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Ex-Mossad chief: Any nuclear deal must physically dismantle Iran’s enrichment sites

Yossi Cohen pessimistic about new Iranian president’s willingness to negotiate, says Israel should maintain the ability to strike facilities alone

Screen capture from video of former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen during an interview, November 21, 2021. (YouTube)
Screen capture from video of former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen during an interview, November 21, 2021. (YouTube)

The former head of the Mossad spy agency said Sunday that talks aimed at saving the unraveling 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran must aim for the physical dismantling of Iran’s uranium enrichment sites, and that Israel should reserve the ability to take action alone if negotiations fail.

Yossi Cohen was interviewed Sunday as part of the Haaretz-UCLA conference in Los Angeles on Israel’s national security.

Cohen was asked about the upcoming talks in Vienna, which hope to bring the US back into the nuclear pact and also see Iran agree to reembrace commitments to that deal which it has dropped, notably by enriching uranium beyond the limits permitted in the agreement.

“The Iranians are enriching uranium because they can,” Cohen said, referring to Iran’s advanced centrifuges, which are producing highly enriched material. “In my opinion, this is something that has to be absolutely stopped.”

The fact that the Iranians are still enriching material shows that the agreement must prevent them from having the infrastructure, and not just rely on Tehran agreeing to stop the process, he argued.

The talks must aim to physically dismantle Iran’s enrichment facilities, Cohen maintained.

However, Cohen expressed doubts that the European-sponsored talks, scheduled to restart on November 29, will make much progress under the current Iranian regime.

Iran’s newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi is “not the same face of Iran” that the country was under his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who led the country into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“[Raisi] is much more extreme in his regional views, and I’m not sure Iran will agree to a deal,” Cohen said, assessing there was a small chance of success from the talks.

In this image, made from an April 17, 2021 video released by the state-run TV station Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility. (IRIB via AP)

Though a negotiated solution would be best, Cohen stressed that “Israel will never let Iran have a military nuclear capability.”

“I think Israel should have the ability to fight this aspect alone” as it had done twice in the past, in Iraq and Syria, he said. Cohen was referring to the 1981 Israeli air attack that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, and the 2007 attack on a Syrian nuclear reactor in the area of Deir Ezzor.

“I assume it’s going to be complicated militarily, but not impossible,” he said. “I think that if the State of Israel decides to get rid of this [Iranian nuclear] program, we will have to do it.”

Former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018, reapplying stiff sanctions on Iran, which has dropped some of its own commitments to the pact and significantly increased its uranium enrichment, raising concerns it is becoming a nuclear weapons threshold state.

Cohen said that it was still not too late to stop Iran from reaching that point.

“We have to adapt, in our minds, to the statement that Israel will never let the Iranians have a military nuclear capability,” he said.

Then-prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showcases material he says was obtained by Israeli intelligence from Iran’s nuclear weapons archive, in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO)

Israel had pushed Trump to exit the treaty, helping to convince him with information gleaned from a trove of nuclear records that the Mossad, under Cohen, managed to seize in Tehran and bring to Israel in April 2018. The material showed that before signing the deal Iran had been working on arming itself with nuclear weapons, despite denying that it was. Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA a month later.

“We had shown the Americans and the world that Iran lied all the way to the deal,” Cohen said of the operation. “Iran wasn’t coming clean on many issues that were hidden from the world.”

Commenting on various activities inside Iran, including sabotage of nuclear facilities, that have been attributed to Israel, Cohen said — without confirming involvement — that the purpose was to keep the Iranians from obtaining the bomb.

“You can damage and slow down their capabilities,” said Cohen, who ended his term as Mossad chief in June. “Everything that we, according to foreign press reports, did in Iran, was to make sure that they keep enough of a distance in terms of capabilities.”

However, the key challenge, he noted, relates to Iran’s leaders, whose intentions cannot be altered by such operations.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that US officials have warned Israel that attacks against the Iranian nuclear program were counterproductive and have caused Tehran to rebuild an even more efficient enrichment system.

Noting that in the last 20 months there have been four explosions at Iranian nuclear facilities attributed to Israel, along with the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, the report said that US officials cautioned that while such efforts may be “tactically satisfying,” they are “ultimately counterproductive.”

However, the officials said Israel appeared unmoved by the arguments and this was one of many areas that Washington and Jerusalem disagreed on.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli also spoke at the event.

Gantz said that he is “more optimistic than ever” in light of Israel’s newfound ties with Arab countries in the region.

Michaeli, who leads the Labor Party, described US President Joe Biden as a “strong supporter” of Israel and said the new government in Jerusalem has “good communications” at all levels with his administration.

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