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Iran can’t be stopped in nuke bid, but can be deterred, says former Mossad chief [excerpts]

Mossad chiefs don’t tend to give interviews. Certainly not while in the post and, in many cases, hardly ever even after they’ve retired. Shabtai Shavit, the seventh of the 12 Mossad directors to date — whose term extended from his 1989 appointment by Yitzhak Shamir, through Yitzhak Rabin’s second stint as prime minister, to Shimon Peres’s brief post-assassination premiership — is a case in point. Never mind media silence, Shavit wasn’t even publicly identified as the head of the Mossad until after he had stepped down in 1996.

Let’s go back to the Palestinians. No talks for years. An American proposal. And now the Israeli government is talking about unilateral annexation [of the 30 percent of the West Bank, including all the settlements and the Jordan Valley, allocated to Israel in US President Trump’s plan].

There won’t be annexation.

The decisions Netanyahu makes, especially now that he’s got one foot in the courtroom [where he is on trial for alleged corruption], are tactical decisions that relate to his trial. Even decisions he’s made in the course of the coronavirus crisis. I’m saying something terrible. I’m saying our prime minister is not statesmanlike. He is not making decisions as a statesman. But I’m sorry. I really think so.

Ask me to prove it? I can’t give you algorithmic proof, laboratory test results. But I’ve known this client since God knows when.

After he was first elected [in 1996], I had completed my term. He asked me to come and work for him. He wanted me to pull together the entire Iranian issue. I agreed to do so part-time. I was running the Maccabi health fund. Why didn’t it come to pass? That’s Bibi.

I said to him, I know how the defense hierarchy works. The system today, in 1996 — of military intelligence, Mossad, Shin Bet, the Defense Ministry, the Atomic Energy Commission and so on — is a mixture [of hierarchies] that requires that my letter of appointment — which I’d prepared — be signed off both by you, the prime minister, and the defense minister, Itzik Mordechai. Without the defense minister’s signature, I’d be ignored by the Defense Ministry, by the IDF… That’s the way it is.

He wouldn’t have Mordechai sign the letter of appointment. It would have reduced him. So we had no deal. That was 1996…

Today, with every issue he deals with, he creates panic, to enlarge the descriptions of the danger, so that afterwards he can say, Who got you out of this? Me. Without sharing [the credit] with anybody else.

And as regards annexation?

I don’t want to discount the matter of his legacy, Netanyahu’s place in history, as a consideration for him. Everyone wants to be remembered. But that is not his first priority. In his order of priorities, Number 1 is how he can push off, shut down the trial.

After Trump came out with the Deal of the Century, he saw it as a work tool — for Bibi, not for the State of Israel. To this day, he hasn’t shared [his specific annexation plans] with [Defense Minister] Gantz and [Foreign Minister] Ashkenazi. He hasn’t even shown them the maps.

Bibi had one on one meetings [last week] with [Trump envoy Avi] Berkowitz. And Gantz and Ashkenazi had separate discussions with him. One American representative, with one agenda, and they’re speaking to him separately!

He was the trigger for all this [annexation idea]. At the time he thought, This will work well for me. But since he raised it, time passed, all kinds of things happened, including the coronavirus.

You can say a lot about Bibi, but he’s no fool. He can assess situations better than others. The political situation is fragile; the government can fall any day. The economy is in the worst crisis I can recall. The virus isn’t done; we’re in a new wave. Our international standing — except in the US — is among the worst for decades. In November there are US elections, and if we look at the polls, [Joe] Biden will be the next president. And Biden has already said, Bibi, with me, there won’t be annexation.

Bibi knows all this. In my estimation, he’s looking for a tree to climb down. He’s looking for someone to blame.

Easy to find.

That’s where he’s headed.

To blame Gantz?

He’ll find a way.

Let’s talk about Iran a little. You write as though it’s too late — it’s a done deal that they’ll reach the stage of declaring that they’re a nuclear power.

Let me first say I’m speaking on these issues not as a politician and not as a public figure, but as an intelligence officer. An intelligence officer who supplies the decision makers, supplies his boss, not only with intelligence but also with assessments and even recommendations. I am not allowed to look for best-case scenarios, positive scenarios. I have no choice. I must go to the worst-case scenarios. If things turn out better, everybody benefits.

So the worst-case scenario is that the Iranians won’t give up on their decision, their determination, to attain an independent nuclear weapons capability.

Their rationale is not necessarily, ‘I want to have a bomb in order to drop it on Tel Aviv.’ Their prime rationale says, We need to attain immunity, and the moment we have nuclear weapons, we’ve attained immunity. Nobody will mess with us.

Look at the case of North Korea. Clinton tried. In the Bush era, they never stopped taking about it… And yet North Korea not only kept its capabilities in the nuclear and missile fields, but it’s continuously working on new technologies in those areas.

The Iranians are determined to create immunity for themselves, and when they talk of immunity it’s not only against Israel. It’s also against the US, and [Turkey’s President] Erdogan. But more than anything, it’s against Iraq.

They didn’t emerge with flying colors from the eight-year [Iran-Iraq] war [in the 1980s]. The results of the war were the trigger for the Iranians to make the strategic decision to go for the whole gamut of non-conventional weapons — not only nuclear. Nuclear, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, biological, cyber… Cyber too, in professional terminology, is part of the non-conventional armory.

If Iran gets the bomb, it also beats Turkey. Their leaders meet. They visit. It’s all lovely. But basically those two powers are competing for Middle East hegemony.

And then there’s Israel. Again, I’m not one of those who say that the moment they have a bomb they will physically threaten Israel’s existence. No. But a state with the bomb can use it to create all kinds of axes of influence to advance its interests.

When Pakistan developed its bomb, it didn’t have the money. It was an impoverished state. They went to the Saudis. And the Saudis gave them the money to fund their nuclear project. And in return, they owe the Saudis.

When you have the bomb, you can use it to create new networks of connections, to enlarge your influence.

So while I don’t share the opinion that the moment the Iranians have the bomb, they’ll physically use it, it elevates them — in terms of influence and status. It helps their strategic capabilities, in the region and beyond.

Where does that leave us, and when should we do what?

The Obama agreement [the 2015 JCPOA, intended to rein in Iran’s nuclear activity] bought us 15 years, in which all kinds of things could happen.

Now, with Trump having withdrawn from the agreement, the Iranians have enough enriched uranium for at least one bomb, and in a few months…

They can break out?

Yes, break out. Hold a press conference and tell the world, We have it. And nobody is going to say, I want to check, in order to be convinced.

We, in that situation, have to create real deterrence against Iran.

We’re not going to be the crazy kid in the neighborhood. We don’t need to announce to the Iranians, to the world, Listen, we won’t let the Iranians get the bomb. What would that mean: That we’ll embark upon a military operation to destroy what they have. I don’t think that’s the right policy, because when you threaten, you have to be able to act. Do you see a situation where the first [country] to use a nuclear weapon since Hiroshima would be the great power that is the State of Israel? Hard to see. So the fallback is to create real deterrence.

That means we have to ensure we have the capabilities so that if you [Iranians] go out of your minds one day, and want to use [the bomb] against us, take into account that Iran will cease to exist. The price you will have to pay if you want to utilize that capability against us will be prohibitive.

You’re using cold war terms.

Yes.

And you accept that they will attain the bomb?

Yes. I look around the world, and at the principal players in the world. After the end of the cold war, the world moved toward globalization, toward big blocs, toward agreements to create a stable global network. Today the world is moving in precisely the opposite direction, with the dismantling of all that was achieved in those agreements…

The Chinese are going their way. And the Russians are going their way. And the Americans are going nowhere, certainly under Trump… If he is reelected, that will be a catastrophe for the United States and the free world.

In that situation, do I have the chance to create a situation where there will be international support for me in a military action against Iran?

In your book, you are highly critical of Obama, but even more so of Trump. It’s a dismal picture.

Again, that stems from my position as an intelligence officer. I have to be pragmatic. I can be an idealist, but the ideals can have no place in my assessments.

By the way, the same [strategy of deterrence] goes for Hezbollah. With Hezbollah, we don’t need to initiate, but we must ensure the capability so that if, heaven forbid, it starts launching dozens of missiles into Israel, we go into Lebanon, certainly south Lebanon, and level it.

This needs to be our strategy: First, deterrence. And if deterrence doesn’t work, then act without mercy.

Finally, do you see a future, some day, of a return to normal relations with Iran?You lived there [for two and a half years, early in your Mossad career], albeit a long time ago.

I’ll say a few things. One, the Iranian people are not a homogeneous nation. [Along with the majority Persians] there are some 35 ethnic groups. Lurs, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis, Arabs — you name it. What unifies them is Shiite Islam.

Khamenei is an Azeri. He’s not Persian. Yet he is the spiritual leader. That says something about the capacity to control a country that is bigger than Western Europe and has a population [of over 80 million people].

It’s not just him. They’ve built a ruling system where the spiritual leader is at the top, with hierarchies controlled by the religious leaders. And they control the country’s money. Beneath them are two military bodies — what I’ll call the old Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards are an army in every respect. More than that, it’s the Revolutionary Guards, not the army, who control all the non-conventional systems — the chemical and the biological and the nuclear and the missiles.

Over the past 20 years, I detect a certain change of direction — away from the Revolutionary Guards’ blind subservience and obedience to the religious-spiritual leadership. I see some cracks in this automatic discipline. The Revolutionary Guards have centralized so much power today that they have become the greatest power in the state. They control the economy. They control tourism. They control the construction companies. And here and there, they don’t automatically accept what they hear from the spiritual-religious leadership.

As I look ahead at the long-term trends, I don’t rule our two possibilities.

One, a change in the regime that comes from below — from the civilians, from the opposition, born of the people’s dissatisfaction: The people rise up and change the leadership. I give that a smaller likelihood. I give greater likelihood to the possibility that, down the road, the Revolutionary Guards will change the balance of power. Today, the clerics control the Revolutionary Guards. I don’t rule out the reverse coming to pass — that the Revolutionary Guards will control the clerics. This may sound [improbable] but I don’t rule it out.

And what would the consequences be?

The good news is that you’d be dealing with pragmatists, with rational people.

The bad news is that the power could go to their heads and lead them to make unpleasant decisions.

Source: David Horovitz – TOI