'Without Cunning a Nation Shall Fall' (Proverbs 11/14)

09/20/2010 10:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When a former director of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency for special operations, talks about Iran these days, it is instructive to listen carefully. Danny Yatom addressed an International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference at the prestigious Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya on September 12 and suggested that only military force could stop Iran, and that he would not want to be part of an Iranian 'experiment.' Yatom argued that sanctions were not enough to stop or slow the Iranians and expressed his hope that the world would comprehend this reality, adding that a joint effort by the world's air forces under U.S. leadership could "if not to completely remove the threat, at least to delay it for years to come."

With regard to the Iranian nuclear program we are assured that all options on the table. These options do include non-violent, diplomatic measures and sanctions. Another option is a military strike, which is alluded to when stressing that all means could be exhausted. It should be noted, however, that there is another way to attempt to slow or stop the Iranian program even though it is never mentioned: The clandestine work of intelligence agencies to sabotage, interrupt and stifle Iran's nuclear ambitions. As this article's title -- part of the Mossad's motto -- expresses, desperate times call for drastic measures. Even the few stories that make it into the news are indicators of the, at times, blunt efforts of Western secret agents.

Targeted killings are one such approach. According to a UK Daily Telegraph report, the Mossad was engaged in efforts to liquidate key personnel of the Iranian nuclear program, in collaboration with the United States. Such collaboration was also said to have been behind an operation against key Iraqi nuclear scientists prior to the destruction of the Osirak reactor in 1981.

Two key individuals of the Iranian program found their deaths under unclear circumstances. In January 2010 quantum physics expert Masoud Ali Mohammadi was killed when a motorcycle exploded next to his car. He was said to be a special advisor to the nuclear program. Three years earlier Ardeshir Hosseinpour, a specialist in electromagnetic fields, may have died under similar circumstances. A winner of a prestigious Iranian award for science and technology, he supposedly worked at an Isfahan facility converting uranium into gas for use at the Natanz nuclear installation. Stratfor, an intelligence company, suggested that the Mossad was behind these assassinations, an idea Iran mocked.

Intelligence agencies might operate on an even bigger scale. After a string of airplane crashes in 2005 and 2006, Iran's Defense Minister stated that their investigation showed all planes had been sabotaged in an American-British-Israeli collaboration. The incidents involved a military cargo plane that crashed into a residential building in Tehran, killing 94, including Revolutionary Guards. Two planes with high-ranking officers of the Revolutionary Guards crashed under questionable circumstances -- Iran blamed the weather in one of the cases.

Sabotage of facilities by inflicting damage to key functions of the project is another way Western intelligence organizations may be trying to delay Iranian nuclear ambitions. If news reports can be believed there is indeed intense clandestine activity:

  • A mysterious explosion erupted in a nuclear facility in Daylem in February 2005. Later that month gas pipeline explosion was reported near Busher. Also in 2005, an experimental site of Parchin, producing a vital component for the detonation of a nuclear bomb, was attacked.

  • Top scientists of the Iranian nuclear program had gathered in Natanz in April 2006 to witness the first performance of a series of centrifuges, when an explosion ended up in a dramatic collapse and a blow-up of key gas pipelines at the facility. A CBS report alleged that Israelis had assisted Americans to plant explosives.
  • In an -- for Iran -- embarrassing incident 2007 Iran discovered that they had used faulty isolating materials which they had purchased to screen between centrifuges. Had intelligence agencies managed to purposely provide these defect materials to delay the operation of the centrifuges?
  • Two explosions in 2008 -- one, at a supposed cosmetic factory near the Arak nuclear facility incurred serious damage to the equipment there, and another at a defense facility near Isfahan, where uranium is converted into gas - can reasonably added to the list.
  • Another mode of intelligence operation seems to be the systematic encouragement or pressuring of key scientists, military personnel and politicians to defect and seek refuge abroad. Three cases come to mind: Ali Riza Askari, who had served as the Iran's Deputy Defense Minister, was reportedly ushered by the Mossad first to Istanbul 2007 and then flown to the United States In March of the same year Amir Shirazi, a Revolutionary Guards commander disappeared from Iran under similar circumstances. In an equally confusing story, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri surfaced in the United States in summer 2009 but subsequently returned to Iran, claiming he had been kidnapped by the CIA.

    Can these activities make a measurable impact? Can they serve as an alternative to prevent the Iranians from obtaining the nuclear weapons capability or are they merely a nuisance to Iran? The possibility of a preemptive strike in Iran looms large at a point when Jeffrey Goldberg, in an important article in the Atlantic Monthly, puts its probability over 50 percent. Not only Israel is facing some hard decisions.

    Yatom, as former Mossad head, knows much about the need of clandestine operations and the sophisticated or blunt ways intelligence agencies operate. As successful and as creative certain operations might be, they have not been able to tip the balance in the Iranian case. When Yatom finds that cunning is no longer sufficient to assure survival, and that the various non-military alternatives have been exhausted, it is important to ask a crucial question: When will the West understand, as he does, that of all the options that were on the table, we are left with only the last one that has not been exercised yet to stop the Iranian nuclear program? Unless there will be game-changing developments soon, it will be a grim but necessary realization.