncertainty about the future, Cohen, the Mossad and other defense actions succeeded, given the parameters of the playing field.
A related key question is: Are Israel and the US in practically the same place they would have been if the Trump administration had never pulled out of the deal in May 2018?
Sources would say that the answer is that Israel is in a better place and the best position it could be in despite highly complex forces beyond its control.
Also, in a significant break with many Iran analysts, certain Israeli intelligence and defense sources believe that Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is dead set on a deal with the Biden administration to improve the country’s standing.
If true, this would mean that the obsessive debate over the need for speedy negotiations with Iran is irrelevant and the idea that a deal must be made before the expected June 2021 election of a new hard-liner as Iranian president is mistaken.
If it is true that Khamenei needs a deal even after June 2021, and if Israel can convince the Biden administration not to rush into negotiating a weak deal, this will also color how Cohen’s legacy is viewed.
There are significant concerns across the defense establishment that the Biden administration will go back to the old nuclear deal as if nothing had changed regarding the intelligence picture.
The Mossad views its challenge as presenting the Biden administration with the evidence in order to get it to internalize the new intelligence Israel seized from under Iran’s nose in January 2018, and which 2015-2016 Obama era officials never got to see.
In prior reports, the Post noted sources close to Cohen discussing the first moments when he gave this new intelligence to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel in 2018.
Cohen would now like to repeat this moment with new officials such as incoming US national security advisor Jake Sullivan and incoming US secretary of state Tony Blinken.
It is one thing for those officials to say that even though they know Iran cannot be trusted, the US can still return to the 2015 nuclear deal as long as the IAEA verifies compliance (and maybe without filling all the holes Israel is concerned about).
But will incoming Biden officials’ views change once they see all of the raw intelligence about the five nuclear weapons and the already prepared underground nuclear test sites?
Will they change their views when they see the full picture of Iranian nuclear violations since 2018?
It is one thing to hear this week’s news reports about Iran
enriching uranium to the 20% level. Yet, it is quite another thing to get the
nitty-gritty details about how much closer this brings them to a nuclear
weapon, as the Mossad will provide.
It is also noteworthy how easy it was for Iran to get back to this point despite the nuclear deal.
Incidentally, though there is high concern about Iran’s jump to 20% enrichment, the tone in the intelligence and defense establishment still has not reached the level of needing to get ready for a preemptive strike.
All eyes will be on Iran about whether it follows through with a possible threat in February to reduce cooperation with IAEA inspectors, which would end public oversight of the nuclear program.
Israeli intelligence does not know what Biden officials will decide going forward. But they believe they must use their chance to try to convince the incoming administration that any new deal must be substantially improved on a variety of issues.
UNDOUBTEDLY, WHAT Biden decides will frame much of how Cohen’s legacy is interpreted.
But Cohen and the Mossad also do not choose US leaders or policy. So reviewing whether they have succeeded must start with what they did based on the hand they were dealt.
In analyzing the issue, first Cohen and the Mossad need to be given obvious points of credit.
Cohen is credited on the record with personally conceiving of and managing the now mythic seizure of the Islamic Republic’s secret nuclear files in January 2018 from the Shirobad area, the heart of Tehran itself.
According to foreign sources, which the Post has validated, the Mossad was also behind the assassination of Iran military nuclear program chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, the sabotage of Iran’s advanced nuclear centrifuge facility at Natanz in July 2020, and it assisted the US in various intelligence aspects of the assassination of IRGC major-general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.
Without even getting into removal of a variety of top Hamas and other weapons and science gurus over the past five years, other than possibly Meir Dagan, no Mossad chief has set back Tehran’s nuclear ambitions to the same degree.
The power of these operations can be split into two waves.
The first wave came from the impact of the Mossad’s 2018 revelation of Iran’s nuclear secrets, including that Iran continued in 2017 to try to hide its earlier plans for five nuclear bombs. This boosted Trump’s wish to pull out of the nuclear deal.
But the ripples continued past 2018.
When the IAEA voted in June 2020 to condemn Iran’s failure to clarify various discrepancies, the information it used to confront Tehran was virtually all from Cohen’s operation.
The IAEA vote was important not just as the first time since 2015 that the organization was ready to butt heads with the ayatollahs. It also freed up current IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi to publicly assert that any return to the nuclear deal will require updates due to new Iranian nuclear violations.
The second wave came in 2020 from the Soleimani assassination, the Natanz explosion, and with future potential impact from removing Fakhrizadeh.
Following Soleimani and Natanz, between January 2020 and December 2020, Iran refrained from announcing any new violations of the nuclear deal.
In addition, Israeli intelligence officials and nuclear experts told the Post that the July Natanz explosion set back the Islamic Republic’s advanced centrifuge development by one to two years.
Along with the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign and threats of force from Trump, including flying B-52 nuclear weapons-capable bombers nearby, these measures, until last month, seemed to have Iran on the defensive.
Regarding Fakhrizadeh, he achieved global infamy during Netanyahu’s famous April 2018 speech about the nuclear archive. But the Mossad has wanted to remove him from the board since the pre-2009 era of former prime minister Ehud Olmert. It says it just never got approval. (Olmert, incidentally, disputes this narrative, but does not want to discuss the matter in detail on the record.)
Though few have heard, Fakhrizadeh has been replaced by a top Iranian commander named Farhi from the space program, showing his importance.
Israeli intelligence officials talk about a special elite class of Iranians who manage the military nuclear program which had to go “from Fakhri to Farhi,” in the same fashion that Jews might sometimes talk about Jewish leadership running from the biblical Moses to the medieval Moses Maimonides.
While “the new Farhi” is high up, Cohen and the rest of Israeli intelligence still view Fakhrizadeh as irreplaceable, which means that damage to Iran’s nuclear program will run deep into the first year of the Biden administration. This is regardless of where US policy leads.
All of that is on the positive side of the scale.
On the negative side of the scale, Khamenei has had his own two counter-waves.
From May 2019 to January 2020, Iran carried out a variety of violations to the nuclear deal. Most significantly, it started to build up its enriched uranium stock to a point where – if enriched to high, weaponized levels – it could develop several nuclear weapons.
Its second wave seemed to be in response to the Natanz facility’s destruction and the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
In October 2020, the Islamic Republic started to build a replacement for the old Natanz facility, but this time underground, making it harder to attack.
In December 2020, Khamenei ordered the enrichment of uranium up to 20%, bringing the program much closer to the level at which it could be weaponized.
After all of that, we return to the million-dollar question of whether Biden will: 1) rejoin the nuclear deal without filling what Israel sees as dangerous holes, 2) fill some, but not all of the holes or 3) achieve a new deal that fills the holes.
The Post understands that elements of Israeli intelligence and the defense establishment are concerned that the Biden administration may try to get some limited new concessions from Iran relating to the precision-guided missiles issue and ignore other holes.
It is known that Cohen does not want Iran to use the precision-guided missiles issue as an excuse to enable it to maintain its nuclear program and hegemonic and terrorist actions in the Middle East.
According to this view, there is still a broader problem that many well-meaning Western officials have the mistaken belief that Iran is playing with the idea of a nuclear weapons program for deterrence, but can be softly coaxed away from the idea.
In that light, Israeli defense sources say there are only two ways to stop Iran.
One would be if the entire world united, without exceptions, and used diplomatic and economic coercion to force Tehran to end its program.
The second path, they say, is using force against Iran’s military nuclear sites and capabilities.
These are the ways that the world ended nuclear threats from Iraq and Libya.
They cite North Korea as an example of a country in complete isolation, both in terms of sanctions and diplomatically. It is nearly impossible to travel there, and Cohen’s view would be that the sanctions against North Korea are far worse, and that countries comply with them more than with the sanctions against Iran.
Iran was obligated to confess to its nuclear program’s past military dimensions. Former IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano had promised Cohen, back when he was Netanyahu’s national security council chief, that he would make Iran follow through.
This never happened.
Given that background, and once the nuclear deal did not stop Iran from progress with ballistic missiles and advanced centrifuges, nor did it end its terrorism in the region, sources said that Cohen and Netanyahu believed there was no remaining choice other than to fight Tehran with force unilaterally.
So Cohen and Netanyahu decided to do exactly that.
Cohen believes that the daring operations the Mossad undertook against Iran replaced a long gap of many years of not acting aggressively enough.
The Post understands that a main reason that the operation to seize the nuclear archives did not take place until January 2018 was that it took Cohen and his Mossad team a full two years to plan it and carry it out.
Intelligence sources were asked about the view of some (including former Mossad chiefs Tamir Pardo and Shabtai Shavit) that the issue of how to stop Iran from going nuclear after 2025 should have been pushed off until close to 2025, without breaking up the deal in 2018.
The Post learned that the view was that any Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal in the early years would have been replaced by covertly and non-covertly chipping away at the nuclear limitations long before 2025.
Each move against Iran was carefully calculated to create leverage for the critical period when there would be a standoff.
Some made light of the nuclear archives because it was records of the nuclear program from the 1990s through 2003.
However, Cohen and Netanyahu believed the archives and Iran’s continued efforts to move them around to different clandestine sites helped them prove to the IAEA and others that Khamenei’s true intentions remain to achieve a nuclear weapon.
So Cohen’s Mossad has done far more than just pressure Iran for a few years until Biden came into the picture.
Despite Iran’s recent jump to 20% enrichment, operations from his tenure will limit Iran’s ability to break out to a nuclear weapon at least in the early stages of the Biden administration. New intelligence collected may convince incoming officials to take some harder stances.
And if, at the end of the day, the Biden administration still cuts a deal with Iran that Israel does not like, something beyond even Cohen’s control, he will still have played his heart out to protect Israel, pushing the envelope to use every tool at his disposal.