“The secret war against Iran” (& CNN reporter mourns Hizbullah spiritual leader)

July 04, 2010

CNN reporter mourns Hizbullah spiritual leader Fadlallah in her twitter feed today (screenshot below).

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Extreme left-wing Israeli anti-Zionist activist Yonatan Shapira spray-paints pro-Hamas graffiti on revered Warsaw Ghetto Holocaust memorial site in Poland, shocking mourners.

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Palestinian Journalist Zainab Rashid: “Syria’s people need freedom flotillas more than Palestinians do… Gaza has no mud schoolrooms, like those in many Syrian provinces. Gaza does not have 60 students to a single classroom. Even after Gaza was besieged, food is not scarce there as it is in Syria, where many food products do not reach the markets except for those smuggled in across the Syria-Lebanon border. Gaza’s Internet services are vastly superior to the pitiful Internet services in Syria. Gaza and the West Bank have no lists of hundreds of banned websites. Until Hamas came to power, Gaza’s water and electricity situation was much better than that in Syria. The average Gaza income is higher than Syria’s.”

***

In today’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof discovers that his previous column – which concluded that the Gaza blockade is wrong, full stop, no need for further discussion – was itself wrong. He writes today: “Visiting Gaza persuaded me, to my surprise, that Israel is correct when it denies that there is any full-fledged humanitarian crisis in Gaza… The shops are filled and daily life is considerably easier than when I last visited here two years ago.”

***

When Meir Dagan was appointed head of the Mossad in 2002, one of the first things he did was hang an old black-and-white picture, fraying at the corners, on a wall in his office at the spy agency’s headquarters near Tel Aviv. The picture is of an old bearded Jew, wearing a prayer shawl and kneeling down in front of two Nazi soldiers, one with a stick in his hand, the other carrying a rifle slung over his shoulder.

“Look at this picture,” Dagan, 65, often urges visitors to his highly secure office. “This man, kneeling down before the Nazis, was my grandfather just before he was murdered. I look at this picture every day and promise that the Holocaust will never happen again.”

Dagan, who it was announced last week will soon step down from his position, has taken various successful measures that have slowed down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

 

CONTENTS

1. Slowing down Iran’s nuclear program
2. U.S. and British involvement too
3. Planner of Munich Olympics massacre dies, peacefully, in Damascus
4. Hizbullah’s spiritual head Fadlallah dies, peacefully, in Beirut
5. CNN reporter mourns a terrorist
6. Fadlallah: Jews exaggerated Holocaust “beyond imagination”
7. Palestinian Journalist: Syrian people need freedom flotillas more than Palestinians do
8. Egyptian Columnist: “What siege in Gaza are they talking about?”
9. “Why is the Dagan era ending?” (By Yaakov Katz, Jerusalem Post)
10. “Operation Sabotage. Our secret war against Iran” (By Eli Lake, New Republic)


[All notes below by Tom Gross]

SLOWING DOWN IRAN’S NUCLEAR PROGRAM

I attach two articles from recent days, below. Before that I attach a number of other items.

The first article concerns Meir Dagan, who after an extended eight year term judged to be among the most successful in the organization’s history, is stepping down as head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

As Dagan noted last week, only the Mossad’s mistakes tend to become known to the public, not its many recent successes.

Among other things, Dagan has successfully waged a campaign to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.

As The Jerusalem Post reports below (and as I have alluded to in past dispatches on this email list), in recent years, Iranian scientists have gone missing; equipment sent to Iran for its nuclear program arrived broken; warehouses in Europe where equipment for Iran’s nuclear program was stored before being shipped went up in flames; and Iran has been plagued by a number of mysterious military plane crashes. These are some of the key reasons that Iran does not yet have a nuclear arsenal.

 

U.S. AND BRITISH INVOLVEMENT TOO

The second article below is from The New Republic, titled “Operation Sabotage. Our secret war against Iran,” and concerns similar American efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. With the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in tatters, the U.S. is also stepping up incidents of sabotage, reports The New Republic, which adds that sabotage has long been a staple of modern warfare, by the U.S. and many other countries. The British have also reportedly been involved in sabotage operations against Iran’s nuclear program.

The authors of these articles (Yaakov Katz and Eli Lake, both of whom are well-informed reporters on intelligence and security matters) are subscribers to this email list. I am quoted at the end of the first article below.

Of course, slowing down Iran’s nuclear program can only be effective up to a point, and eventually Iran will likely acquire nuclear weapons unless more decisive action is taken.

 

PLANNER OF MUNICH OLYMPICS MASSACRE DIES, PEACEFULLY, IN DAMASCUS

Mohammed Oudeh, the key planner of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered, died yesterday in Damascus, aged 73, of kidney failure.

Oudeh, also known by his nom de guerre, Abu Daoud, was the key organizer of the attack on September 5, 1972, although he said that he was aided in financing the attack by Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian Authority, who was then deputy to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

In an interview in 2006 with Germany’s Der Spiegel, Abu Daoud said he “regrets nothing” about the death of the Israeli athletes. “You can only dream that I would apologize,” he said.

Until his death, he was provided with security protection and a comfortable standard of living by the Assad regime in Damascus.

 

HIZBULLAH’S SPIRITUAL HEAD FADLALLAH DIES, PEACEFULLY, IN BEIRUT

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who was classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist but referred today to by the BBC’s Beirut correspondent Jim Muir as a “moderate” with “progressive views,” died this morning in Beirut, aged 74.

Fadlallah was the founder and “spiritual guide” of the Lebanese Shia terror group, Hizbullah. He was born in the Shia holy city of Najaf, in Iraq, and moved to Lebanon in 1966 after completing his studies.

He won a militant Shia following both in Iraq and Lebanon, extending his influence as far as Central Asia and the Gulf.

 

CNN REPORTER MOURNS A TERRORIST

In a twitter feed today, CNN’s Senior Editor of Arab Affairs Octavia Nasr (who often appears on CNN as an expert and commentator) writes:

“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbollah’s giants. I respect a lot”

***

(Tom Gross adds: In 2004, when Yasser Arafat died, the BBC Middle East correspondent Barbara Plett famously cried on camera, she said she was so upset. More details here . The BBC governors later sanctioned her for it although the BBC news editors defended her crying.)

 

FADLALLAH: JEWS EXAGGERATED HOLOCAUST “BEYOND IMAGINATION”

Fadlallah was reported to have said that Jews have exaggerated the number of Holocaust victims “beyond imagination.”

(Fadlallah, above with his Hizbullah bodyguards in Lebanon in the 1980s)

And as historian Andrew Boston mentions in his book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism:

“In his sermons, Fadlallah repeatedly refers to anti-Jewish archetypes in the Qur’an, hadith, and sira: the corrupt, treacherous and aggressive nature of the Jews; their reputation as killers of prophets, who spread corruption on earth; and the notion that the Jews engaged in conspiratorial efforts against the Muslim prophet Muhammad.”

 

PALESTINIAN JOURNALIST: SYRIAN PEOPLE NEED FREEDOM FLOTILLAS MORE THAN PALESTINIANS DO

In an article posted on the liberal website Aafaq (www.aafaq.org) , Palestinian journalist Zainab Rashid writes that the Syrian propaganda apparatus has sought to use the Gaza flotilla to divert attention from what is happening in Syria, and that “the Syrian people needs freedom flotillas more than the Palestinian people does, because of its oppression at the hands of the Assad family, and because the economic and human rights situation in Syria is worse than in Gaza.”

She writes (translation courtesy of Memri, whose senior staff subscribe to this email list): “When people hear that Syrians participated in the so-called ‘Freedom Flotilla’ [to Gaza], they get the impression that the Syrians have overcome all of their domestic and foreign problems, and that they have nothing left to do but to participate in mitigating the problems of others, and in ending the siege on them.

“… I and everyone else know that the Syrian officials’ treatment of the Syrian flotilla participants, and Syria’s official propaganda stance vis-à-vis the flotilla, are only an attempt to … divert [public] attention from the situation in Syria, from the complete deterioration in all areas, and from statements and the groaning of the freedom fighters imprisoned in the various, and numerous, bastilles [of the Syrian regime], both aboveground and underground.”

“Until the Hamas takeover, Gaza’s economic and educational situation, and its living conditions and freedoms, were much better than those in Syria under the rule of the Assad family and its oppressive security apparatuses – which have set Syria back decades, and made its honorable people one of the poorest in the region and in the world. They have strangled the freedoms, and ‘taken captive’ any who raised their voices to ask for [even] a minimum [of freedoms].

“… Gaza has no mud schoolrooms, like those in many Syrian provinces. Gaza does not have 60 students to a single classroom. Even after Gaza was besieged, food is not scarce as it is in Syria, where many food products do not reach the markets except for those smuggled in across the Syria-Lebanon border. Gaza’s Internet services are vastly superior to the pitiful Internet services in Syria. Gaza and the West Bank have no lists of hundreds of banned websites. Until Hamas came to power, Gaza’s water and electricity situation was much better than that in Syria. The average Gaza Strip income is higher than Syria’s... So who needs freedom flotillas more? The [Gaza] Strip residents, or the Syrian people?

“Prior to Hamas’ Gaza takeover, various media outlets there expressed various and even contradictory opinions, and carried out their work with a reasonable measure of freedom. Satellite television channels, radio stations, magazines, and newspapers represented all of the various factions, including the independents.

“… The Gaza residents were never massacred in prison like [Syrian prisoners were] in [2008 at] Sidnaya Prison and [in 1980] at Tadmor – or [in 1982] in the city of Hama. Their prime minister and interior minister were not assassinated, like Mahmoud Al-Zu’abi [in 2008] and Ghazi Kana’an. Gaza has no nefarious emergency laws like those that have been in force in Syria for 40 years. So who is more deserving of freedom flotillas, so that the world will notice the oppression, repression, and coercion under which they suffer?”

 

EGYPTIAN COLUMNIST: “WHAT SIEGE IN GAZA ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?”

In his column in the Egyptian daily Roz Al-Yousuf, dated June 29, 2010, Muhammad Hamadi cites statistics from a Hamas website showing that “despite all the talk of a siege on the Gaza Strip, so many goods are streaming into Gaza that supply is greater than demand – and that as a result, produce, poultry, and beef are cheaper there than in Egypt.”

He adds (translation by Memri): “ A kilo of watermelon in Gaza costs less than one Egyptian lira, while in Egypt it costs over two lira; a kilo of tomatoes in Gaza costs less than half a lira, while in Egypt it costs 1.5 lira; a kilo of potatoes in Gaza costs half a lira, while in Egypt it costs two lira; a kilo of onions in Gaza is one lira, while in Egypt a kilo of onions is 1.5 lira; a kilo of garlic in Gaza is 10 lira, while in Egypt it is 15 lira.

“A kilo of chicken in Egypt is 20 lira, and in Gaza it goes for only 10 lira. The average price of a kilo of beef in Egypt is 60 lira – while in besieged Gaza it goes for five lira. A tray of eggs in Egypt is 19 lira, while in Gaza it is only 10 lira.”

“This comparison of prices between Egypt and Gaza, which has been under siege for three years, as they say, shows that life under siege is cheaper, more convenient, and easier...

“So what siege are they talking about? Does the siege cause prices to drop? And how are goods flowing into Gaza despite the siege? ...

“These questions are not being raised [here] in expectation of an answer from Hamas, but they are directed at all Hamas supporters in Egypt who see nothing wrong with accusing their own country of betraying the Palestinian cause and of starving the helpless Palestinian people with the oppressive siege on Gaza.

“If this is what it’s like in Gaza under siege, then the Egyptian people, who have been burned by the fire of prices and who peel off part of their limited income to save the besieged Gaza residents, [should] pray to Allah to smite them with [such a] siege, if the siege will lead to lower prices and make it possible for every common citizen to buy eggs, meat, and poultry like the Gaza residents do.”

***

KUWAITI COLUMNIST: “PRO-GAZA ACTIVISTS ARE NOTHING BUT TERRORISTS”

In a follow-up to his June 3, 2010 article on the Gaza flotilla, Kuwaiti columnist Abdallah Al-Hadlaq, who writes in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan, wrote another column on the issue. In it, he wrote of the “contrast between the global interest in what is happening in Gaza with the disregard for other, graver, humanitarian crises across the world” and added that “the activists working to remove the siege on Gaza were not peace activists but terrorists disguised as humanitarians, and that therefore Israel was fully entitled to defend itself against them.”

[All notes above by Tom Gross]


FULL ARTICLES

A GENERALLY SUCCESSFUL ERA

Why is the Dagan era ending?
By Yaakov Katz
The Jerusalem Post
July 3, 2010

www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=180192

After eight years as Mossad chief, Meir Dagan is stepping down. What does this signal for the covert battle he waged to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive?

When Meir Dagan was appointed head of the Mossad in 2002, one of the first things he did was hang an old black-and-white picture, fraying at the corners, on a wall in his office at the spy agency’s headquarters near Tel Aviv.

The black-and-white picture is of an old bearded Jew, wearing a tallit and kneeling down in front of two Nazi soldiers, one with a stick in his hand, the other carrying a rifle slung over his shoulder.

“Look at this picture,” Dagan, 65, reportedly often urges visitors to his highly secure office. “This man, kneeling down before the Nazis, was my grandfather just before he was murdered. I look at this picture every day and promise that the Holocaust will never happen again.”

The injunction “never again” has characterized Dagan’s eight-year tenure as head of the Mossad. It underpins the two main objectives on which he has focused the organization: preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and waging a covert shadow war against Israel’s axis of evil – Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas.

Dagan’s work has reportedly paid off. In recent years, Iranian scientists began to disappear.

Equipment sent to Iran for its nuclear program arrived broken, likely sabotaged.

Warehouses in Europe where equipment for Iran’s nuclear program was stored before being shipped went up in flames. In 2005, Iran was plagued by a number of mysterious plane crashes, killing dozens of Revolutionary Guard Corps officers, including several senior officers. All this was attributed, in the foreign press, to the Mossad.

His successes have brought frustration for others.

Over the years, three of his deputies have resigned – angered by the government’s decision to repeatedly extend Dagan’s term in office, stymying their career prospects.

But those successes have certainly brought more funding for the Mossad. According to one former senior intelligence operative, by 2007, five years into his reign, the Mossad’s annual budget had jumped significantly.

“Whether you like him or not, Dagan is one of the greatest Mossad directors ever,” a former top Mossad official said this week. “His achievements are innumerable.”

But now the Dagan era is drawing to a close. It was announced this week that he would stepping down at the end of the year. And the race to succeed him has already begun.

MEIR DAGAN was installed into the top intelligence post by prime minister Ariel Sharon, who had worked with him in the 1970s running a unit of elite commandos called Sayeret Rimon whose soldiers disguised themselves as Palestinians and raided the Gaza Strip in search of PLO fighters.

After his appointment in 2002, he immediately set out to revolutionize an organization that had been rocked by the botched assassination of Hamas’s Damascus-based chief Khaled Mashaal in Amman in 1997, under the tenure of Mossad chief and former Labor MK Danny Yatom. Two Mossad agents were caught in the botched operation. In exchange for their release, and to salvage ties with a furious Jordan, Israel was forced to provide the antidote to save Mashaal’s life and to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, notably including Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

After Yatom came Efraim Halevy, the Mossad veteran who had salvaged the Israeli-Jordanian relationship after the Mashaal fiasco. Some credit Halevy with rehabilitating and restoring proper practices to the battered organization; but one critical former Mossad operative sniped that Halevy preferred talks with Arab diplomats at cocktail parties in Europe over dangerous and risky operations in the Middle East. “Under Halevy, the motto was ‘don’t get in trouble,’” said this source.

If so, that attitude completely changed under Dagan, who brought a new sense of daring.

He was given one key task by Sharon – to do everything possible to thwart Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. To do that, Sharon reportedly told Dagan that he needed to recreate the Mossad as a spy service “with a knife between its teeth.”

Indeed, Dagan’s Mossad is credited with orchestrating a string of assassinations around the world: In February 2008, a car bomb killed Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah’s military commander in Damascus. Later that year, Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s liaison to Hamas and Hizbullah and the head of the country’s covert nuclear program, was shot dead by a sniper at his vacation home in the port city of Tartus. In January, the Mossad reportedly struck again, killing Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas arch terrorist, in Dubai.

According to foreign reports, the Mossad was also behind the discovery of Iran’s uranium enrichment center in Natanz, as well as the discovery of Syria’s nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by the IAF in 2007.

Under Dagan’s tenure, relations with the CIA also peaked due to the Mossad’s success in once again providing critical intelligence and proving itself to be a major player. “There is unprecedented cooperation between the agencies today,” one top Israeli security official said recently.

The decision to consistently extend Dagan’s term was a vote of confidence in the Mossad and an appreciation of his achievements. Furthermore, one top defense official added, by extending his term, Israel was sending a message to the world regarding the severity with which it views the Iranian nuclear threat. The annual extension meant that Israel was keeping Dagan in place in case tough sanctions were not imposed and Israel might feel it had no choice but to attack Iranian nuclear installations.

If that is true, then the latest round of sanctions – albeit not as tough as Israel hoped – could be what paved the way to the announcement of Dagan’s retirement.

While Dagan’s opinions on a military strike against Iran are not publicly known, some sources claim that he believes there is still time to stop it from obtaining the bomb by non-military means.

Last year, he stirred controversy when, in an appearance at the Knesset, he was quoted as saying that Iran would not obtain the bomb until 2014, pushing back earlier assessments by a number of years.

At the time, officials explained that Dagan was referring to the stage when Iran will have the ability to fire a missile tipped with a nuclear warhead into Israel. Iran could very well develop a testable nuclear device before then, they said.

THIS WEEK’S news of his imminent departure hasn’t only set off a race to succeed him. It also raises serious questions regarding the long-term strategic thinking of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, since it means that, starting in October, all of the country’s security chiefs will step down within six months. These include Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin and Dagan.

One possible candidate to replace Dagan is T., who served in the past as his deputy, stepped down and recently returned to the agency. Other candidates are believed to be the head of Tzomet, the Mossad branch that directs its worldwide network of agents, and the head of the Tevel branch, which is responsible for ties with foreign intelligence agencies.

Diskin and Yadlin are candidates, too.

Predictions within the defense establishment are that Netanyahu will choose a successor to Dagan after Barak chooses a successor to Ashkenazi, who is to finish up his four-year term in February. This is because one of the generals vying for the top IDF post, if unsuccessful, could be given the Mossad directorship as a consolation prize.

WHAT IS unknown is how big a role the recent fiasco surrounding the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai, attributed to the Mossad, played in the decision not to extend Dagan’s term. A number of friendly states were angered by the use of their passports in the operation. As a result, diplomats were expelled from Britain, Ireland and Australia and currently an alleged Mossad agent is under arrest in Poland awaiting extradition to Germany, where he will stand trial for illegally obtaining a German passport reportedly used in the operation, according to the foreign press.

Either way, it is interesting to compare the international fallout following the assassination to the recent discovery of an alleged Russian spy ring in the US. According to recent reports, the FBI has claimed that at least one of the alleged spies was in possession of a forged British passport.

Tom Gross, a former Israel correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph and an expert on British politics and media, is waiting to see whether there will be a discrepancy between the way the Foreign Office in London responded to the reported use of British passports in the Dubai operation and the way it responds in the Russian case.

“I wonder what outrage the British government will express concerning the latest reports of forged British passports – this time apparently by the Russian government,” Gross said. “Will furious denunciations be made, and senior Russian diplomats in the UK be deported, or is such action only reserved for Israelis?”

 

OPERATION SABOTAGE

Operation Sabotage
Our secret war against Iran
By Eli Lake
The New Republic
June 30, 2010

www.tnr.com/article/world/75952/operation-sabotage

Our efforts to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon seem to be in tatters. President Obama spent his first year in office trying to resolve the matter through détente. He offered negotiations, sent a conciliatory letter to Iran’s supreme leader, and was slow to publicly support the demonstrations that followed the June 2009 elections. Last fall, the United States sponsored an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deal through which Tehran would have been able to swap out its dangerous spent fuel for uranium suitable to be used in power generation. But this outreach was spurned, and Iran’s nuclear program continued.

Next, the Obama team shifted to a tougher approach – namely sanctions, which were passed by the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. But Tehran has been under international sanctions for a long time now; and, as anyone who has watched Iran policy over the last ten years can tell you, U.N. sanctions are only as good as the enforcement provided by individual countries. How Russia – which has aided Iran in acquiring ballistic missiles and a nuclear reactor – will enforce these latest sanctions is anyone’s guess. Moreover, even if the sanctions are faithfully carried out, there is no guarantee they will have their intended effect. Far more crippling sanctions in the 1990s failed to force Saddam Hussein to fully cooperate with U.N. weapons inspections. Does anyone really doubt that the men in charge of Iran would let their citizenry endure economic pain in order to build a nuclear weapon?

There is, of course, the possibility that the United States or Israel will bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. But this option risks an all-out regional war. And, with Iran’s nuclear facilities scattered and buried deep underground, there is no guarantee that a strike would damage the program enough to be worth the steep geopolitical costs.

And so, the most commonly discussed options on the table range from ineffective to problematic. Yet there is one more possibility for forestalling an Iranian nuke – something that is almost never talked about publicly but that has in fact been central to our Iran policy for years. One Jewish organization leader who has frequent contact with the administration describes the line from the White House and State Department as follows: “You know we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. There are all sorts of means at our disposal that we cannot talk about.” “The clear inference,” this person explains, “is that they are talking about black ops stuff to screw up the Iranian program.”

Sabotage has always been a staple of modern warfare. In World War I, for example, the Germans rigged U.S. and Canadian weapons to explode in New Jersey. But a more complicated genre of technological sabotage dates to the first term of the Reagan administration. A special KGB unit known as Directorate T and its operations wing called Line X had – through dummy corporations and a network of black-market smugglers – managed to obtain computers, airplane parts, and sophisticated machine equipment the Soviet command economy was incapable of producing itself. Luckily for the West, however, a KGB colonel named Vladimir Vetrov was working for French intelligence – and, in thousands of pages of photographed documents that came to be known as the “Farewell Dossier,” he provided detailed information on Line X.

Starting in the early ‘80s, the CIA – with the cooperation of the FBI and military – launched a massive operation to feed Line X equipment that was modified to sabotage Soviet industrial and military operations. In 1996, former National Security Council official Gus Weiss published an account of the program, which he had helped conceive, in Studies in Intelligence. “American industry helped in the preparation of items to be ‘marketed’ to Line X,” he wrote. “Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline, and defective plans disrupted the output of chemical plants and a tractor factory.”

Ever since the late ‘90s – a few years after Western intelligence services became aware of a Chinese sale of yellowcake uranium to Iran – these kinds of operations have been a mainstay of Washington’s policies toward Tehran. The operations are state secrets, not just a “secret” like the use of drones in Pakistan to kill Al Qaeda leaders, something that Obama joked about in his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Indeed, the government takes these secrets so seriously that it is threatening New York Times reporter James Risen with jail time if he doesn’t reveal his sources for a chapter of his 2006 book, State of War. That chapter disclosed a U.S. intelligence plan from 2000 that sent a Russian nuclear scientist on the CIA payroll to Vienna to hand over flawed bomb design plans to the Iranians.

But, while such sabotage efforts don’t get much public attention, almost everyone familiar with counterproliferation says that these schemes are being directed at Iran’s nuclear program. In New York Times reporter David Sanger’s book The Inheritance, published at the end of the Bush administration, he wrote about sabotage efforts targeting Iran. David Kay, who led the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq between 1991 and 1992, as well as the U.S. effort to find those weapons after the 2003 invasion, says he is positive that such sabotage is taking place. “I am certain based on the history of other programs against Iraq and other possible proliferators that activities to make it more difficult to obtain and to operate items crucial to their nuclear weapons program are ongoing,” he explains. “The Israelis have been doing this for years and so have the British.” Michael Adler, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, put it this way: “It seems to be clear that there is an active and imaginative sabotage program from several Western nations as well as Israel involving booby-trapping equipment which the Iranians are procuring, tricking black-market smugglers, cyber-operations, and recruiting scientists.” Three current U.S. government officials confirmed that sabotage operations have been a key part of American plans to slow down the Iranian program– and that they are continuing under Obama.

Iran, apparently, has several entities that would be the equivalent of the old Soviet Line X. There are special units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that are devoted to purchasing illicit technology for Iran’s missile program, for example. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization also has special bureaus that focus on procurement. And Iran has front companies such as the Kalaye Electric Company, which has been sanctioned by the Treasury Department for attempting to purchase specialized magnets needed for centrifuge operations.

Efforts to steer defective products toward Iran have taken a number of forms. For instance, according to a former Mossad operations officer who goes by the alias Michael Ross, in 1998, the Mossad and the CIA developed a plan to sell a supposedly helpful chemical substance – which would, in fact, gum up centrifuges over time – to Iran on the black market.

Then, there was the odd case of the Tinners, a Swiss family of engineers long believed to be a cog in the network of nuclear proliferators organized by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. In 2008, Urs Tinner admitted that he had been a CIA asset. And it turns out that he played a crucial role in an effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. According to David Albright – the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and the author of a new history of Iran’s illicit procurement of nuclear technology, Peddling Peril – the Tinners sold high-quality vacuum pumps to the Iranians and Libyans. The pumps are crucial for uranium enrichment because centrifuges must operate inside a vacuum seal. The Tinners’ pumps were produced in Germany, but were originally purchased by the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos laboratories. These labs, Albright says, had modified the pumps “to bug them or to make them break down under operational conditions. If you can break the vacuum in a centrifuge cascade, you can destroy hundreds of centrifuges or thousands if you are really lucky.” (A senior intelligence official confirmed Albright’s story to me.)

Sometimes, these operations do not end well. Ali Ashtari, a high-tech electronics vendor, was hung by Iran in 2008 after he confessed to bugging the equipment of senior Revolutionary Guard figures with viruses and GPS units provided to him by Israel. Ronen Bergman, the top intelligence reporter for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, believes that Ashtari was an “example of how someone – the Iranians claim it’s the Israeli Mossad – tried to sabotage the Iranian nuclear project by covert means, rather than an air strike.” Adds Bergman, “Ashtari was executed, but other entities continue to sabotage the project.”

But do sabotage efforts work? In late 2008 and early 2009, the IAEA began to see a drop in the amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) being produced at Natanz, the facility that lies at the center of Iran’s known nuclear weapons program. In the fall of 2008, its centrifuges were producing 90 kilograms a month of LEU. By the end of the year, however, the same centrifuges were producing 70 kilograms of LEU. To be sure, that number was back up to 85 kilograms per month at the close of 2009, and it has been climbing since, to around 120 kilograms a month; but those increases came after the installation of more centrifuges – all of which suggests that at least some of the machines were less efficient than they should be.

Ivan Oelrich, a nuclear scientist and the vice president of the strategic security program at the Federation of American Scientists, estimated in a study this year that the centrifuges are operating at 20 percent efficiency. “We know the average efficiency of the centrifuges is dismal. We don’t know whether it is because of the quality of the individual centrifuges or how they are linked together,” he explains. “We can’t rule out sabotage as one factor leading to these inefficiencies.” Greg Jones, a nuclear analyst at the Rand Corporation, says the Iranians “are operating just under four thousand machines, but they have installed about eight thousand five hundred. Those nonoperating machines have been installed for many months. Why they are not operating is not clear.”

Among people I spoke to, there seemed to be a broad consensus that sabotage was, at the very least, slowing Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. A senior administration official told me that there was evidence the Iranians are experiencing delays due to “a combination of reasons – some inherent to the nature of the infeasibility of the design and the machines themselves, and some because of actions by the United States and its allies.” Explains David Kay, “History says that these things have done more to slow programs than any sanctions regime has or is likely to do.”

However, the biggest payoff from these efforts may not come from the sabotage itself, but from the psychological effect it could have on Iran’s government. At the most general level, there are probably benefits to keeping Iranian intelligence officials paranoid and off-balance, simply because it can cause them to waste valuable time and resources. This appears to be happening. In 2007, for example, Iran’s state-run news service reported that the national police had arrested a cell of spy squirrels. The next year, Iran reportedly arrested a group of spy pigeons.

But the specific benefit of sabotage is that it makes countries wary of purchasing crucial materials on the black market. In 1982, when Gus Weiss proposed the modified-equipment operation to then–CIA Director William Casey, he said his plan was a rare espionage endeavor that would succeed even if compromised. “If some double agent told the KGB the Americans were alert to Line X and were interfering with their collection by subverting, if not sabotaging, the effort, I believed the United States still could not lose,” Weiss wrote. “The Soviets, being a suspicious lot, would be likely to question and reject everything Line X collected.” The same principle now holds with Iran. According to the senior administration official, sabotage “forces the Iranians to make machine parts themselves.” And that, in turn, can slow down the process of producing a nuclear weapon.

In the end, however, there are almost certainly limits to how much the West’s sabotage campaign against Iran can accomplish. “These programs are enough to cause the Iranians some problems, but they don’t imperil the Iranian drive to enrich uranium,” says the Wilson Center’s Adler. Indeed, Adler thinks the inefficiencies at the Natanz plant could be chalked up to the inexperience of the scientists or the poor quality of the design, rather than sabotage.

The view among most officials and observers seems to be that sabotage is helpful but not, on its own, the answer. Uzi Dayan, a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces and a former national security adviser to both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, put it this way: “At the end of the day, this approach can delay the program and slow it down. It can put obstacles in the way. But it cannot prevent Iran from achieving their goal.” “Every president since Clinton has tried covert operations to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Bush did it, Obama is doing it. The problem is, it’s not a substitute for sound policy,” says Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “It is a holding action. What they are not facing is that you have to somehow usher this group of rulers off the stage of history. It is a tough thing to do, it’s not clear how you do it, and they have chosen not to try.”


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.