A former Israeli lawmaker recently met with a former general from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards at a conference in France to discuss the country’s rogue nuclear program, reportedly with the backing of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
Avital, a former Knesset member and commando who led Operation Poison Thorn – seizing the pro-Iran Amal commander Mustafa Dirani from his home in Lebanon – spent this past weekend at a French chateau with former senior French, Chinese, American and Iranian officials. The group discussed China’s increased standing in the Middle East and Iran’s nuclear program and newfound openness to the West.
The Iranian, described by Britain’s Financial Times newspaper as a general and labeled by Avital only as an expat, discussed the three pillars of Iranian society — Islam, nationalism and Western civilization – and managed to convince Avital that Iran was in the midst of significant change.
“There’s been a serious shift toward the West,” Avital told The Times of Israel, “and if I take everything that he said and corroborate it with what I heard recently from [military intelligence commander Maj. Gen.] Aviv Kochavi and [newly retired national security adviser] Yaakov Amidror, then I think there has been a strategic shift and not just a tactical one.”
He said the implications of a strategic shift were that there is a willingness in Iran to sacrifice the country’s military nuclear program.
The meeting took place at the home of Jean-Christophe Iseux Baron von Pfetten, the president of the Royal Institute of East-West Strategic Studies, an Oxford University-affiliated think tank, and was attended by former French defense minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, former Australian prime minister Robert Hawk, former British cabinet member Peter Mandelson and a former US ambassador.
Avital confirmed that he spoke with Israeli officials before leaving and briefed them upon his return. “I updated whomever I needed to update,” he said, adding later, “I have friends in the political and defense establishments and of course I updated them before leaving and after returning.”
The meeting came ahead of a new round of nuclear negotiations between six world powers and the Islamic Republic in Geneva.
“I was particularly impressed in the gradual warming up between Doron and the Iranian general,” von Pfetten told the Financial Times, noting that Avital’s participation was backed by Israel’s Defense Ministry.
The Defense Ministry, however, denied it had any link to the meeting.
“It’s something independent, not connected to us at all. The last time he had any connection to the Defense Ministry was back in 1992 when he was the commander of Sayeret Matkal,” Ofer Harel, a spokesperson for Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, told The Times of Israel.
Avital commanded the elite Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance) Unit in the 1990s and served as Kadima MK between 2011 and early 2013. He described the meeting to the Financial Times as a “private academic gathering.” The 54-year-old retired lieutenant colonel said discussions focused on China’s role in the Middle East and whether Iran was “taking a strategic change or not,” according to the paper.
On Thursday, representatives of the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – the so-called P5+1 – are scheduled to hold another round of talks with Iran in Geneva to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program.
Last month, Israeli officials reportedly participated in a rare meeting in Switzerland with representatives from an array of regional states — including Iran — and other major powers to discuss convening an international conference on making the Middle East a region free of weapons of mass destruction.
An Israeli official told Reuters that the October 21-22 meeting was a “preparatory session” ahead of the planned conference. “There were no contacts between our representative and Arab or Iranian representatives, not direct nor indirect. The meeting was mainly technical,” the Israeli official said.