by Hugh Fitzgerald
Yossi Cohen, the just-retired head of Mossad, has many acts of supreme ingenuity and daring to his credit. He recently gave a television interview in which he dilated upon a few of his most recent accomplishments involving Iran’s nuclear project. The interview is discussed here: “In stunning, revelatory interview, ex-Mossad chief warns Iran, defends Netanyahu,” Times of Israel, June 11, 2021:
Yossi Cohen, who retired as head of the Mossad last week, provided highly specific details of recent Mossad activity against Iran, his interactions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his role in Israel’s normalization with the UAE, and his own undercover career in an extraordinary interview on Israeli television broadcast on Thursday night.
Cohen intimated that his agency blew up Iran’s underground centrifuge facility at Natanz, gave a precise description of the 2018 operation in which the Mossad stole Iran’s nuclear archive from safes in a Tehran warehouse, confirmed that Iran’s assassinated top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh had been in Mossad’s sights for years, and said the regime needs to understand that Israel means what it says when it vows to prevent Iran attaining nuclear weapons….
The interview was presumably approved by Israel’s military censors, and Cohen was circumspect on numerous occasions, but nonetheless talked about his career, philosophy, and key operations with an openness and detail radically atypical of spy chiefs, especially those whose service has only recently ended.
Early in the more than an hour of conversations for journalist Ilana Dayan’s “Uvda” (Fact) documentary show on Israel’s Channel 12, Cohen indicated that he was deeply familiar with Iran’s various nuclear sites, and said that, if given the opportunity, he would take Dayan to the underground “cellar” at Natanz, where, he said, “the centrifuges used to spin.
“It no longer looks like it did?” Dayan asked.
“Indeed,” said Cohen.
“Unless they fixed it,” she said.
“It doesn’t look like it used to look,” insisted Cohen.
I take that laconic remark to his interviewer to mean that the damage was very great; “it doesn’t look like it used to look,” it has not been repaired, and the cellar at Natanz is where “the centrifuges used to spin.” The use of the past tense was telling.
Cohen did not explicitly confirm responsibility for sabotage at Natanz in the interview, but said more generally: “We say very clearly [to Iran]: We won’t let you get nuclear weapons. What don’t you understand?”
Dayan noted that two major blasts at Natanz were attributed in foreign reports to the Mossad in the past year, and said “a huge quantity of explosives” were built into a marble platform used to balance the centrifuges. “The man who was responsible for these explosions, it becomes clear, made sure to supply to the Iranians the marble foundation on which the centrifuges are placed,” Dayan said. “As they install this foundation within the Natanz facility, they have no idea that it already includes a huge quantity of explosives.”
So the explosives were not brought into Natanz in a bag and left somewhere, but were baked into the very material that was used to build the platform on which the centrifuges sat. Dayan refers to “the man responsible for the explosions…made sure to supply…the marble foundation on which the centrifuges are [were] placed.” Whoever that man is, he is now well out of Iran.
Regarding Fakhrizadeh, identified by Israel as the father of Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, who was killed in an ambush near Tehran in November 2020 that has been widely attributed to Israel, Cohen said that he was watched by Mossad for years and that the Mossad was physically close to him before November 2020.
Fakhrizadeh “most troubled us from the point of view of the science, the knowledge, the scientists of the Iranian military nuclear program,” said Cohen, and therefore “he was a target for [intelligence] gathering for many years.”
This cryptic remark suggests that perhaps Fakhrizadeh, who had been under observation “for years,” had been allowed to live because he had proven of value to Mossad by meeting with other scientists, who up till then had not been on Israeli’s radar and whom Mossad could then identify as nuclear scientists sufficiently important to be consulting with the overall head of research and development, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. We know that between 2010 and 2012 at least four, and possibly five, Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated by Mossad; we haven’t heard of any assassinations since except that of Fakhrizadeh in 2020, but that does not mean that there haven’t been others that Mossad has chosen to keep mum about, not wishing to humiliate the Iranians, and the Iranians themselves, embarrassed by these repeated losses of valuable personnel, would also prefer not to discuss those assassinations.
…In some cases, however, Cohen said, Israel conveys the message to such a potential target that “if he is prepared to change profession and not harm us any longer, then yes” — implying such a target would be spared.
Did any such people get the hint and become, say, a piano player, Dayan asked?
One begins to fantasize as to how Mossad made Iranian scientists “offers they couldn’t refuse” and how the scared recipients managed to convey their willingness to change careers (more plausibly, to teach physics to graduate students rather than to become piano players) and then, which is the hardest part, how did those scientists to their bosses in Iran and explain that they had decided that nuclear weapons research was not for them after all? Surely there were consequences for them on the Iranian side. And what effect, one also wonders, did the assassinations of Iranian scientists have in persuading young physicists, just starting out in their careers, to carefully avoid the field of nuclear physics? Or were some, on the other hand, made even more determined in the face of Mossad’s warnings to serve the Islamic Republic, and to dismiss the threats of those Zionists? So many possibilities.
Yes, said Cohen, and added that this pleased him. Others, however, he said, did not get the message that this was an offer they shouldn’t refuse.
And we know what happened to at least four of those who failed to be dissuaded. They were shot in front of their houses, or had bombs attached to their cars as they sat in the middle of Tehran traffic, that exploded a little later, or they were taken out by lone assassins on motorcycles, who then sped away, weaving interstitially through the traffic lanes. Fantastic acts of derring-do.
For all the Mossad’s actions, “the Iranians are closer than ever” to the bomb,” Dayan suggested. “Not so,” said Cohen. “That’s not true.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to take the word of the man who headed Mossad until a few weeks ago over that of a journalist, no matter how skilled she may be at her own trade.
In the interview, Cohen described the planning and execution of the Mossad’s theft of a vast archive of Iranian nuclear documents from a Tehran warehouse on the night of January 31, 2018 — an operation for which Israel has openly taken credit.
He said he ran the operation from the Mossad command center in Tel Aviv, and that the agency had begun working towards it, on his instructions, two years earlier.
“We understood they were secretly storing their nuclear secrets — things we didn’t know… I decided we needed to see what the Iranians are planning for us,” Cohen said, “and I told my people to prepare to bring this home” because it would potentially show “the wider picture” of the Iranian program.
Twenty Mossad agents were involved on the ground — none of them Israeli nationals, said Dayan [quoting Cohen].
If none were Israelis, then one assumes they were Iranians, members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, the Peoples Mujahedin, a military organization of dissidents opposed to the mullahs’ regime and eager to take part in anything that would weaken that regime. But perhaps there were others involved, as well, possibly including some with French or British or German or other European citizenship, the children of refugees who had left Iran after Khomeini took power, who could have returned to Iran as agents of Mossad. Or there might be among the twenty Iranian Azeris, or even Azeris from Azerbaijan, which has close security ties with Israel, or Iranian Kurdish separatists, or even Arab separatists from Khuzistan, in Iran’s south, all of whom have different reasons for wanting to damage the Iranian state.
Mossad built a replica of the site, learned all about the containers holding the material, and knew how the containers were arranged, Cohen indicated. “We had a certain problem” on the night itself, said Cohen, regarding “something we recognized” that had apparently changed, but the decision was taken to proceed as planned.
The agents in Teheran encountered “a certain problem” on the night itself, because “something we recognized” had changed. The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley, as we all know, but think of those 20 people who were on this heart-stopping mission. There they were, in the middle of the Tehran night, in a nondescript warehouse in the nondescript district of Shorabad – where their detection would mean torture and certain death – finding something was not as expected, but that they would have to continue, hoping that the “change” they detected would not prove fatal to the mission. God knows what it was. A change in the 32 locks? Or perhaps some of the 32 solid steel containers had been unexpectedly turned to face the wall, and the agents had to slowly, excruciatingly, push those very heavy containers around, so that then they could be unlocked with safecracking tools, or blasted open? Perhaps the schedule of the guards had been changed, so that they would be arriving in the morning much earlier than Mossad had planned, making it necessary to speed up the operation that had previously been calculated down to the last minute? It makes one’s pulse race even now just imagining what that “certain problem” might have been that the agents discovered, and what those supremely cool and collected Mossad operatives managed to do, working steadily to unlock the combinations of each container or failing that, to blast open, each of those 32 heavy steel doors and then as quickly as possible to sift methodically and quickly through what they could of those 50,000 documents so that the agents could select those which they judged were of the highest importance, that would be sent digitally to Mossad in Tel Aviv, and which were less important, and could wait to be physically brought back to Mossad headquarters in Israel.
First published in Jihad Watch.
Ah, reading about spies is so much fun...