Is The Clock Ticking on Nuclear Iran? An Interview with Israeli Journalist Ronen Bergman

by Jerry Gordon (February 2012)

Ronen Bergman, Israeli intelligence and national security analyst for the major daily Yediot Ahronot, has set the clock ticking on whether the Islamic Republic of Iran will enter what Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has called “the zone of immunity.” That zone would be entered by Iran when it can first assemble and be capable of testing a nuclear device. At the recent Herzliya conference on strategic affairs, IDF military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi told attendees that Iran had enough enriched uranium at the 20% level to make four bombs. 

Bergman set that clock going with his conclusion in a New York Times Magazine article entitled, “Will Israel Attack Iran?

After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012. Perhaps in the small and ever-diminishing window that is left, the United States will choose to intervene after all, but here, from the Israeli perspective, there is not much hope for that. Instead there is that peculiar Israeli mixture of fear — rooted in the sense that Israel is dependent on the tacit support of other nations to survive — and tenacity, the fierce conviction, right or wrong, that only the Israelis can ultimately defend themselves.

Bergman’s conclusion was followed in early February by an assessment that US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta conveyed  to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius saying he “believes there is strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a 'zone of immunity' to commence building a nuclear bomb.” Shortly after the Panetta comments, Iran’s Deputy Revolutionary Guard Commander Hossein Salami warned of a retaliatory threat against any country undertaking an air attack on its nuclear facilities.

That sent concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions rocketing, building regional tensions amid the Arab Spring and the bloody sectarian war in Syria, supported by Iran. 

These developments elicited comments from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu admonishing the 14 members of his Security Cabinet to stop “chitchat” about any possible time table for an attack, because no decision has yet to be taken

In a recent USA Today article, “Israel faces growing Mideast threats,” Bergman commented on the mood of Israelis about this overarching existential threat that could be unleashed by a Nuclear Iran:

The mood I'm sensing is that (Israeli leadership) feels this is really the last time, the last hour, the last year, let's say, to deal with this problem…It is perceived by the Israeli leadership as an existential threat.

The nature of the threat lies close to home with Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and in Gaza, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, equipped with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles and terrorist armies trained by Iran.  Bergman goes on to comment:

In this poker game with Iran, the main fears of Israelis are not of Iranian bombs … but of the day after — the inevitable effect of a strike which might include firing of rockets from Hamas in the south, Hezbollah in the north, and from Iran. There is a strong fear that an Israeli strike over nuclear sites could ignite a war in the Middle East. I think a strike could do that.

There is another element in this rising tension over a nuclear Iran: alleged assassinations of Iranian scientists by the dissident group Mujahideen al- Khalq (MEK) funded and trained by Israel’s Mossad. The MEK has been listed by the US State Department as a designated foreign terrorist organization that some in the US Congress are seeking to lift. News reports allege confirmation by US officials of the connection between the MEK and Mossad in these series of hits against Iranian nuclear scientists, while denying any US involvement. According to NBC, Mohammad Javad Larijani, an aide to Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Khamanei, indicated that “the relationship [between Israel and the MEK is very intricate and very close.”

On January 11th, 32 year old Tehran University nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan and his driver were assassinated. Roshan was targeted because of his supervisory role at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Roshan’s assassination, the fourth of an Iranian nuclear scientist since 2010, looks like a script that could have been taken from the pages of a Daniel Silva thriller about fictional retired Mossad hit team leader and art restorer, Gabriel Allon. Roshan and his driver were taken out by a sticky magnetic bomb planted deftly to the side of the Peugeot 405 sedan by an accomplice on a motor bike during morning traffic.

In Bergman’s New York Times article, he wrote of the views of former Mossad Director Meir Dagan, that these targeted assassinations “amount to ’the removal of important brains’ from the project, the killings have brought about what is referred to in the Mossad as white defection — in other words, the Iranian scientists are so frightened that many have requested to be transferred to civilian projects.”

Bergman is a well-regarded analyst of Israeli intelligence. He earned his PhD from Cambridge University and wrote his dissertation on Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service. He has written three well received books, prominent among them, The Secret War with Iran. His new book to be published next year by Random House in the US will be a major examination of the history of Israeli intelligence, Mossad and the art of assassination. In his reseach of the topic, he has spoken with a wide array of Israel’s and other foreign intelligence services, operatives and hit team leaders. 

We had the opportunity to interview Bergman shortly following his recent attendance at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.

Watch this brief interview with Dr. Ronen Bergman by Wolf Blitzer of CNN.

Gordon:  Dr. Bergman, that you for the opportunity to discuss the covert aspects of a possible military strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear program.

Bergman:  Thank you for inviting me.

Gordon:  Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius cited the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, as saying there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June before Iran enters what Israelis describe as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb. Given your New York Times article and comments during The Israel Project (TIP) conference call does that reflect the views of Israeli Defense Minister Barak and the Security Cabinet of Prime Minister Netanyahu? If so, why?

Bergman:  Well, let me start with saying that following the New York Times story I read a lot of comments, articles, op-eds and blogs suggesting that I was bluffed by the Minister of Defense and by the Prime Minister into believing that they are going to strike. That might be so, however, if that’s true, then they were able to bluff not just a regular journalist like myself but also the Secretary of Defense of the United States. As you read, he basically made an even more precise prediction, giving a specific time frame on Israeli intentions. You asked if that reflects the mood in Israel’s highest echelons and I would say that both Barak and Netanyahu stress that the decision has not yet been made and a date has not been scheduled to make this decision. However, the term that was coined by Minister of Defense Barak, “the zone of immunity,” is the most crucial point. It is even more crucial than the question of how long it will take Iran to complete a bomb. Most people dealing with the topic agree that the decision in Iran to produce the first bomb has not yet been made, but the decision to develop it was made long ago. Therefore Iran would enter the immunity zone far earlier than its decision to make a bomb or assemble its first nuclear device, and this is the ticking clock. Taking into account the latest intelligence assessment that Iran would reach the immunity zone within nine months I would assume that a decision has to be taken within the framework that Secretary of Defense Panetta mentioned.

Gordon:  Recently, IDF Military Intelligence Chief Major General Aviv Kochavi told the Herzliya Conference that Iran had already accumulated four tons of enriched uranium and nearly 100 kilos at the level of 20%.  He estimates that is enough material to make four atomic bombs. How far off do you think that test might be in light of both Panetta's and Kochavi's remarks?

Bergman:  Gen. Aviv Kochavi made a slightly different assessment than the one mentioned in the New York Times article. The figures we used on the current status of the Iranian Nuclear Project when writing the story had been provided to us by various intelligence agencies. We used the lower figures. So for example, the number of active centrifuges the Iranians are said to have varies between 10,000 and 14,000, so we took 10,000. In any case, those figures indicate Iran is entering the immunity zone. The overall picture is gloomy, and suggests that from Israel's perspective and assessment, a decision must be taken soon.

Gordon:  During a conference call sponsored by TIP, you said that Israel might be prepared to strike Iran's nuclear facilities this year, yet held out the prospect that stronger sanctions might deter Iran's progress towards a deliverable nuclear weapon. Is that still your view?

Bergman:  I would say that the chances to prevent the strike would be one of the following scenarios:  Either the United States takes the initiative and strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities, or the regime in Iran is toppled and a new one is established, maybe even a democratic one. Alternatively, the Iranian current leadership rethinks the whole issue and comes to the conclusion that the continuation of the project under the sanctions would indeed pose a threat to the continuation of the regime. Therefore they disassemble their project and open the facilities to inspectors and do everything to the satisfaction of Israel and the United States. Either these three scenarios happen or Israel must make a decision. I fear a low probability of any of these three happening. Therefore, I do fear that at the end of the day Israel will decide to strike.

Gordon:  The Wall Street Journal and other news media reported recently that massive ordinance penetrators that the U.S. Air Force has will not be able to reach Iran's deep underground enrichment facilities. Does that imply that neither Israel nor the U.S. can undertake a crippling attack through conventional means?

Bergman:  I don't believe that there is any chance that Israel or the United States would use any sort of nuclear weapon in such a strike. As far as they know the roofs of the bunkers at the Fordo enrichment facility near Qom in Iran are thicker than the penetration capabilities of the MOP. I understand that there are some techniques under development that could penetrate and reach them. In any case, this is further proof that Iran is doing whatever it can to enter the immunity zone, creating a sense of urgency from Israel’s perspective.

Gordon:  In the New York Times article you referred to the use of cyber warfare involving the so-called Stuxnet Duqu malworms that were allegedly developed by Israel and “others.” How effective have they been in disrupting and damaging the Iranian uranium enrichment process?

Bergman:  I think that this type of cyber warfare has been somewhat effective from several vantage points. Its success created the belief among decision makers that covert actions might be able to stop the project forever, and this is not true. We are not talking about a Hollywood fiction in which you press a button in the United States and a nuclear factory in Iran explodes. It's much harder than that. The Iranians are extremely smart. They are very protective of their nuclear facilities and they are trying to do whatever they can to stop any intrusion.

Gordon:  Israel tested an ICBM in November, the Jericho III, capable of hitting Iran. What in your view would prevent it from launching a possible low altitude EMP attack?

Bergman:  I think that Israel would be seeking international legitimacy for such a strike. I think that using EMP or tactical nuclear missiles might inflict collateral damage or harm unrelated facilities or open areas. I don't imagine that Israel would do something with that cost.

Gordon:  Your New York Times article discussed allegations about possible Mossad involvement in the several assassinations of Iranian Nuclear Scientists. Have these been perpetrated by Iranian dissidents trained by Mossad and other intelligence services?

Bergman:  I cannot reply directly to your question. I can tell you that there is a lot of information that will be published in the coming few months coming from Iranian sources about their alleged success in capturing these alleged Mossad operatives.

Gordon:  When I've raised the issue of Israel's support for regime change in Iran with knowledgeable sources in Israel, the usual response has been “no comment” or “don't ask the question.” Is that what we would consider an oblique positive response?

Bergman:  No comment.

Gordon:  The recent crash of a heavy lift Hermes Drone, disclosed that Israel has the capability of reaching Tehran with UAV's. Could Israel launch waves of drone attacks on Iranian Nuclear projects and missile sites with any degree of success?

Bergman:  The question refers to my remarks on using drones. I did not say and I didn't mean that Israel is capable of launching a strategic strike using drones alone. Far from it; however, Israel is using drones for various surveillance and operational activities. These can be very useful in a possible strike. Deploying drones, especially drones that can stay in the air for 48 hours and carry a payload of up to one ton, would be a powerful weapon when you have many of these involved in a massive, coordinated strike over Iran.

Gordon:  Can Israel feel secure about undertaking a conventional strike against Iran's nuclear facilities without incurring significant damage from the rocket and missile caches of proxies Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad?

Bergman:  I think that Israel should expect a harsh response to any attack against Iran, from Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran expects these organizations to act on its behalf in times of need which would certainly include retaliation after an attack on Iranian nuclear sites. 

Gordon:  Will the joint Israel U.S. Anti-Missile Defense Shield be fully operational before any possible Israeli attack involving Iran?

Bergman:  No comment.

Gordon:  Your new book concerns the Mossad and “the Art of Assassination.”

Bergman:  Yes. That is the new book I am writing for Random House. It will be a detailed history based on over 550 interviews I have conducted many of them are on the record with top officials, top operatives and members of the assassination teams. The book deals with the history of Israeli intelligence and special operations.

Gordon:  This would be a worthy successor to your previous volume on The Secret War with Iran

Bergman:  I hope so. I hope it will exceed it and I'm working very hard to make it the best book that I can.

Gordon:  Dr. Bergman, thank you for this highly informative interview.

Bergman:  Thank you for inviting me.

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