Author interviewsIsrael has so far averted 27 attacks by Iran against Israelis

Israel’s (not-so) secret plan to prevent a nuclear Iran and create a new Middle East

For their new book ‘Target Tehran,’ Ilan Evyatar and Yonah Jeremy Bob interview spymasters, prime ministers and US officials on the shadowy means used to stop an existential threat

Ilan Evyatar (left) and Yonah Jeremy Bob (right) are the authors of 'Target Tehran.' (Courtesy)
Ilan Evyatar (left) and Yonah Jeremy Bob (right) are the authors of 'Target Tehran.' (Courtesy)

On the eve of January 31, 2018, a team of agents under the command of the Mossad broke into a secret warehouse on the outskirts of Tehran and extracted an archive containing tens of thousands of highly classified documents detailing the full record of Iran’s efforts to become a nuclear weapons power.

The revelation of the archive’s contents showed that “Iran had for years been lying to the international community about its nuclear program, falsely claiming that it was only for civilian use,” write Ilan Evyatar and Yonah Jeremy Bob in “Target Tehran: How Israel is Using Sabotage, Cyberwarfare, Assassination — and Secret Diplomacy — to Stop a Nuclear Iran and Create a New Middle East.” The book hit shelves in late September.

Evyatar and Bob claim Israel’s decision to go after Iran’s nuclear archives had been made two years earlier, in January 2016, by then newly appointed Mossad director Yossi Cohen and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the authors, Netanyahu and Cohen wanted evidence that would convince the Trump administration to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration in 2015.

Their book documents a decades-long Mossad-led effort — which has included sabotage and assassinations inside Iran — to prevent the Islamic Republic from becoming a nuclear power.

As part of their research, both authors had extensive access to Cohen, who directed the Mossad until 2021 and who planned and directed many of the operations that are the focus of “Target Tehran,” including much of the secret diplomacy that led to the Abraham Accords.

Bob and Evyatar also had access to former Mossad directors Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, several Israeli prime ministers, many other Israeli intelligence operatives past and present, and numerous American officials from the Trump and Biden administrations.

Bob was born and raised in the United States and now lives in Jerusalem. He is the senior military correspondent and literary editor of The Jerusalem Post.

Evyatar was born in Israel and raised in London. He currently lives in Jerusalem and has worked as a speechwriter, ghostwriter, translator and editor — most recently as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report.

The Times of Israel caught up with Evyatar and Bob in Jerusalem, via Zoom, to speak about their book. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

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)

The Times of Israel: This book opens on January 31, 2018, with details of the infamous heist operation where thousands of documents revealing Iran’s ambitions to become a nuclear power were stolen by the Mossad. What kind of planning was involved in this espionage operation?

Ilan Evyatar: The planning went on for two years. The Mossad had intimate knowledge of the facility. They knew exactly what it looked like. And when they broke in, they knew exactly which safes to cut through and how long they had to conduct the heist. They knew, down to the very last minute, where the guards were. The team in Iran had exactly six and a half hours to find the vast amount of material they needed, load it onto trucks, and make their escape.

Safes inside a warehouse in Shorabad, south Tehran, where Mossad agents discovered and extracted tens of thousands of secret files on Iran’s nuclear weapons program (Prime Minister’s Office)

The book also looks at several instances where Iranian scientists have been murdered, as well as the sabotaging of nuclear facilities inside Iran, all of which are believed to be the work of the Mossad. Why has Iran’s response to these Israeli attacks been so weak?

IE: The Iranians have tried to retaliate. In early September, for example, the current head of the Mossad, David Barnea, said that Israel had stopped 27 attempted attacks by Iranians against Israelis. There have also been attempts by Iranians to harm Israeli businessmen in Cyprus. But for the moment, the Mossad is one step ahead of them.

In November 2020, the Mossad, according to Iran, killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s military nuclear program. Could you speak about the significance of that assassination?

IE: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was one of the fathers of the Iranian nuclear program. One nuclear inspector referred to him as the Robert Oppenheimer of Iran. Fakhrizadeh had an overarching organizational knowledge of the Iranian nuclear program. After he was assassinated, many said the damage was as big for Iran as the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.

The scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, in Tehran, Iran, on November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP); Inset: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

After Soleimani’s assassination on January 3, 2020, the Trump administration took full responsibility. But did the Mossad have any involvement? Did they, for example, share intelligence with the United States that may have helped?

YJB: Clearly, Israel was involved in a number of ways. I got former IDF intelligence chief Tamir Hayman to confirm to me that Israel was very involved in finding information that helped convince the United States to shift their position on taking out Soleimani.

In our book, we also explore the idea that Israeli intelligence gave several cellphone numbers to the CIA in order to be able to track Soleimani to pinpoint his location with the exactitude needed for a drone strike. This matter of cellphones was of critical importance, because in the six hours between his transit from Damascus to Baghdad, Soleimani switched them at least three times, precisely in order to throw off any enemy that was attempting to track him. But, back in Tel Aviv, the Israelis were reportedly passing Soleimani’s numbers on to the US.

We also look into the possibility that Israeli and US intelligence were involved in recruiting people who were involved with the airline Soleimani [was using] before his flight from Damascus to Baghdad, prior to his assassination.

Shiite Muslims demonstrate over the US airstrike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, pictured in the posters, in Karbala, Iraq, January 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

IE: Israel’s alleged assistance on [Soleimani’s assassination] wasn’t out of the blue. Soleimani was a great enemy of Israel. His grand strategy was to construct a “ring of fire” around Israel, mainly by smuggling advanced weapons, in particular rockets and missiles, to Iranian proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. So Israel had a major interest in getting rid of him.

The wreckage of an American airstrike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3, 2020. (Social media)

Another topic you explore in the book is the clandestine work that the Mossad has carried out which helped build diplomatic trust between Israel and the Gulf countries over the last number of years. This eventually made the Abraham Accords possible, as well as Israel’s subsequent establishment of relations with Sudan and Morocco.

A lot has changed, though, since the Hamas-led massacre on Israel on October 7. Is much of the diplomatic groundwork achieved by the Abraham Accords now in jeopardy? How is the Israel-Hamas war going to affect Israel’s relations with signatories to the Accords in the short-to-medium term? Presumably, it has complicated matters.

IE: Relations between Israel and the Abraham Accords countries have remained intact despite the October 7 war. While the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have publicly condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza, both Gulf states have made clear they will not break off ties with Israel. Several UAE officials have said publicly and unequivocally that the “Abraham Accords are here to stay.” In Bahrain, the situation is slightly different; there have been public displays of anger in the kingdom, especially by its restless Shiite majority, and the status of ties is currently ambiguous with both countries’ ambassadors currently recalled under circumstances that are unclear.

YJB: At the same time, however, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the crown prince and prime minister of Bahrain, has publicly condemned Hamas, while Bahraini sources [say] the kingdom has no intention of severing ties with Israel. In the long term, relations between Israel and the Gulf Abraham Accords signatories can be expected to gradually return to normal [if there is not] a major development for the worse in the Gaza war or an escalation to a wider regional conflict.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Prior to October 7, the Biden administration was pushing hard to forge a deal in which Washington would give formal security guarantees to Saudi Arabia and, in return, the Saudis would establish diplomatic ties with Israel. That deal does not look very likely now, though — or at least any time soon. What would it take for that to change? How has the Israel-Hamas war altered that potential relationship between Israel and the Saudis?

YJB: As is the case with Bahrain and the UAE, the Saudis have condemned Israel’s response to the Hamas attack, and in response to growing public anger Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who not long before the October 7 attack said that with every passing day Saudi Arabia and Israel were moving closer) has now called for a ban on weapons exports to Israel.

On the other hand, the tightly controlled Saudi media has been moderate on Israel and has condemned Hamas. US President Joe Biden said that one of the goals of the Hamas attack was to kill the possibility of a Saudi-Israel deal, but while no progress can be expected for the moment, the White House has said that the Saudis will return to normalization talks once the dust has settled.

Illustrative: The delegation from Israel attends the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh on September 11, 2023. (Rania SANJAR / AFP)

If those talks do return to normal, what potential diplomatic obstacles could arise? Specifically, what is the US going to be offering as a carrot to try and get the Saudis back on board to become Israel’s future diplomatic partners?

IE: Once the war is over the US will be looking to push some kind of grand deal and get the two-state solution back on the table. Whatever happens on that front depends very much on the timing of the end of the war and on the government that will be in place in Israel. Handing over any amount of territory to the Palestinians at any point in the foreseeable future or medium term will also deeply depend on how those issues play out.

You write in regards to Iran in the book, “While a direct military strike is the option of last resort, Israel has been preparing itself for exactly that eventuality.” How close are we to such a situation today, especially after October 7, and given the fact that Iran has such close ties to Hamas?

YJB: In the short term, Israel may be distracted from putting as much attention into Iran. But in the medium and longer term, Israel is likely to be readier than ever to attack Iran if the Islamic Republic seeks to cross the nuclear threshold.

In mid-November the Financial Times ran a story quoting one of Iran’s top diplomats, who said that he did not want the Israel-Hamas war to spread further, but also warned Washington that regional conflict could be unavoidable if Israeli attacks on Gaza continue. How are we to read such ambivalent statements?

IE: Iran, as we explain in the book, has mastered the art of double talk. Iran, facing a strong American presence in the region — and with one of its proxy assets, Hamas, close to losing power — has no interest in becoming directly involved in the conflict. The more important question is if and how Israel will strike back at Tehran for its undoubted sponsorship of Hamas, and its use of Hezbollah and the Houthis of Yemen to attack Israel.

Israel and Qatar do not have formal relations. How do you see the relationship between Israel and Qatar developing in the coming weeks and months ahead, especially as Qatar is acting as a mediator between Israel and Hamas?

YJB: Qatar has been effective for the moment in mediating the release of some of the hostages. However, there are growing voices in Israel calling for Doha to no longer be allowed to play a double game. Qatar provides Hamas with considerable financial aid and diplomatic support, and several members of the [Hamas] leadership live in Doha under Qatari patronage. In fact, a senior Israeli foreign ministry official said that once the hostages are released, “We will hold Qatar accountable.”

Target Tehran: How Israel Is Using Sabotage, Cyberwarfare, Assassination – and Secret Diplomacy – to Stop a Nuclear Iran and Create a New Middle East by Yonah Jeremy Bob, Ilan Evyatar

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