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Interview With Ilan Mizrahi, Part 1: Iran

Last week, I sat down for a two hour exclusive interview with Ilan Mizrahi, the former deputy chief of the Mossad and former head of the Israeli National Security Council under former PM Ehud Olmert. Mizrahi opined on a wide range of issues, including the Iranian nuclear threat, the Stuxnet computer worm, Israeli assassinations in the Arab world, the prospects of a 2011 all-out war and directives from Olmert. This, part one of the interview, focused on Iran — stand by in the coming days for part two on the peace process and Arab radicalism.

For those looking for the cliff notes, this part includes:

  • whether Iran can have nuclear weapons capabilities within the next few years;
  • the four pronged approach to curbing Iran’s nuclear program — diplomatic, economic, militarily, operational;
  • the two ticking clocks — one of Iran developing its nuclear program and the other of domestic Iranian opposition that would force political changes;
  • whether Israel has the capability to develop the Stuxnet computer worm;
  • whether Israel committed the assassination of Hamas strongman Mabhouh and whether ‘blunders’ in that assassination could have been staged;
  • the prospects of an all-out 2011 war with Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, and how that war could be waged;
  • how Israel could cope with international condemnation of its next military campaign;
  • calls for a complete destruction of Hamas; and
  • linking Israeli peace process concessions to U.S. assistance against Iran.

(Some parts of the transcript were deleted for clarity and to streamline the interview, but Mizrahi’s comments are direct quotes. Mizrahi was in Washington D.C. with The Israel Project, which organized the interview).

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: What are the prospects of Iran attaining a nuclear weapon in the next three years?

MIZRAHI: Well, I think it is very, very hard to try to fix a date or a year in which Iran will have this nuclear, military ability. I know that many are saying that it might be 2015, 2014. What I am saying is that I am sure that next year they will not have it. But what will happen in two or three years or four or five years, I don’t know. What is important in my point of view is to see the process. The process is they are going to have, they want desperately to have nuclear military ability. Now, technologically, they already made their breakthrough. What is missing is a political decision of Khamenai, not Ahmadinejad. If Khamenai to say, ‘OK, now we are gong to enrich our Uranium to 92, I think, percent, which is the degree which is needed to produce nuclear military ability. This, as far as I know, this political decision has not been taken yet. But this is not only the Uranium  issue or the nuclear military ability should not only focus on the Uranium track. We also should focus on the long range missile track because they are working simultaneously on the bomb and what we call weaponizing the bomb, which is long range missiles. So they are making huge advances in long range missiles. They already have missile to 2000 km, Shahab 4, and they are developing now the other one which is almost doubling in range, which is the Kosar

So one should think, why would they need [it]? If Israel is the target, they don’t need a missile more than 2000 km, so why they are having the Kosar, which has several thousand kilometers.

I would say that what is important is the process. They are doing their best to have it. It might be in two years; it might be in five years. So this doesn’t matter. I can be sure that they cannot have it next year, in 2011 they will not have it. They will not have a bomb ready to be used. We have to define what do we mean when would they have it. If we are talking about a bomb or a missile ready to be launched, then I’m sure that next year they won’t have it and maybe even 2012. But, to say exactly as [outgoing Mossad chief Meir]Dagan said 2014-2015. That is an estimation. I would not dare to say a certain year. I would say they are doing their best, which is why we have to do our best to convince them [not to further develop their nuclear program].

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: How can we convince them to halt the program?

MIZRAHI: I would say several things before answering your question directly. Khamenai hates Israel and the United States. But, he also fears them. OK. Unlike this group in the revolutionary guards — the young group, the veterans of the war with Iraq — who hate Israel and the United States, but they also despise the United States and are over estimating the Iranian power. This is the problem there. The problem is there, not Khamenai, the problem is there. He fears the Untied States and Israel. This is one thing.

The other thing is the senior members of the Iranian leadership understand that the real damage is inside. Inside, which means the Iranian people. After the revolution they promised that they will bring justice and welfare to the Iranian nation, unlike the situation that was during the Shah time, and this is the real challenge that’s going on there is that the bases of the regime is becoming narrower and narrower. The more it is becoming narrower, the more oppression they use. The more oppression they use, the more they need the revolutionary guards, OK, where you have this group of radical militants that I already mentioned.

The more the bases of the regime is becoming narrower, it means more and more people are not satisfied with this regime. The sanctions, which at last begin to be felt in Iran, are narrowing more the bases of the regime. Since I think that the real potential of switching Iran will be from inside rather than outside, sanctions will be a very good instrument in order to increase those who are not satisfied and happy with the regime and might produce some kind of pressure on the regime to change policy. But sanctions is not enough. In my point of view, we have to use several tracks — diplomatic one, which means we are ready to speak with you like your administration is saying. We are ready to speak, it’s good because it will strengthen the opposition in Iran and it will provoke, as it did in the past and as it did these days, a friction within leadership between those who say, ‘we have to go to the end’ and those who say, ‘no we don’t have to go to the end.’

You have economic, which are the sanctions. You have operational track, which means try your best with your intelligence agencies to prevent them. We are all playing on time. And the fourth one is the military one, that should not be used now, but it should be on the table. Because he fears, Khamenai, the United States and Israel. He hates, but he fears them too, unlike those youngsters, those militants in the revolutionary guards.

The revolutionary guards are getting stronger and stronger. … And, they have the support of some radical religions ideologist Ayatollahs. This is a very, very, in my point of view, dangerous process because when and if they have a weapon and if this group will be the group that will nominate Khamenai’s heir, then I cannot rule out a situation in which they might use it. Because most analysts say they will not use it, i agree, probability is low. But for certain situations, such as these groups are nominating one of, the heir of Khamenai, they are not diplomats, ex-diplomats. They don’t know. they know nothing. They know Iran. They do not understand global policy, international policy. And they are overestimating their power and underestimating the Untied States’ power. So this is dangerous. This is why we have to do our best not to let them have the bomb. But, even if they will have the ability, they will not have the bomb, they will say, ‘OK, we have the knowledge. We have it all in three months if we will take the decision, we will be able to have the bomb and to launch the bomb.’ This is also, in my point of view, dangerous. It will have difficult results, not only in the Middle East, but beyond.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: But sanctions are only now being felt. Is that good and fast enough?

MIZRAHI: we lost a lot of time, we lost many years already. The sanctions should be stronger, in my pint of view, targeting the revolutionary guards, targeting the oil industry. Already in Iran, the price of oil is four times more than it was. It was very cheap there, but it’s no more. Then the government, the Iranian government, is going to increase their grants for the population so that each Iranian is given each month certain money to his bank account from the government. Subsidies and so on. And They will have to increase it substantially, which means their economy is going to be weaker and inflation would be bigger too. So it will increase those in Iran, those in the population, which are not satisfied with the regime and weaken its bases. In my point of view, this is what they really fear the, ayatollahs and Khamenai and, in my point of view, Ahmadinejad. So we have to make it harsher and stronger and, as far as I understand, that is what you are going to do. I am pessimistic that the coming meeting in Istanbul will bring positive results. I think the Iranians will continue to bluff and to cheat and to try to gain more time. They understand that the name of the game is time and we understand that the name of the game is time.

Now, we say in Israel that there are two clocks. We have a clock which is ticking, which is the Iranians trying to have their nuclear military capability. There is the other clock of when the Iranian masses, Iranian opposition will be able to change, if not the regime, then change the policy of the regime. Which is ticking faster — I don’t know that. But we have these two clocks. Sanctions and these other things that I mentioned, operationally, economically and diplomatically, will help this clock — the clock of changing policy or changing regime — to tick faster.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Does Israel have the capability to develop the Stuxnet computer virus (which has been thought to substantially hamper Iran’s nuclear program)?

MIZRAHI: Israel is very advanced technologically, very, very advanced technologically. I think a big power in technology. But this technology, you have it also in the United states, Russia, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Was it Israel?

MIZRAHI: I don’t know who did it, but whoever did it will be blessed.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: What about the assassination of nuclear scientists — is that Israel’s doing?

MIZRAHI: [Does] the Mossad has a heritage of being ruthless, an ability to penetrate deep —  yes. I think that the Mossad has it all over the Middle East and beyond.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Should we expect the Mossad to conduct operations in Iran?

MIZRAHI: Why do you focus on Israel. As far as I know, there are other agencies that are very, very active there. Not only Israel.

I think we have the reputation that we can penetrate and we are ready to do whatever is needed if our interests demand it. But, there are others that are very, very capable.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: When [former Hamas leader Mohamoud] Mabhouh was assassinated, many believed it was Israel and it was a blunder because the assassins were caught on tape. Others contend that it was a message and they wanted it to point to Israel as a message that Israel’s enemies are not safe anywhere. Is that a legitimate Mossad strategy?

MIZRAHI: I can tell you my point of view. Yes, everyone, every terrorist should understand that he is reachable wherever he is. Now the Dubai issue, whoever did it, did a fine job. There were some mistakes, but there was a fine job. Mabhouh was killed and nobody was caught. This is a success. There were minor problems in my point of view.


MIZRAHI: Passports — the Canadians, the Australians, the British would say something. But then after a week or two, everybody forget it. So, I think it was a successful operation and a good one. The message is clear, not only to Hamas, but also to Tehran. If you’re a terrorist or in the past if you were a Nazi, a Nazi senior officer, we will come to you.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Many analysts believe a war could erupt and even strike deep into Israel and Tel Aviv. Do you agree?

MIZRAHI: Well, I’ll start by saying something. Hezbollah and Hamas are two organizations which are very close to Iran and receive Iranian backing — money, weapons. Of course, Hezbollah is much more nearer and closer to Iran and I would say they would be much more obedient to Iranian interests. Hamas is less. They still receive 100 million dollars a year from Iran. They receive weapons from Iran, but Hamas has also a Palestinian agenda.

I don’t think that Hamas would like to find themselves totally, the word is totally, under Iranian influence, which means it does not mean that whatever Tehran tells them to do, they will automatically will do. They will make their calculations.

Hezbollah less than that, but still also Hezbollah has a Lebanese agenda. They will be much, much more obedient than Hamas, but they will try to keep their independence a little bit.

The prospect of war in the Middle East might happen from a minor incident. In the Middle East a tactical incident is quickly becoming a strategic one. as we had in 2006, the war in Lebanon. It started with ambush of the Hezbollah and it developed to a war and that happened several times in the south. And that might be like that where you don’t know. This is something that you don’t know. This is something that might happen.

It might be that if the Iranians will think, miscalculating, that we are going to attack, then they might try to make a preemptive strike by the Hezbollah or by Hamas, But the Hezbollah more by the Hezbollah, which has several dozens thousand missiles. It’s a huge arsenal. Will Nasrallah will commit himself, will agree. I think that under severe huge pressure from Tehran, he might do it, even reluctantly because he understands what it will be to have an Israeli response.

I would say that today, Hezbollah and Hamas has no interest of another war. Hezbollah came out from the 2006 war with an image of not a Lebanese, that he has no Lebanese agenda, but an Iranian agenda. He was ready to destroy Lebanon for Iranian interests and we have to not underestimate it.

[Nasrallah] does not want another war because he knows what will be, the Israeli response. But, in case he will be in dire straits in Lebanon because of the Hariri case, because of the other factors in Lebanon will push him to the corner as you do not have a Lebanese agenda. As a matter of fact, you are an Iranian puppet. And a lot of pressure to disarm Hezbollah, then he might provoke something in order to show the people of Lebanon, ‘I am the defender of Lebanon. I don’t  know what they are doing, but I am the one to defend Lebanon, not the Lebanese army.

Hamas does not want know war with Israel. Only two days ago, they declared that they are trying to talk to the smaller factions to stop their daily mortar attacks on Israel. This is not his interest now, he knows, they know that another campaign this time will not be stopped in the midst of the campaign, that the Israelis will go to the end, their end, Hamas’ end in Gaza. They know it.

We do not have interest now to open war, not in the south and not in the North. Remember that such a war against Hezbollah might turn into a war also with Syria, with Iran. Though, my point of view personally, the Syrians will not join it. They are clever, they are sophisticated. Why to join a war to save Hezbollah. I will tell you more than that. They will be happy to see that Hezbollah is losing a little bit from its power. Syrian interest in Lebanon was always that there would not be one group who has a superior hand. They always played with all the groups. I don’t think that the Syrians will join. I don’t think that the Iranians will join. The Iranians will fight until the last Arab, not until the last Iranian.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Any future campaign will be highly criticized by the international community. Can Israel afford to launch such a devastating war?

MIZRAHI: We have a problem here and I think that Hamas and Hezbollah knows it, which means they know that they can make their provocation. Israel will have to retaliate, but it won’t be able to finish the job because the international community will not let her do it. This is indeed a problematic issue, but it would be impossible for any Israeli prime minister to have to witness a situation in the south or in the north [where] there would be attacks of missiles.

At that time, we are going to retaliate and the international community are going to say whatever they are going to say. It is impossible for us to be in a situation in which they will bombard us and we cannot do anything because we expect from Israel to behave differently.

You are an American. What would you like your government to do if you had a daily bombardment from Mexico. A daily on your civilian settlements, not against the army, against the army it’s ok. No, against civilians, I tell you what you would do. The next day, Mexico would be destroyed. That’s what Washington would do and I think they are right to do it because their first obligation is to defend her people. This is the first obligation of any government — to defend its people. Yes we are in the problematic situation. delegitimazation of Israel. And whenever we are responsible, especially against these organizations, non-state players, we are facing a problem of the international community.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: The war in Lebanon was very air force heavy, while Cast Lead included more substantive ground operations. How would you expect the next campaign to look like –more like Lebanon or Cast Lead?

MIZRAHI: Both of the wars, in my point of view, were a success.

Every war should have political results. Politically, we had no results. It was not a war that after the war we are going to have a dialogue with Hezbollah and Hamas and sign a peace treaty. It was not. It was only a military operation. I think that the military operation in the north gave us until today almost five years of complete silence in the north, but complete one. This is one thing.

The second thing is it’s almost five years that Hassan Nasrallah did not dare come out from his bunker, which means deterrence is working.

[Also,] it sends some messages to Tehran and Damascus. We are ready to bombard Arab capitals, so don’t mess with us.

Third thing was the wonderful results of our air force and intelligence. It was … analyzed in Tehran and in Damascus because we knew exactly in South Lebanon in which room in the building they had a missile. And all this medium and long range missiles were destroyed in the first night and in the second night. We should have stopped then, in my point of view, but it doesn’t matter.

But also in the south. Hamas has no interest to open war because they know that what were the damages they had in Cast Lead. I think that although I would do my best not to open another campaign, any war or any campaigns, as it has very, very sometimes dreadful results, but if we have to  do it, it will be done again, but harsher.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: How would you characterize that harsher attack?

MIZRAHI: I don’t have a military career. I am not a general. In my point of view, if there will be another campaign in the north or in the south, it should be more infantry and more air force.

The next operation in Gaza should be a complete defeat of Hamas, in my point of view. We’ll dig them out from the holes. One by one. That’s what I think should be done. It’s impossible, it’s very, very hard for those who are not in Israel to understand what does it mean a daily bombardment of missiles on our cities and villages. It’s impossible to understand unless you are there.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Netanyahu has made countering Iran’s nuclear program his top priority. Should the U.S. tie agreeing to attacking Iran to Israeli concessions in the peace process.

MIZRAHI: If the United States would say, ‘yes this’ and Netanyahu would agree, both of them are wrong and making mistakes. You do not have to connect the two. The Iranian issue is not only a Problematic issue for Israel. No, it is for the international community. It is for the United States more than Israel. Its flow of energy, its stability all over the middle east. We can take care of ourselves. If needed, we can take care of ourselves, so it would be a mistake to connect the two. You should try to convince the Israeli government that it would be better to have peace with the Palestinians, so let’s sit and do it. But, not by coming with an ultimatum.

As for taking care of Iran — this is not only our interest. This is your interest, the international community’s interest. Don’t connect the two. It has no connection. Wikileaks just proved that all this legend of you have to do it so the arabs will cooperate with us was nothing, with not any grounds to it. I know. I was speaking with Arabs who tell me what they think about the Palestinians and what do they think about Iran. So, it is our interest, national interest, to strike a deal with the Palestinians. It is our interest that Iran will not go nuclear, but you do not have to connect the two.

I will tell you, even though this is the ultra-right position in Israel, but I think in this issue they are right. In my point of view, weakening Iran or convincing Iran not to have nuclear ability will make [it] easier to find the solution between us and the Palestinians because they are tough, the Hamas. The Hamas is very tough because he sees he has Syria and Iran, OK. He will not negotiate. He will  not compromise between Hamas and Fatah. Even inside Fatah, you have these groups who are seeing Iran as an alternative. The moment they will see Iran, that the lion is not a lion, my point of view, [is] it will be easier to strike a deal with the Palestinians. As is my point of view, if you have a deal with the Syrians, it will be easier to strike a deal with the Palestinians.



Ben Moscovitch

Ben Moscovitch is a Washington D.C.-based political reporter and has covered Congress, homeland security, and health care. He completed an intensive two-year Master's in Middle Eastern History program at Tel Aviv University, where he wrote his thesis on the roots of Palestinian democratic reforms. Ben graduated from Georgetown University with a BA in English Literature. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. Twitter follow: @benmoscovitch

Areas of Focus:
Middle East; Israel-Palestine; Politics