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Israel Military Intelligence representative in Washington Danny Citrinowicz in Arlington, Virginia in 2016. (Courtesy)
Courtesy: Israel Military Intelligence representative in Washington Danny Citrinowicz in Arlington, Virginia in 2016.
Interview'Unrealistic demands bar people from taking you seriously'

He led IDF intel gathering on Iran, was ignored and fears Israel is now paying price

Danny Citrinowicz, ex-head of Military Intelligence research, says politicians’ inability to adopt a nuanced approach led to ‘colossal’ policy failure, sped up Tehran’s nuke effort

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Courtesy: Israel Military Intelligence representative in Washington Danny Citrinowicz in Arlington, Virginia in 2016.

WASHINGTON — Several months after the 2013 election of former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, Aviv Kohavi submitted a position paper to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he pointed to a significant, strategic shift underway in the Islamic Republic.

Kohavi, who currently serves as IDF chief of staff, was the head of the Military Intelligence unit at the time, and he relayed his assessment that Iran was becoming more moderate and willing to negotiate an agreement with world powers that would enshrine restrictions on its nuclear program.

Days after receiving the report, Netanyahu went to New York for his annual speech before the UN General Assembly.

There, he appeared to dismiss Kohavi’s stance, declaring that “when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: [Rouhani’s hardline predecessor Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing and Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”

Danny Citrinowicz was part of the team that supplied Kohavi with the intelligence that led him to stake a position on Iran that went against the grain of longstanding policy in Jerusalem.

As head of the Iran branch in the Military Intelligence’s Research and Analysis Division, Citrinowicz was charged with analyzing the strategic intents of the regime in Tehran. This was from 2013 to 2016 during the leadup and the immediate aftermath of the signing of the multilateral nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Military Intelligence chief Aviv Kohavi attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on February 25, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Citrinowicz was subsequently dispatched to Washington, where he served as the Military Intelligence deputy attaché to the US, coordinating intel sharing with American counterparts for three years during which Netanyahu pushed then-US president Donald Trump to vacate the JCPOA.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Citrinowicz characterized Jerusalem’s policy on Iran as a “failure,” and lamented his government’s decision to ignore the shift taking place in the Islamic Republic that he and his colleagues had identified. By encouraging the Trump administration to withdraw from the deal and to impose “maximum pressure” sanctions against Tehran, Israel helped dramatically weaken a more moderate force and blunt the impact of that shift, the retired major argued.

Now, Citrinowicz fears that Israel and Iran are on a “collision course,” with Tehran as emboldened and aggressive as ever. Unlike Rouhani, Iran’s newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi does not prioritize a return to the nuclear deal and believes Tehran can withstand US sanctions thanks to growing alliances with Russia and China, the ex-senior intelligence analyst argued.

Israel Military Intelligence representative in Washington Danny Citrinowicz at the US Air Force Base in Pensaloca, Florida in 2018. (Courtesy)

As world powers returned to Vienna this week for a seventh round of talks aimed at reviving the JCPOA, Citrinowicz maintained that the only way the sides will succeed is if the US is willing to compromise significantly.

And while Israel’s leaders continue to warn negotiating powers that it is not party to whatever agreement they reach and that it reserves the right to act on its own if necessary, Citrinowicz said that Jerusalem’s ability to influence the talks in Vienna is negligible.

“Iran will only change its strategy if it feels like the regime is in real jeopardy,” Citrinowicz said. “And they believe that the only country capable of really threatening them is the US, not Israel.”

He was dismissive of previous attacks attributed to Israel on Iran’s nuclear program, arguing that they at best delayed Tehran’s efforts and at worst led the regime to double down in its effort, craftily evading inspections in the process.

The former head of research at the Military Intelligence Directorate also warned that a more significant strike from either Israel or the US would lead to a regional war, which would include retaliation on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah.

Danny Citrinowicz is interviewed on i24 News in 2021. (Screen capture/Courtesy)

Having peeled off his IDF uniform, Citrinowicz now works as a senior researcher at Reichmann University in Herzliya. No longer gagged by military protocol, Citrinowicz is using his new platform to inject a different perspective into Israel’s discourse on Iran.

“We need a realistic approach,” Citrinowicz said flatly. “I understand the importance of sounding tough and constantly saying ‘Iran is bad, Iran is bad,’ but when you are constantly shouting unrealistic demands then you won’t be considered to be someone that can really contribute to the international debate.”

“Israel is still thinking in terms of zero enrichment [of uranium] in Iran,” he continued. “That’s like talking of achieving a COVID infection rate of zero. It’s no longer relevant.”

Citrinowicz spoke about the frustrations of regularly being overruled by the political echelon, which from Netanyahu to his successor Naftali Bennett has “projected our own way of thinking onto the enemy.”

“One of our biggest problems is that we do not understand Iran,” he said. “What’s worse, we make incorrect working assumptions about Iranian goals and strategy based on very shaky knowledge that rests primarily on our understanding of Iran’s activities in the region.”

Citrinowicz explained that there is no single body that directs Tehran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria and the regime’s goals domestically are not the same as its goals abroad.

“Iran can be active in the region while being passive with its nuclear program at home and visa versa,” he maintained.

“This miscalculation is likely what will lead to a conflict between the two countries,” Citrinowicz warned.

Israel’s outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

The following is a transcript of the interview, which was conducted in English and Hebrew. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Times of Israel: What was your job as head of the Iran branch in the Military Intelligence Directorate?

Danny Citrinowicz: I was in charge of analyzing Iran’s strategic intents, from nuclear to regional activities. I was writing reports and making recommendations. But essentially, I was trying to assess the actions of the “red side” — whether Iran wanted to acquire a nuclear bomb and what it planned to do in Syria. This was from 2013 to 2016 during the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA. We were asking ourselves whether there was going to be an agreement and what kind of agreement would be reached. What were Iran’s red lines?

Then in Washington, I was the liaison officer for the [Military] Intelligence [Directorate] and was responsible for enhancing cooperation between Israeli and American intelligence officials.

What was the Israeli position at the time?

It goes without saying that the position was no discussion with Iran whatsoever. No acceptance of the JCPOA. But there were people within the Israeli system that really challenged the position from the military side. IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said that while JCPOA is not the ultimate agreement, and that it has its flaws, at the end of the day it also has advantages — the biggest one being that it enabled the IDF to focus more on the immediate threats of Hezbollah and Hamas.

The agreement — with all of its flaws — rolled back the Iran nuclear program significantly, more than any other clandestine activity that was aimed at doing the same. Those clandestine activities may have suspended or delayed the program a little bit, but nothing at the level of the JCPOA.

Was this your feeling at the time as well?

Yes, it was. When you’re in the army though, you can make your voice heard but at the end of the day it’s a political decision, and the political decision was no JCPOA, no acceptance of the agreement. You can challenge that, you can write memos about it, but at the end of the day, this was the policy under Netanyahu.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on January 2, 2018. (FLASH90)

You mentioned Eisenkot. Were you senior enough to also voice reservations?

In the army, people understood the importance of the agreement, so for me, it was easy to present that opinion. But that wasn’t the issue. Even Lt. Gen. Eisenkot thought this way, and the policy didn’t change. Because for Netanyahu, Iran is something deeper than just a threat. For him, it’s like fighting the new Nazis. So you can raise your reservations, but it won’t help.

Eisenkot wasn’t raising those reservations publicly though, right?

Not publicly, but at the end of the day, people knew. It was leaked. Years earlier, as the JCPOA negotiations were ongoing, Kohavi as head of the [Military] Intelligence wrote a position paper to the policymakers highlighting a shift taking place in Iran with the election of Rouhani. Iran was becoming more moderate and more willing to negotiate a nuclear deal. It was becoming more moderate in terms of its nuclear ambitions.

The JCPOA was a unique event, and the changes in Iran were important in helping achieve this agreement. What Kohavi wrote actually came true. There was a change in Iran — a change that led to the JCPOA — but Netanyahu adopted a policy — one that both in hindsight and at the time I thought was the wrong policy — that pushed the US to get out of the agreement without any alternative strategy. I don’t know what Netanyahu expected, but the Iranians pushed through all of the obstacles, and all the problems that they had and now they are pushing forward in the enrichment, going further in violating restrictions than I could have ever imagined that they would.

Couldn’t one argue that the “alternative strategy” was the maximum pressure campaign?

Yes, but it was a catastrophe. It was very naive to think that they could force the regime to choose between its survival and its nuclear program. Because backing down from its nuclear ambitions means losing its independence, in a way.

Why is that?

Iran sees itself as a superpower, and as such, is entitled to enrich uranium as other superpowers do. It’s also a source of pride and nationalism. There is a belief that we are like the other superpowers and have the technological capabilities to push enrichment forward. There is a consensus on this matter within the Iranian population, so even if the regime changes, even if the person that comes after [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei is more moderate, he will never abandon Iranian nuclear ambitions.

The way Israel looked at Iran has always been very black and white. The belief was that the Iranians want to obtain nuclear weapons. Period.

This had to do with the Iranian opposition’s 2010 to 2013 exposure of nuclear activity at sites in Natanz and Fordo from Iran’s previous attempt to build a nuclear bomb between [1989] and 2003, known as the Amad Project.

Israeli intelligence concluded then that it was misled by the Iranians, that you can’t trust them whatsoever, and that they were just trying to drag out the [JCPOA] negotiations, all while they were making progress toward a bomb.

The change that Rouhani brought in 2013 was that Iran actually became interested in reaching an agreement. The [JCPOA] discussions in Oman started before Rouhani, but Rouhani was the true generator, who understood that in order to create some sort of gesture to the West, he needed an agreement. That if you want to save the [Iranian] revolution and receive much-needed [economic stimulus], you have to reach an agreement. This is what was identified by Kohavi and others.

In this April 9, 2018 photo, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark ‘National Nuclear Day,’ in Tehran, Iran. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

And the reason that change in Iran didn’t hold was because of the maximum pressure campaign?

The first thing that the Iranians got from the negotiations was the right to enrich (to 3.5%). Of course, Iran really suffered as a result of the sanctions ahead of the JCPOA, but the breakthrough in the discussions only happened when the American side acknowledged the Iranian right to enrich. That was extremely important because if it wasn’t on the table, then the supreme leader probably would have ended the discussions.

While the sanctions played a role under Obama, during Trump they were a hopeless cause. Because (a) you didn’t have Russian support, (b) you didn’t have Chinese support, and (c) the Iranians already knew how to cope with the maximum pressure campaign. They already established a well-oiled system to bypass the sanctions. I’m not saying that they’re not suffering as a result of the sanctions. Together with COVID and the infrastructure problems they have, they are indeed suffering. But I think they now believe that they can withstand this pressure and can keep their heads above water by opening new markets in Asia and by working with the Chinese. As a result, the maximum pressure campaign has made no difference.

People tend to talk about how the US exited from the agreement and then Iran moved forward with [uranium] enrichment. This is what happened. But one other important side effect was that Rouhani was tremendously weakened. In the 2017 election against Raisi, Rouhani won in a landslide. Why? Because he promised the Iranian public that they would see tangible earnings from the JCPOA. But then Trump decided to leave the agreement, and this significantly weakened Rouhani, not only in the eyes of the Iranian population but also in the eyes of the supreme leader.

We can say a lot of bad things about Iran, but they kept their part of the agreement.

Everything started going haywire when Trump left the agreement. Initially, Rouhani tried not to violate the deal. He took only very limited steps. But when he became so weakened and understood that nothing would change, he decided to break every restriction that had been placed on the regime.

Would that possibly be giving the US too much credit for what’s happening in Iran? Or is it really playing that big of a role?

I think [the US withdrawal] was extremely important. Rouhani brought a significant change in Iran. He was a person from within that thought about the ways to save the Iranian Revolution. That was really important to him. I agree that people tend to exaggerate the US role in world events, but regarding the JCPOA, it had such a negative effect.

You mentioned the system Iran has put in place in order to cope with the sanctions. So what interest does Iran now have to return to the nuclear deal if it has seen that it can withstand economic pressure?

That’s a good question. Unlike Rouhani, Raisi doesn’t think that his first goal is to return to the JCPOA. He understands the importance of the JCPOA but believes that even if there is no return, he can cope with the backlash through the economy of resistance, and together with China, withstand the pressure.

Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate in Iran’s presidential elections, waves to the media after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, June 18, 2021 (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

So if the US is willing to compromise on a lot, he wouldn’t mind returning to the deal, but only if it will be on Iran’s terms. That’s why a return to the JCPOA will require the US to compromise, and a lot.

What does US compromise look like?

No extension of the agreement past its current terms. No discussion of other issues like restrictions on Iran’s precision missile program or on Iranian malign activity in the region. The US will have to give some sort of assurance to the Iranians that it will not withdraw from the agreement in the future. This will be very difficult to give because it won’t be a treaty.

The Iranians will probably have to dismantle or dilute all enrichment progress they have made since after the JCPOA was signed. But this would not be a big deal for Iran because they are getting close to the end of the agreement’s restrictions anyways. But the US will have to lift all sanctions, not only nuclear ones. If not, Iran will feel it can withstand the pressure.

You say the Americans are going to have to show much more flexibility than they are currently showing in order for the deal to be revived. On what specific areas will they have to show flexibility?

I estimate that the Americans will be willing to take the “first step,” i.e., remove at least some of the sanctions as a show of good faith even before Iran does anything in the nuclear field. In addition, the US waived including additional issues in the talks that were not in the agreement. Moreover, it will have to commit to not interfering, and even encourage countries to invest in Iran, namely the Gulf states.

Sounds like the US has no leverage here.

The US is in a very tough spot. I don’t think that they have a Plan B. You can speak about Plan B as being more sanctions because they won’t actually attack Iran. But which kind of sanctions [can you levy against Iran] without China? They are desperate right now and don’t really want to impose any new sanctions because doing so will make it more difficult for Iran to return to the agreement.

Was there anything the Biden administration could have done differently?

In hindsight, I think they could have exploited Rouhani to return immediately to the agreements with no discussion whatsoever while he still had time left in office [in August]. I’m not sure this could’ve been doable because it took time for the new American administration to [get its bearings].

At this point, it’s irrelevant though. Now, they’re facing a much more extreme regime that thinks it can withstand the pressure. There will not be any, what we call “longer and stronger agreement” because if the US continues adopting this approach, there won’t be any agreement whatsoever.

US President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 Omicron variant, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 29, 2021, in Washington, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

But “longer and stronger” referred to the subsequent agreement that the Biden administration is hoping to sign after it returns to the JCPOA.

That won’t happen. The supreme leader will not accept that in a million years.

The supreme leader really felt that he was fooled by Rouhani and that the deal that he agreed to in 2015 was a significant compromise. We tend not to see it that way, but from the Iranian perspective, this was the case. So the idea of convincing him to make additional compromises is out of the question.

The supreme leader is also much stronger today than he was when the agreement was signed. Back then, all of the cards were in Rouhani’s favor. Now things have changed. The negotiators are not Zarif. And Raisi, of course, is not Rouhani. So the US will have to work very hard just to convince them to return to the existing deal.

The Israeli government makes the same argument.

But what other option do you have? Assuming you’re the US, you definitely don’t want confrontation with Iran, especially when you’re trying to pivot to Asia. If there’s no agreement, they’ll try to impose more sanctions to convince the Iranians to come back to the table, but they’re not going to forgo the diplomatic routes because this is the only way that they can get Iran back in the agreement.

You don’t think the US — in the case of a return to the JCPOA — could convince the world powers to reimpose sanctions on Iran, rather than allowing the deal’s sunsets to kick in?

Not China and Russia. I don’t see that happening. They would only follow the US down this route if Iran made severe violations of the deal.

Then what’s the Russian and Chinese interest in having a deal at all?

They want to block Iran from reaching a nuclear bomb, but they aren’t interested in doing the US’s bidding. They feel that the US put them in this problem by leaving the deal, so now the US has to be the one to fix it. Remember that China and Iran just signed a strategic pact. So can you see China going against its new strategic ally because the US asked? I doubt it.

Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, leaving the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ after the closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna on April 16, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran hold their talks. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

So what is the Israeli position right now?

I think it’s unclear because you can hear Defense Minister Gantz talking about the importance of the JCPOA. You can hear Maj. Gen. Kelman talking about the diplomatic route. And you hear Bennett talking against the JCPOA. So I don’t really know what the stance is. But it’s kind of irrelevant because Israel’s ability to influence the negotiation is slim to none.

Why is that the case?

Israel is still thinking in terms of zero enrichment [of uranium] in Iran. That’s like talking about achieving a COVID infection rate of zero. It’s no longer relevant, but Israel still is adopting this position.

Do you see Israel ever amending its position?

Israel is caught in a policy toward Iran in which no one has the political maneuverability to think differently, and I don’t see anyone changing this because then they don’t want to be considered a “lefty.”

On the one hand, you say that there’s no political space for an Israeli leader to take a different position. On the other hand, you’re saying that it’s hard to figure out where the current government stands as Gantz is talking about the value of the deal. So which is it? Is there a difference between the current government and the previous one?

Well, you hear Gantz talking differently, but at the end of the day, I don’t see some sort of strategic shift with this new government.

Couldn’t one argue that the leader of Israel doesn’t have the luxury of taking anything but the most conservative approach toward Iran given the belief that it represents an existential threat?

You can make a lot of arguments, but at the end of the day, I unfortunately don’t see anyone in the upper echelons of Israel really changing the policy. Maybe they’ll think differently behind closed doors, but publicly they can’t afford to be seen as someone that is like Chamberlain in 1938. That’s how deep this thinking goes in Israel.

Illustrative: Neville Chamberlain, left, and Hitler sealing the Munich pact in September 1938. (Public Domain)

I was going to ask you what you think Israel should do now, but you seem to believe that it doesn’t matter what it does.

It doesn’t matter. Look, you see that Israel’s threatening to use force. But I think it’s irrelevant. Because bombing Iran now [wouldn’t prevent it from reaching a bomb]. As for sanctions, you need the international community [which Israel doesn’t have]. Israel can [take certain actions], but I doubt that it will have an effect. In the past when the Mossad (reportedly) targeted the nuclear facility in Natanz, it played into Iran’s hands because Iran then challenged and limited inspections there.

At the end of the day, there is no one silver bullet that will solve the Iranian issue. And it’s been proven that when Israel did carry out some attacks, it may have stalled or delayed Iran, but it didn’t solve the problem strategically.

Doesn’t the Mossad try and argue, through leaks in the media, that those Iranian scientists it targets cannot simply be replaced?

They claim that. But the Iranian program is too vast that no one person really holds all the information.

Do you think Kohavi’s position has changed at all? Because today he seems rather hawkish on Iran now that he is IDF chief of staff.

Yes. Look at what he said in opposition to returning to the JCPOA earlier this year.

Right. So how do you explain the shift?

Listen, the good thing about my work is that I deal with the “red side,” not the “blue side,” so I don’t know [chuckles]. Some of these things can happen because of his position or his ambition, I don’t know. I don’t think it was the right position to take, but I’m not in a place to challenge him because I don’t know what led to it. Maybe it was planned. I don’t know.

The bottom line is that Israel has to adopt a realistic approach. I understand the importance of being a right-winger who’s constantly saying “Iran is bad, Iran is bad.” I understand the need for that. But when you are constantly shouting unrealistic demands, then you won’t be considered to be someone who can really contribute to the international debate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a placard showing a suspected Iranian atomic site while delivering a speech at the United Nations during the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2018, in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)

Is that what it felt like to be working at the Israeli Embassy in Washington when it was being run by former ambassador Ron Dermer, a Netanyahu confidant?

I don’t want to speak about that. I have things to say, but not for [publication].

Is there something you’d be able to share more generally about your time in Washington, where it seems that you once again held a position at odds with the one the government was adopting?

When you’re a soldier, it doesn’t matter because you will always present the official government position.

At no point does it matter? You eventually stepped down. Was that the reason?

Well, even before I left for the States, the army told me that I was going to retire afterward. But when I finished my posting there, they told me that they had changed their mind and wanted me to stay on. At that point, I told them I preferred to retire, partially because I wanted to say what I truly believed. You could do this behind closed doors, but you could never override the decision on the outside because you’re still a soldier, and I accepted that.

I felt it was important for me to move on and write things publicly that I truly believe, without having to worry about any constraints that I might have. I’m saying now what I’ve believed, not for the past day or two, but since I’ve started dealing with the Iranian issue.

I now have the ability to add some sense to the discussion. It’s not only me, and there are others in Israel doing this, but I think these are important things that need to be said — that we need to be realistic and that some of the declarations being made are not realistic.

Like what?

Like saying things such as, “Israel can protect itself by itself.” Yes, theoretically, it’s true. But let’s assume that we attack Iran. We’ll subsequently find ourselves in a war on our northern border. Do you think that we can wage this war alone without help from the Americans? I doubt it.

So yes, we can say for political reasons that “we’ll defend ourselves by ourselves,” but practically it’s not accurate. It’s not like we can do whatever we want. To say, ‘We’ll always reserve the right to act independently’ — yeah, I agree with that too, but do you think we could act independently without our biggest ally? It doesn’t work like that. It’s too complex.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AFP)

Was it frustrating feeling like your views weren’t getting through to the decision-makers?

Yes, it was frustrating, but I tried to focus on describing what was happening on the “red side,” hoping that it would influence the decision-makers, and I thought that influencing the military’s position was extremely important.

When Kohavi tells the cabinet that there is real change taking place in Iran and when Eisenkot tells the cabinet that the agreement wasn’t entirely bad, I think that’s extremely important.

Israeli officials often argue that Iran has no problem abiding by the deal because once it sunsets it’ll be allowed to rush toward a bomb and have the added benefit of extra funds, thanks to the sanctions relief.

This is a lie. Yes, there are sunset clauses. But even after most of the restrictions are lifted, Iran will still have to face a very intense inspection regime. They will not be able to easily to divert any sort of material [to use for a bomb].

The inspections are not only allowing us to understand what’s happening at their nuclear sites, but they also are acting as a deterrent. Nobody is giving Iran a green light [to enrich uranium after the deal sunsets].

You insist that the agreement doesn’t actually give Iran a green light to enrich uranium once sunset clauses kick in because inspections remain, but what would prevent Iran from blocking those inspectors from entering their nuclear sites?

If Iran blocks the entry of inspectors, it will simply play into the hands of Israel because then the international community will find it difficult to sit idly by. The inability to verify what is happening at the Iranian nuclear sites will be one of the significant catalysts for a dramatic exacerbation of pressure on Iran. A large part of the restrictions on the nuclear agreement will indeed be removed in the coming years, but the supervision that deters Iran and warns against the developing enriched material will be maintained for another 25 years.

So what, then, were the flaws of the agreement?

There were two main flaws: One was that the sunset clauses were very limited. Instead of 15 years, they could have insisted on 50 years. I’m not sure that the Iranians would have agreed, but they could have played with the numbers. The other flaw was allowing Iran to continue with its research and development. Once the US left the agreement, they were able to advance very quickly toward nuclear capabilities because of the research and development they did during the agreement itself.

The Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) revival talks, in Vienna on November 29, 2021. (VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP)

Can you speculate what would happen if the sides fail to revive the JCPOA?

If there is no deal — meaning that the talks hit a standstill — this won’t happen in a week or two. It will be back and forth in Vienna like we had in Geneva [ahead of the 2015 deal]. It will take some time, but let’s assume that eventually, the US side says, ‘Enough. There’s not going to be any agreement,’ or the Iranian side says the same. What likely happens next is that the Iranians continue enriching uranium, while being careful not to cross any important threshold, like the 90% enrichment. They will aggressively block any attempt to thwart their efforts, will work with China to continue bypassing sanctions, and work with countries in Asia and Africa in order to build some sort of alternative coalition.

We can say for political reasons that ‘we’ll defend ourselves by ourselves,’ but practically it’s not accurate.

Meanwhile, the US will be forced to impose new sanctions, but these sanctions will still be designed not to kill any future possibility of returning back to the negotiation table. If this does not happen eventually, then there will be probably some sort of a snapback of sanctions, but I think that they will try to avoid that. The Americans are faced with only bad options right now.

How does your experience in the US inform the way that you look at this issue?

I think that Biden has two problems. The first is in Iran, as he faces a different regime that is much more hawkish, etc. But he is also facing a problem from the domestic side because he’s invested so much to push his economic plans through that he’s using up all of his political capital. Assuming that he’s able to get some sort of deal, even if it’s not a treaty, he needs to get some sort of approval from his own party and because the deal will be not be the “longer and stronger” one that many are calling for, he might find that even on the Democratic side, there will be those who will be reluctant to support it.

There’s no possibility, in the absence of an agreement, of a static period of bubbling tension that doesn’t boil over?

I think that Israel and Iran are on a collision course. The Tanf base attack is a major deal. You had militias backed by Iran attacking Americans in Syria in response to what they claimed was an Israeli attack on their forces. There was the attack on the Mercer Street ship. This shows how irritated the Iranian side is with the Americans. Something in their calculus changed. They are becoming increasingly more aggressive, unlike in the past.

Iran will try and show that no matter what is going on on the nuclear side, nobody can challenge it on the regional side. It will be very important for them to emphasize that. They have become very emboldened and are further entrenching themselves in Syria as Israel tries to combat those efforts. We might find ourselves, because of the new Iranian leadership, in some sort of confrontation. We must understand this, because things are changing in Iran and moving very fast.

So there’s nothing Israel can do at this point?

No. And it’s obvious what Israel is trying to do — trying to signal the possibility of a military strike and trying to threaten Iran, saying that we can defend ourselves with our own capabilities and trying to expose Iran’s malign activities in the region, like the UAVs, etc. I understand what they’re trying to do, but I suspect that its impact will be very limited.

Iran will only change its strategy if, and only if, it feels like the regime is in real jeopardy. And the Iranians believe that the only country capable of really threatening them is the US, not Israel. The only thing threats from Israel will do is push us toward some sort of confrontation.

Unlike Israel’s strike on the nuclear plants in Iraq or in Syria, a strike on Iran would be different not only because it has multiple fortified enrichment bases and compounds, rather than singular reactors. One other important difference is the fact that the Iranians are going to retaliate. It will be an opening for an escalation that might lead to an all-out war.

The Americans are not going to attack Iran either because doing so would also spark a regional war. Remember what happened in January before Trump ended his tenure and there were all of these discussions that were later published in the press about Trump wanting to bomb Iran and [US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark] Milley telling him that it would lead to war. The Americans are not stupid.

But did Iran really retaliate against the previous assassinations and attacks?

In the case of [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem] Soleimani, they fired missiles at the Ayn Al Asad base, trying to kill American soldiers, and they continued pushing their Shiite militias. The response also has not concluded. Khamenei’s dream is to get the US out of Iraq entirely as revenge for the assassination, which is why we’re seeing the continued activity of the Shiite militias against American forces there.

But you cannot compare the assassination of Soleimani by the US to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites. One of the reasons Hezbollah is so powerful is to bolster Iranian deterrence from such an attack. This is one of the reasons [the group] exists. Therefore, a public attack on Iran will require a response from the [Lebanese] organization. In light of the deep connection between Iran and Hezbollah, can Israel risk assuming that there won’t be a response to its attack on Iran? The answer is no.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second from left, shakes hands with Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, September 15, 2015. (Pool/Iranian Presidency Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

You’ve characterized the Israeli policy on Iran as a failure, but given the fact that you’ve also argued that Israel has no ability to really influence Iran, why was it a failure?

It’s a failure because I think we could have influenced the [2015] agreement with a more realistic approach. It is a failure because when we carry out preliminary attacks, it only encouraged the regime to put obstacles in front of inspections that are critical to deterring Iran from transforming its civilian nuclear program to a military one. It’s a failure because we pushed the US side to leave the agreement when there are no other options. At the end of the day, the US is 10,000-15,000 kilometers away from Iran. We are 2,000 kilometers from Iran. We’re the ones stuck with the problem.

The bottom line is that Israel has never been in a worse place against Iran.

Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen says otherwise.

The actions that Israel took when he was head of the Mossad did not help. At the end of the day, they only led Iran to accelerate its efforts. When you carry out a strike when the program is at its earlier stages, you delay the project by half a year. But when you strike a program that is more advanced, you’re only able to delay by a week.

In 2009 and 2010 a country in the Middle East — according to foreign media reports — was responsible for taking out a number of Iranian nuclear scientists. Did this prevent Iran from reaching 10,000 centrifuges? No, it didn’t. You’ll tell me that it delayed [the progress]. But delayed until when? The Iranians are looking two or three years ahead. We have all of these impressive tactical successes that were used to push the US to leave the agreement, but what did we get from that?

Iranian protesters burn Israeli and US flags in their annual anti-Israeli Al-Quds, Jerusalem, Day rally in Tehran, Iran, June 8, 2018. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

When you look at Israel’s policy vis a vis Iran and what Israel tried to do to prevent a nuclear program, you see a colossal failure.

So now even the military and intelligence worlds in Israel don’t understand the Iranians?

Correct! I think they don’t understand this. They don’t understand the nuances. Iran is not a monolith. [Former hardline Parliament Speaker Ali] Larijani is not like Raisi. And I’m sorry, but they don’t wake up in the morning and think about how to destroy Israel. It doesn’t work like that in Iran. But we’re imprisoned [by the politics of this all], and everything gets mixed up.

In Israel, when the Iranian president is moderate, they tell you that he’s weak and a puppet. When the president is an extremist, they say that he decides everything and eats cake after ordering people to their deaths. It’s a basic misunderstanding of the Iranian system.

Because at the end of the day it’s not just about pushing them back, further from a bomb, but also strengthening those in the regime who believed in the agreement. Now, we’ve found ourselves in a catastrophe, which could lead to war.

How do you respond to those who say that you’ve done so much to study and understand the other side that you’re believing Iran’s talking points when they are actually excuses. Maybe you’ve lost the perspective necessary to be able to take a step back and really challenge Iran.

I’m doing what everyone needs to be doing and that is understanding how Iran thinks, rather than projecting our own way of thinking onto the enemy. One of the main problems in our research of Iran is that we do not understand Iran.

What’s worse, we make incorrect working assumptions about Iranian goals and strategy based on very shaky knowledge that rests primarily on our understanding of Iran’s activities in the region.

They don’t wake up in the morning and think about how to destroy Israel. It doesn’t work like that in Iran.

No single body is responsible for Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria, and the regime’s goals abroad are not the same as its goals at home. It can be active in the region while being passive with its nuclear program at home and vice versa. This miscalculation is likely what will lead to a conflict between the two countries.

I saw the “blue side.” I saw the “red side.” And I think that through the adoption of a failed policy, we’ve put ourselves in a situation with Iran that is the direst that it’s ever been.

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