Taking a shot at Israel’s intelligence agencies, author Ronen Bergman argues that Israel and the West have underestimated the threat from Iran for decades.
Bergman, a journalist and author of “The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power,” describes reports that Israel is preparing for a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
ROBERT ZELIGER: I’m Robert Zeliger, foreign affairs reporter for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. We’re on the phone right now with Ronen Bergman, investigative reporter for the Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. He’s also the author of “The Secret War with Iran.” Ronen, thank you for joining us.
RONEN BERGMAN, FROM TEL AVIV: Thank you.
ROBERT ZELIGER: Earlier this week, the head of research for Israel’s military intelligence gave a rather alarming estimation on Iran’s nuclear program. He said, “The time until the point of no return is getting increasingly shorter.” Is that an assessment shared by people you talk to in the Israeli intelligence community — that time is running out to do something about Iran’s program?
RONEN BERGMAN: Yes indeed. This testimony, taken from a briefing given by Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, the head of research for military intelligence, is shared by most of the individuals dealing with Iran within Israeli intelligence. Sometimes they do have some debates between them on how long would it take Iran to reach its first nuclear installation or nuclear bomb. And in any case some of them say we should not use the very vague and not very clear term of “point of no return.” They are talking about the technological threshold, which basically says that within six months to one year Iran will have the capability to reach some point that is very close to its first nuclear bomb and would not need any further assistance from foreign sources and would be able to continue this secret path, even if the present, known installations would be put under close surveillance by the IAEA.
ROBERT ZELIGER: How actively is Israel preparing for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities?
RONEN BERGMAN: Very actively. Some of the work is being done together with the United States in joint form. There are a few of them that are working on collection of intelligence, interpretation of that intelligence, and the anticipation, and preparation for the bombing itself. Though, this doesn’t mean that someone is about to strike Iran. Military and intelligence departments have the duty to plan all sorts of attacks and all sorts of strikes. And people are trying to get ready and people are trying to assess what are the potential targets, how much damage can Israeli or American strikes cause on such targets, how much delay can it earn for the West in delaying the Iranian atomic project — and nobody, by the way, talks about destroying it, only delaying it — and what are the repercussions of such an attack. And of course at the end of the day all the conclusions of the working of these groups are put to the political echelon and the prime minister and then he or she would have to take the decision on whether to strike or not.
ROBERT ZELIGER: There’s a striking passage in your book about an assessment by Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad. According to that assessment that was delivered in May, they believe that President Bush will order a strike on Iran’s nuclear program “out of religious and ideological motives.” Do Israeli leaders really believe the U.S. is strongly considering a military action?
RONEN BERGMAN: There are different assessments and I think that all of them are based on pure estimations and analytical thought and rumors, and none of them are on pure understanding of what is going on between the right and the left ear of President Bush. Maybe some of them, such as the one you quoted from Mossad, are more wishful thinking, than real intelligence assessment. There are rumors, or some estimates, that if Barack Obama wins the presidential election in November, then President Bush would not like to leave behind the Iranian issue for the next Democrat president and would strike Iran in the two and a half months until the end of his term; and if McCain wins then he would leave the problem there. I have no knowledge of any footnote that can corroborate these assessments and I know there are other people in Israeli intelligence, mostly military intelligence, who believe that in no case will the United States strike the Iranian nuclear facilities under the current president.
ROBERT ZELIGER: Let’s talk about the broader point in your book. The Israeli intelligence community has a rather storied reputation for getting things done. But reading your book, I was struck by the amount of failures and miscalculations by Israel and the West that you document in dealing with Iran.
RONEN BERGMAN: It might be that Israeli intelligence was very capable with PR throughout the years, more capable than in real execution of operations against Iran. I would say this: generally, very generally speaking, and in spite of some specific successes, the Israeli internal secret service, the Shabak (Shin Bet) have gained phenomenal success in combating Palestinian uprising and in penetration of the two main extremist organizations — meaning Hamas and Islamic Jihad. I believe that Shin Bet supplied Israeli citizens the best — not completely bulletproof — but the best defense that intelligence can supply against suicide bombing.
Having said that, this phenomenal success was not duplicated by Mossad when confronting outside terrorist groups like Hezbollah. Mossad is in charge of all foreign operations of Israeli intelligence. It had not learned the lessons that Shin Bet had, vis-a-vis, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And was incapable of penetration of [Hezbollah] and other pro-Iranian organizations. We saw the poor results of that intelligence performance mainly in the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 when, basically, Israel went into war against a quasi-military organization with no knowledge, no intelligence, and lost that war.
ROBERT ZELIGER: What was the greatest failure you found?
RONEN BERGMAN: On both spheres of the activity of Iranian foreign policy: the export of revolution–Israel didn’t see Iran as a strategic threat, did not devote enough resources to it, and enabled Iran to establish the single most capable force in Lebanon, I think the most capable quasi-military force in current history — better than the Viet Cong, much better than al-Qaida — which now is a strategic threat not just to Israel but to other places where it has secret cells. And this is just one example. Israel did not know how advanced is the Iranian nuclear project and when it found out it was — in some spheres of that issue — far too late. Israel did not confront Iran in many other areas of intelligence efforts in Europe and in other places. And, together with the negligence that was demonstrated by the European and American intelligence services, basically let Iran to get a foothold and influence in many areas. I don’t know if Khomeini did or did not read Trotsky, but he acted as if he knows that — as Trotsky said — that the revolution that does not export itself is doomed to collapse from the inside.
ROBERT ZELIGER: Let’s talk about last September’s Israeli raid on a site in Syria that the CIA says was a nuclear facility. According to your book, the intelligence came partially from a man named Ali Reza Asgari, an Iranian general who defected to the United States last year. Who is he and what did he tell American intelligence?
RONEN BERGMAN: The first intelligence came as early as 2004 when the NSA intercepted some North Korean communication between a place in northern Syria called Dir a-zur. In North Korea, it was clear that something was happening there, but not enough resources were put into it. In February 2007, a man by the name of Gen. Ali Reza Asgari, a prominent figure within Iranian intelligence for many years disappeared from his hotel room in Istanbul, basically as part of a getaway plan of the CIA. He initiated contact with the CIA a few months before.
He was taken out of power because of an old rivalry between him and President Ahmadinejad. He was the intelligence advisor to President Khatami, and — when the presidential office was taken by Ahmadinejad — he basically neutralized him from any authority, [which] led to his appeal to the CIA to become a mole and then to defect. Ali Reza Asgari was one of the commanders of al-Quds, the elite force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, one of the founders of Hezbollah, the deputy minister of intelligence, deputy minister of defense, someone with great knowledge of intelligence and secret operations in Iran and he has supplied the CIA with a lot of information about past operations, such as the bombing of the naval base in Lebanon, the American embassy in Beirut, the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.
He helped solving past mysteries and he also supplied quite a lot of new information about the nuclear Iranian project and some information which basically suggested there is a triangle of evil going on in Syria based on Iranian money, North Korean know-how, experience, machinery, and raw material, and Syrian territory — trying to build a nuclear bomb. This led to a joint American-Israeli operation trying to understand what is going on in Syria, which at the end of the day led to the Israeli prime minister’s order to strike and Israeli jetliners came in the darkness of the night on the sixth of September 2007, exactly a year ago, and destroyed the facility.
ROBERT ZELIGER: Before we go, what kind of reaction do Israeli leaders have to some of these things you write about? A lot of what you put in the book seems like it’s very sensitive information.
RONEN BERGMAN: Yeah, well I guess all sorts of reactions. In Israel we have to submit everything we write to military censorship for approval. And the initial draft had no less than 750 deletions and corrections by military censorship. We had a long negotiation with them and in many cases where we did not agree on a midway I had to appeal to the Supreme Court. I must say that I’m happy that we won in most of the cases. And of course no organization is happy to find what he sees as its most classified secrets in a book. And I suffer from quite strong criticism, especially, and maybe naturally, from the organization who suffers from the biggest quantity of criticism in the book, and this is the Israeli Mossad.
ROBERT ZELIGER: You’re also a reporter for Israel’s largest newspaper. Have they tried to prevent you from publishing any of the scoops that you’ve gotten?
RONEN BERGMAN: Yeah. Well, they have tried — basically in the last few years they have tried everything. They hacked my computer, they bugged my phone, they followed me, they had two arrest orders, they threatened to prosecute me for high treason no less, they had quite a lot of effort put into trying to reveal my sources. Two people in Mossad got fired. Just last June, the director of Mossad fired his deputy for what he suspected, or he accused him of leaking information. And I can continue with this list. I must say that on the other hand, people who believe that things should be exposed and information — of course nothing that would damage a current operation — but people who believe that information should be revealed and that journalism or the press is the guarding dog of democracy, sees me as an address and helps me with my work.
ROBERT ZELIGER: Ronen Bergman, thank you for taking the time to talk.
RONEN BERGMAN: Thank you very much, Robert.