In Israel’s attempts to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons, the labours of The Mossad have been widely noted, but there have been very few attempts to make an assessment of these intelligence efforts. Israeli intelligence has in fact not only failed to significantly delay Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but has been counterproductive by obstructing diplomatic efforts.
So what has Israeli intelligence engaged in? Although by no means exhaustive, the main activities include assassinations of key figures in the Iranian nuclear programme and the cyber attack, Stuxnet.
In spite of The Mossad’s best efforts by 2012 Iran had five tonnes of low-grade fissile material, which when converted to high-grade, is enough for five or six bombs. It should hardly be surprising that such tactics have failed to halt Iran’s progress. Numerous experts such as Vince Canastraro, the former CIA counter-terrorism chief, have asserted that the Iranian programme cannot be crippled by killing a few key figures.
Stuxnet’s impact has been similarly limited. It did most of its damage at the uranium facility at Bushehr but analysts who examined the worm believe Natanz was the intended target. Most nuclear experts believe Bushehr is of little use to the weapons programme. Conversely Natanz is an industrial-size facility with gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment. It is therefore unsurprising that in the immediate aftermath of Stuxnet, Iran was able to keep enriching uranium with overall production increasing in 2010.
Meir Dagan, former head of The Mossad, conceived that intelligence activities would pressure Iran alongside other methods such as political pressure and sanctions. But perversely the lack of coordination between Israel and other countries has meant that intelligence activities have hindered diplomatic progress. For example, the assassinations of Majid Shahriari and Fereydoun Abbas-Davani – key figures in the Iranian programme – seriously dented expectations ahead of talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva in 2010.
The West has failed to appreciate Iran’s perspective of the West as a homogenous entity. To Iran it is impossible to be attacked by assassinations, which almost certainly emanated from Israel, yet then engage with the P5+1, which includes America, in negotiations. Given the influence of the Israel Lobby this is an understandable view.
It is unclear whether, if unimpeded, diplomacy could bring about a climbdown from Iran over its nuclear posturing. What is clear is that Israeli intelligence has failed to halt Iran’s progress to nuclear weapons and has not allowed diplomatic efforts a fair chance of success.