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Shabtai Shavit (YouTube screenshot)
Shabtai Shavit (YouTube screenshot)
Interview

Former Mossad chief: Iran can’t be stopped in nuke bid, but can be deterred

Shabtai Shavit, an Iran expert who led the agency 1989-96, offers a sometimes shocking series of assessments and recommendations aimed at ensuring Israel’s safety and survival

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Mossad chiefs don’t tend to give interviews. Certainly not while in the post and, in many cases, hardly ever even after they’ve retired. Shabtai Shavit, the seventh of the 12 Mossad directors to date — whose term extended from his 1989 appointment by Yitzhak Shamir, through Yitzhak Rabin’s second stint as prime minister, to Shimon Peres’s brief post-assassination premiership — is a case in point. Never mind media silence, Shavit wasn’t even publicly identified as the head of the Mossad until after he had stepped down in 1996.

Some years later, I managed to speak to Shavit briefly about a particular obsession of mine: the question of who orchestrated the 1989 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in midair over Lockerbie, Scotland, with the loss of 270 lives. By now ensconced as the director of the Maccabi health fund, he politely but briefly brushed aside my queries, turning the question back on me and asking mildly, “Wasn’t it the Libyans?” for all the world as though the worst act of terrorism ever carried out in Britain, which occurred mere months before he took over the Mossad, hadn’t interested him too much.

Now, though, Shavit has a book out. Published in Hebrew in 2018, his “Head of the Mossad” will be out in English in September, and this most taciturn of ex-Israeli security chiefs is finally amenable to a lengthier conversation.

Shabtai Shavit pictured beyond Israel’s borders in the late 1960s (Courtesy)

Neither in his book nor in person, however, has Shavit forsaken a lifetime’s discipline. “Head of the Mossad” would have been subject to several rounds of security vetting to ensure that it contains no sensitive information. But Shavit, 80, who among other roles as he rose through the service spent two-and-a-half years living in Iran, has not written an operations memoir. Eschewing whatever revealing tales of spying derring-do he may be able to tell, he focuses instead largely on doctrine and assessment, as the book’s subtitle has it, “In pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel.”

Top row: Former Mossad chiefs from L to R: Danny Yatom, Tamir Pardo, Zvi Zamir, Shabtai Shavit, Nahum Admoni and Efraim Halevy. Bottom row: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and President Reuven Rivlin host a candle lighting ceremony for of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at the President’s residence in Jerusalem on December 18, 2014. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Seated the requisite distance from me at his home in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Shavit is an engaging interviewee, nonetheless, and an outspoken one. He is anything but understated in his assessments of Israel’s incumbent and longest-serving prime minister, and shocking, to these ears at least, in his suggested approach to the near-nuclear Iran. He argues that Israel cannot practically prevent Iran joining the nuclear weapons club — an assessment that, according to foreign reports, one of his successors, incumbent Mossad head Yossi Cohen, seems currently to be doing the utmost to contradict — but that Israel can deter Iran from using the bomb.

Shabtai Shavit and Leah Rabin unveil a monument to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mossad headquarters (Courtesy)

In his narrative, furthermore, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin killed off both the Palestinian peace process, which he is adamant Rabin would have continued despite his dislike of the Oslo framework and detestation of Yasser Arafat, and the effort to forge a deal with president Hafez Assad’s Syria.

But surely, I posited, if Israel had cut a deal with Assad senior, and relinquished the Golan strategic ridge, that concession would have come back to haunt us amid the mayhem and butchery wrought by Hafez’s son Bashar? Shavit, characteristically, was politely dismissive. The whole subsequent history of Syria would have changed, and therefore my question was “not relevant.”

What follows is an edited transcript of our interview, which was conducted in Hebrew on June 2.

The Times of Israel: It’s evident from the book that you greatly admired Yitzhak Rabin.

Shabtai Shavit: I had good relations with Shamir too. Two people from the opposite ends of the political spectrum. What they had in common was their statesmanship.

I always had the sense that Shamir was terrified of doing anything that might harm Israel.

Rabin was also extremely wary. Of the three prime ministers I worked with, the one I worked most briefly with, Peres, [for a few months] after the Rabin assassination, was the only one prepared to take risks without thinking all the way through — though of course it always came from a good place, not a desire to cause damage. He would dream something up, run to the end, and not always think it through… The other two were extremely wary.

If Rabin hadn’t been assassinated, would the process with the Palestinians have ended differently? You write that he detested Arafat.

That’s a theoretical question. I can’t give an empirical answer. I can assess that if Rabin had lived, the process would have continued. That estimation is based on the fact that in his second term, from 1992, the understanding had ripened with him that the only way to fundamentally change the situation, and not to continue to live by the sword, is a diplomatic process: Since Israel is so strong — militarily, economically, internationally — it can allow itself to take risks. I’m quoting almost directly the words I heard from him. So we had to do whatever we could, including a readiness for concessions, in order to attain peace, because peace would be a strategic change.

US President Bill Clinton looks on as King Hussein of Jordan, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, right, sign a declaration on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on July 25, 1994, ending 46 years of hostilities between the two countries. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)

Very few people remember this, but by 1993, a year after he was elected, he was running three simultaneous diplomatic processes — with the Palestinians, the Jordanians and Syria.

If he hadn’t been assassinated, the Oslo process would have continued — albeit possibly at a slower pace. He was dragged to Oslo. He didn’t lead that. He found himself cheated; they hid things from him; it was not reported to him honestly by Peres and his group. He didn’t really love the process. But he would have let it continue.

With Jordan, he reached a deal [and you write that this is the process for which he should have won the Nobel Peace Prize]…

And with Syria he did not — because Assad was not prepared to compromise and agree to a viable formula.

Your assessment is that Arafat could have been a partner. Yet until [and after] the murder of Rabin, the terror continued; public support for the process was collapsing; Rabin could not have been satisfied with what was happening…

He didn’t love the process — that’s internal information that I was a witness to. I was working very closely with him.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat before a news conference September 25, 1994, at the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

But it’s my impression — I can’t say it’s the ultimate truth — that he would have let the process continue. He attributed greater importance to the Palestinian process, if I had to rank them, than to Syria.

If he had lived, all three processes would have continued. Having the US government as a partner in a process with Syria doesn’t happen every day. He would not have let it die.

He would tell me, ‘I won’t leave a single stone unturned in the effort to get positive results.’

A deal with Syria could have been very dangerous, no? We’d have left the Golan, and who knows what would have happened [given the horrors that have unfolded there under Assad’s son Bashar].

That was in 1993; we’re in 2020. This is all hypothetical. To say we would have lost out from the deal is not relevant. If you don’t take risks, you get nowhere. Rabin was prepared to take risks, but not for the sake of it.

Then-US president Bill Clinton laughs with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, October 27, 1994. Clinton arrived in Israel after a trip to Syria where he met with president Hafez Assad in an attempt to further the Middle East peace process. Later, speaking to the Knesset, Clinton said of Syria, ‘Its leaders understand it is time to make peace.’ (AP/David Brauchli)

So if the process with Syria had continued, the whole history of Syria would have been different? Not just Israel-Syria, but Syria itself?

Absolutely.

I had a small but crucial role in the Syrian process. After the Assad-Clinton meeting in Geneva [in January 1994], Rabin called me, and told me, I can’t make a definitive assessment, black and white, over the concessions Assad would be ready to make in return for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. I’m getting all kinds of information from numerous sources; it’s not creating a solid picture.

And then he sent me to King Hassan of Morocco to ask that the king check with Assad what he is prepared to concede. The king was asked to hide the fact that we were the ones who were asking, and to come up with a different reason to ask. He had a plausible reason — he was among the ‘guardians of the holy places in Jerusalem.’ He was involved in the Middle East processes. He dispatched my Moroccan opposite number to Assad.

Outgoing Mossad director Shabtai Shavit (left) hands over to his successor Danny Yatom at a 1996 ceremony at the Prime Minister’s Office (GPO)

Before he reported back to the king, [this Moroccan intelligence chief] came here. I took him to Rabin and he gave Rabin a long, detailed, verbal report. What convinced Rabin that Assad was not ready was that the Moroccan official came back with the famous sentence from Assad: I want to dip my feet in the Sea of Galilee. The Moroccan said he heard this directly from Assad. And that convinced Rabin that Assad wasn’t ready, wasn’t yet ready.

But that doesn’t mean Rabin would have abandoned the effort. He wouldn’t.

Let’s go back to the Palestinians. No talks for years. An American proposal. And now the Israeli government is talking about unilateral annexation [of the 30 percent of the West Bank, including all the settlements and the Jordan Valley, allocated to Israel in US President Trump’s plan].

There won’t be annexation.

I’m saying something terrible. I’m saying our prime minister is not statesmanlike. I’m sorry

The decisions Netanyahu makes, especially now that he’s got one foot in the courtroom [where he is on trial for alleged corruption], are tactical decisions that relate to his trial. Even decisions he’s made in the course of the coronavirus crisis. I’m saying something terrible. I’m saying our prime minister is not statesmanlike. He is not making decisions as a statesman. But I’m sorry. I really think so.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting schoolkids in the West Bank settlement of Elkana on the first day of school, September 1, 2019. (Courtesy)

Ask me to prove it? I can’t give you algorithmic proof, laboratory test results. But I’ve known this client since God knows when.

After he was first elected [in 1996], I had completed my term. He asked me to come and work for him. He wanted me to pull together the entire Iranian issue. I agreed to do so part-time. I was running the Maccabi health fund. Why didn’t it come to pass? That’s Bibi.

I said to him, I know how the defense hierarchy works. The system today, in 1996 — of military intelligence, Mossad, Shin Bet, the Defense Ministry, the Atomic Energy Commission and so on — is a mixture [of hierarchies] that requires that my letter of appointment — which I’d prepared — be signed off both by you, the prime minister, and the defense minister, Itzik Mordechai. Without the defense minister’s signature, I’d be ignored by the Defense Ministry, by the IDF… That’s the way it is.

He wouldn’t have Mordechai sign the letter of appointment. It would have reduced him. So we had no deal. That was 1996…

Today, with every issue he deals with, he creates panic, to enlarge the descriptions of the danger, so that afterwards he can say, Who got you out of this? Me. Without sharing [the credit] with anybody else.

And as regards annexation?

I don’t want to discount the matter of his legacy, Netanyahu’s place in history, as a consideration for him. Everyone wants to be remembered. But that is not his first priority. In his order of priorities, Number 1 is how he can push off, shut down the trial.

After Trump came out with the Deal of the Century, he saw it as a work tool — for Bibi, not for the State of Israel. To this day, he hasn’t shared [his specific annexation plans] with [Defense Minister] Gantz and [Foreign Minister] Ashkenazi. He hasn’t even shown them the maps.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead a weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Bibi had one-on-one meetings [last week] with [Trump envoy Avi] Berkowitz. And Gantz and Ashkenazi had separate discussions with him. One American representative, with one agenda, and they’re speaking to him separately!

He was the trigger for all this [annexation idea]. At the time he thought, This will work well for me. But since he raised it, time passed, all kinds of things happened, including the coronavirus.

You can say a lot about Bibi, but he’s no fool. He can assess situations better than others. The political situation is fragile; the government can fall any day. The economy is in the worst crisis I can recall. The virus isn’t done; we’re in a new wave. Our international standing — except in the US — is among the worst for decades. In November there are US elections, and if we look at the polls, [Joe] Biden will be the next president. And Biden has already said, Bibi, with me, there won’t be annexation.

Bibi knows all this. In my estimation, he’s looking for a tree to climb down. He’s looking for someone to blame.

Easy to find.

That’s where he’s headed.

To blame Gantz?

He’ll find a way.

Let’s talk about Iran a little. You write as though it’s too late — it’s a done deal that they’ll reach the stage of declaring that they’re a nuclear power.

Let me first say I’m speaking on these issues not as a politician and not as a public figure, but as an intelligence officer. An intelligence officer who supplies the decision-makers, supplies his boss, not only with intelligence but also with assessments and even recommendations. I am not allowed to look for best-case scenarios, positive scenarios. I have no choice. I must go to the worst-case scenarios. If things turn out better, everybody benefits.

So the worst-case scenario is that the Iranians won’t give up on their decision, their determination, to attain an independent nuclear weapons capability.

This photo released Thursday, July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Their rationale is not necessarily, ‘I want to have a bomb in order to drop it on Tel Aviv.’ Their prime rationale says, We need to attain immunity, and the moment we have nuclear weapons, we’ve attained immunity. Nobody will mess with us.

Look at the case of North Korea. Clinton tried. In the Bush era, they never stopped talking about it… And yet North Korea not only kept its capabilities in the nuclear and missile fields, but it’s continuously working on new technologies in those areas.

In this June 6, 2018 frame grab from the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, three versions of domestically built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from Natanz, an Iranian uranium enrichment plant. (IRIB via AP, File)

The Iranians are determined to create immunity for themselves, and when they talk of immunity it’s not only against Israel. It’s also against the US, and [Turkey’s President] Erdogan. But more than anything, it’s against Iraq. They didn’t emerge with flying colors from the eight-year [Iran-Iraq] war [in the 1980s]. The results of the war were the trigger for the Iranians to make the strategic decision to go for the whole gamut of non-conventional weapons — not only nuclear. Nuclear, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, biological, cyber… Cyber too, in professional terminology, is part of the non-conventional armory.

If Iran gets the bomb, it also beats Turkey. Their leaders meet. They visit. It’s all lovely. But basically those two powers are competing for Middle East hegemony.

And then there’s Israel. Again, I’m not one of those who say that the moment they have a bomb they will physically threaten Israel’s existence. No. But a state with the bomb can use it to create all kinds of axes of influence to advance its interests.

Do you see a situation where the first [country] to use a nuclear weapon since Hiroshima would be the great power that is the State of Israel? Hard to see. So the fallback is to create real deterrence

When Pakistan developed its bomb, it didn’t have the money. It was an impoverished state. They went to the Saudis. And the Saudis gave them the money to fund their nuclear project. And in return, they owe the Saudis.

When you have the bomb, you can use it to create new networks of connections, to enlarge your influence.

So while I don’t share the opinion that the moment the Iranians have the bomb, they’ll physically use it, it elevates them — in terms of influence and status. It helps their strategic capabilities, in the region and beyond.

Where does that leave us, and when should we do what?

The Obama agreement [the 2015 JCPOA, intended to rein in Iran’s nuclear activity] bought us 15 years, in which all kinds of things could happen. Now, with Trump having withdrawn from the agreement, the Iranians have enough enriched uranium for at least one bomb, and in a few months…

They can break out?

Yes, break out. Hold a press conference and tell the world, We have it. And nobody is going to say, I want to check, in order to be convinced.

We, in that situation, have to create real deterrence against Iran.

An Israeli F35 I takes part in the “Blue Flag” multinational air defense exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 11, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

We’re not going to be the crazy kid in the neighborhood. We don’t need to announce to the Iranians, to the world, Listen, we won’t let the Iranians get the bomb. What would that mean: That we’ll embark upon a military operation to destroy what they have. I don’t think that’s the right policy, because when you threaten, you have to be able to act. Do you see a situation where the first [country] to use a nuclear weapon since Hiroshima would be the great power that is the State of Israel? Hard to see. So the fallback is to create real deterrence.

That means we have to ensure we have the capabilities so that if you [Iranians] go out of your minds one day, and want to use [the bomb] against us, take into account that Iran will cease to exist. The price you will have to pay if you want to utilize that capability against us will be prohibitive.

You’re using cold war terms.

Yes.

And you accept that they will attain the bomb?

Yes. I look around the world, and at the principal players in the world. After the end of the cold war, the world moved toward globalization, toward big blocs, toward agreements to create a stable global network. Today the world is moving in precisely the opposite direction, with the dismantling of all that was achieved in those agreements…

The Chinese are going their way. And the Russians are going their way. And the Americans are going nowhere, certainly under Trump… If he is reelected, that will be a catastrophe for the United States and the free world.

In that situation, do I have the chance to create a situation where there will be international support for me in a military action against Iran?

In your book, you are highly critical of Obama, but even more so of Trump. It’s a dismal picture.

Again, that stems from my position as an intelligence officer. I have to be pragmatic. I can be an idealist, but the ideals can have no place in my assessments.

By the way, the same [strategy of deterrence] goes for Hezbollah. With Hezbollah, we don’t need to initiate, but we must ensure the capability so that if, heaven forbid, it starts launching dozens of missiles into Israel, we go into Lebanon, certainly south Lebanon, and level it.

This needs to be our strategy: First, deterrence. And if deterrence doesn’t work, then act without mercy.

A poster from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s website, May 2020, calling for Israel’s destruction that uses the term “final solution,” which usually refers to the Nazi policy of genocide against Jews during the Holocaust. (via english.khamenei.ir)

So in this very problematic world, with these poor leaders, where does that leave us? How do we survive?

On that point, I add a new element into the discussion: my personal faith. My personal faith says we will survive. I don’t today see any force that can kick us out or invade us or dictate our surrender.

Shabtai Shavit: Head of the Mossad

Let me play devil’s advocate: We’re okay even if  annexation leaves us increasingly bereft of allies, with an isolationist US president? And/or even though the leader of Iran, who you say we should deter with Cold War principles [about mutually assured destruction], is quoted in your book as saying, “My mission on earth is to bring about the destruction of the State of Israel…”?

Between being right and smart, I prefer the second option. I make the smart decisions to survive. Given all that I’ve said, all things being equal, we’ll survive. Is there an element of faith in that? Yes, there’s an element of faith.

Years ago, I asked you about Lockerbie [the blowing up of a Pan Am flight en route from London to New York]. It happened in December 1988, shortly before you took over as Mossad chief. And you told me it was the Libyans. And yet all the evidence seemed to point to the Iranians [avenging the US downing of an Iran Air civilian flight the previous July], using the services of the PFLP-GC [Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command]. So I’m asking you again.

It’s an open secret that it was the Libyans — Gaddafi’s security agencies.

Police and investigators look at what remains of the flight deck of Pan Am 103 in a field in Lockerbie, Scotland, December 22, 1988. (photo credit: AP)

Terror is global. International borders are not significant. When an intelligence organization wants to act in a certain unfamiliar territory, it looks for those who can help it. When Hezbollah wanted to respond to, to avenge, the IDF action that killed [its co-founder Abbas] Musawi, they went to the Iranians, and the Iranians gave them the use of their embassy in Buenos Aires, [and they blew up the Israeli embassy in 1992, killing 29 civilians — 25 Argentinians and 4 Israelis]. Later it became clear to us that the starting point for those who blew up the embassy was in Paraguay…

Why am I saying all this? On Lockerbie, I’m not saying I have all the pieces of the puzzle. I’m not saying that the Libyans didn’t use some Jibril operative, or someone from another organization, in London. These kinds of cooperations do exist in international terror. But who was behind it? Gaddafi.

Staying with Argentina. [Two years after the embassy bombing, a Hezbollah suicide bomber, in an attack commissioned by Iran, blew up the main Jewish community offices, AMIA.] I knew Alberto Nisman [the Argentinian prosecutor who exposed those responsible, and who was found dead with a bullet in his head at his home in 2015] a little. Obviously he was murdered. The claim in a recent Israeli TV documentary Uvda that the Mossad helped Nisman with the investigation — tracing it to Iran…?

If [Israel helped], it was not via the Mossad. If so, it would have been via the Foreign Ministry. But I don’t know…

A vigil in Buenos Aires on the first anniversary of Argentinean prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s death, January 18, 2016. (Omer Musa Targal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The “star” of the TV show [an Israeli security consultant who reportedly gave Nisman incriminating material about Argentina’s former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and her alleged illicit efforts to whitewash Iran] wasn’t a Mossad man at all. He went to Argentina as a security officer at the embassy…

Finally, do you see a future, some day, of a return to normal relations with Iran? You lived there [for two and a half years, early in your Mossad career], albeit a long time ago.

I’ll say a few things. One, the Iranian people are not a homogeneous nation. [Along with the majority Persians] there are some 35 ethnic groups. Lurs, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis, Arabs — you name it. What unifies them is Shiite Islam.

Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, meets family of Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq, during a visit at his home in Tehran, Iran, January 3, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)

Khamenei is an Azeri. He’s not Persian. Yet he is the spiritual leader. That says something about the capacity to control a country that is bigger than Western Europe and has a population [of over 80 million people].

It’s not just him. They’ve built a ruling system where the spiritual leader is at the top, with hierarchies controlled by the religious leaders. And they control the country’s money. Beneath them are two military bodies — what I’ll call the old Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards are an army in every respect. More than that, it’s the Revolutionary Guards, not the army, who control all the non-conventional systems — the chemical and the biological and the nuclear and the missiles.

In this photo from September 22, 2018, members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the capital Tehran. (Stringer/AFP)

Over the past 20 years, I detect a certain change of direction — away from the Revolutionary Guards’ blind subservience and obedience to the religious-spiritual leadership. I see some cracks in this automatic discipline. The Revolutionary Guards have centralized so much power today that they have become the greatest power in the state. They control the economy. They control tourism. They control the construction companies. And here and there, they don’t automatically accept what they hear from the spiritual-religious leadership.

As I look ahead at the long-term trends, I don’t rule out two possibilities.

One, a change in the regime that comes from below — from the civilians, from the opposition, born of the people’s dissatisfaction: The people rise up and change the leadership. I give that a smaller likelihood. I give greater likelihood to the possibility that, down the road, the Revolutionary Guards will change the balance of power. Today, the clerics control the Revolutionary Guards. I don’t rule out the reverse coming to pass — that the Revolutionary Guards will control the clerics. This may sound [improbable] but I don’t rule it out.

And what would the consequences be?

The good news is that you’d be dealing with pragmatists, with rational people.

The bad news is that the power could go to their heads and lead them to make unpleasant decisions.

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