Israel's Covert War on Iran Faces Disapproving White House
Facing mounting U.S. opposition behind the scenes, Israel still plans to continue a covert operation to delay Iran's nuclear program by assassinating key Iranian scientists, U.S. officials said.
The Israeli program which has been in place for almost a decade, involves not only targeted killings of key Iranian assets but also disrupting and sabotaging Iran's nuclear technology purchasing network abroad, these sources said.
Reva Bhalla, a senior analyst for Stratfor, a U.S. private intelligence company, commented publicly that key Iranian nuclear scientists were the targets of the strategy.
"With cooperation from the United States, Israeli covert operations have focused both on eliminating key [Iranian] assets involved in the nuclear program and the sabotaging of the Iranian nuclear supply chain," he said.
But U.S. opposition to the program has intensified as U.S. President Barack Obama makes overtures aimed at thawing 30 years of tension between the two countries.
Part of this is due to the U.S.'s desire to use Iran's road networks into Afghanistan to help resupply U.S.-NATO forces there.
But Israel's interests in the region are not the same as those of the United States, several U.S. officials said.
Pat Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of the Israeli killings: "That's what the Israelis would do, what we would expect them to do. They would kill Iranian scientists."
Asked about the mounting administration disapproval, Clawson said of the killings, "It would be implausible to call off all covert ops." He added: "If the U.S. pressures Israel, then the Israelis will simply stop talking to us about it."
Israel's targeted killing program has taken on new urgency since Washington made clear last year that an Israeli air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was out of the question.
"The goal now is to delay for as long as possible, Iran getting to the point of having a nuclear weapon," a former U.S. intelligence official said.
Asked to comment, Middle East expert Tony Cordesman, said of the killings: "There's not that much of it going on," and its success was dubious in any case.
Israel's targeting killing program was done in concert with the [George W.] Bush administration, former U.S. sources said.
A former senior CIA official described several joint U.S.-Mossad operations to derail Iran's nuclear program as "something out of slapstick." All had failed miserably, he said.
A new wave of assassination and sabotage programs were launched in spite of the fact that in 2005, the United States had little to no intelligence about the status of Iran's nuclear weapons program.
According to U.S. sources, in 2004, the CIA had lost its entire agent network in Iran when a CIA headquarters communications officer was about to send instructions to an agent via its Immarsat transmitter/receivers. The CIA officer attempted to download data intended for a single operative, but accidentally hit a button that sent it to the entire U.S. spy network in Iran, these sources said.
The information was received by a double agent who forwarded it to Iranian counterintelligence, which quickly wrapped up the entire network, leaving Washington completely blind.
Perhaps the earliest attempt to derail Iran's efforts was launched in 2000, under the Bill Clinton administration when, under the code-name "Operation Merlin," it gave a Russian defector and nuclear engineer plans for an atomic bomb and he delivered it to a high-ranking Iranian official in Vienna. The operation was personally approved by Clinton.
The plans were scary - they were for a Russian-made TBA 480 "firing switch' that could create an implosion that would trigger a chain reaction in a small spherical core of uranium.
The kicker was that the plans were full of flaws that would send the Iranian program into a technological dead end.
The Iranians were not supposed to spot the inserted design flaws that would render any device based on the plans null and void.
But according to U.S. officials, the Iranians easily spotted the flaws, and the United States may have inadvertently placed a very dangerous document among one of the world's most dangerous nations.
Operation Merlin was still alive and kicking during the Bush administration, whose officials said they planned to try it on other countries.
In addition to targeting Iranian scientists, Israel is hard at work trying to sabotage Iran's supply chain for the program using European front companies, U.S. officials said.
Mossad recruits workers for these companies who can obtain technical data on equipment or photographs of it, former CIA officials said. These are then forwarded to Israeli scientists for analysis and study, they said.
A few years ago, the United States and Israel came up with a joint plan to wreck the electrical grid Iran was using to power its nuclear program, a former senior official said. Again, this was a joint U.S.-Israeli program that would use an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) device to send a disabling power surge through power lines causing them to short out, U.S. officials said.
The equipment was tested in the Nevada desert, but in Iran the EMP bombs would have had to be smuggled into the country by Israelis, then placed in open areas near the nuclear installation where they could be easily spotted. The plan was abandoned, U.S. officials said.
Regarding Israel's policy of targeted killing, it began seriously after the murder of Israeli athletes by members of Black September, a radical Palestinian group, which was "basically the PLO," according to former CIA agent Bob Baer.
Since then it has been used to eliminate Palestinian or Islamic militants in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's prime minister personally approves each killing, and the work is done by "hit teams" that are made up of squadrons of Kidon, a sub-unit of Mossad's highly secret Masada department which stages the operations, former U.S. officials said. Kidon is a Hebrew word meaning, "bayonet."
A U.S. official said that Israel has staged targeted killings "in friendly countries," but that the diplomatic world has greatly changed since former President Bush. For one thing, the United States and Iran are engaged in talks on major issues. For another, Iran is a long-standing and unforgiving enemy of the Taliban.
According to U.S. officials, in October 2001 when U.S. forces began bombing the Taliban force following the 9/11 attacks, Iran provided excellent targeting information on the Taliban.
Furthermore, the political climate has changed. The new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel has not assumed any definite shape and seems in disarray.
"The only thing Netanyahu does well is fear monger," said the U.S. official. He said he did not think Netanyahu would remain in power for very long.
In any case, Netanyahu faces a different Washington. Even though under Clinton, Netanyahu faced a hostile president, the Israelis at least had a Republican Congress at his back for use as a counterweight. Netanyahu's praise of deregulation and tax cuts went over well back then, but today the U.S. Republican Party is a wreck with little credibility.
There is also energy gathering in the White House for a fresh push for a Middle East peace, sources there said. For Netanyahu "the twilight is falling," said one former U.S. official.