Mossad chief: Iran definitely behind attacks on Gulf oil sites, embassy in Iraq
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Mossad chief: Iran definitely behind attacks on Gulf oil sites, embassy in Iraq

In extensive speech, Yossi Cohen warns of threat posed by Tehran enriching uranium past limits set by 2015 nuclear agreement

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen speaking at the Cyber Week Conference at Tel Aviv University where he was presented with the Cyber Week Award for Achievement in Cyber, June 24, 2019  (Chen Galili)
Mossad chief Yossi Cohen speaking at the Cyber Week Conference at Tel Aviv University where he was presented with the Cyber Week Award for Achievement in Cyber, June 24, 2019 (Chen Galili)

The head of the Mossad intelligence service declared unequivocally on Monday that Iran was responsible for a series of strikes on oil facilities and ships in the Persian Gulf in recent months, as well as an attack on the Bahraini embassy in Baghdad last week.

“I say to you, with certainty, based on the best sources of both Israeli and Western espionage, that Iran is behind these attacks. They were approved by Iranian leadership and carried out, in large part, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies,” Yossi Cohen said, speaking at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center’s Herzliya Conference.

Iran has been accused by the United States and other countries in the Gulf of being directly or indirectly responsible for the attacks on the oil facilities, including most recently on two tankers in the waters off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last month.

Cohen’s comments were the first time the Mossad has publicly accused Iran of being responsible for those attacks and for the violent protests around the embassy in Iraq, which was reportedly carried out by supporters of Iran-backed militias in the country in response to Bahrain hosting a United States-led economic peace conference last week.

This image released by the US Department of Defense on June 17, 2019, and taken from a US Navy helicopter, shows what the Navy says are members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy removing an unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous. (US Department of Defense via AP)

“Despite being different types of targets in different locations, they are part of the same campaign being led by the same figure,” Cohen said.

He accused Tehran of trying “to start a fire” in in the Middle East.

The Mossad chief warned that Iran was extending the range of its activities and had established a 300-person cell inside Africa for that purpose. Cohen also noted that Iran has been accused of conducting and planning a number of terrorist activities inside Europe in recent years.

Cohen rejected claims that Iran was interested in dialogue and diplomacy with the West regarding its nuclear program and destabilizing activities in the region. “Iran is pulling [the world] in the opposite direction,” he said.

The speech by Cohen, who is less camera-shy than his predecessors, was one of his longest and most extensive since he was named to the position in 2016.

In an apparent reference to reported Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria early Monday, the head of the Mossad said Israel was not interested in a conflict with its neighbor.

“But we can’t agree to Syria becoming a staging ground for Iranian forces or forces operated by it against us. We can’t agree to Syria becoming a logistics base for transferring weapons to Hezbollah and Lebanon. Israel has taken action in the past four years, overtly and covertly, about which only a small amount has been published, in order to block the entrenchment and the production lines of precision-guided munitions,” he said.

Explosions seen near Damascus on July 1 2019. Syria says Israeli jets hit targets in Damascus and Homs (Screencapture/Twitter)

“Thanks to this effort, I believe the Iranians will reach the conclusion that it’s not worth it for them.”

According to Cohen, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Syria have started moving their forces farther from the border with Israel in a bid to avoid further strikes by the Israeli military.

“Iran and Hezbollah are asking to move their bases to northern Syria, an area that they mistakenly believe will be difficult for us to reach. In addition, they are establishing bases and precision missile factories in Iraq, to the east, and Lebanon, to the west,” he said.

Israel has for years warned that Iran and Hezbollah were attempting to establish factories in Lebanon to produce precision-guided missiles, which would present a far greater threat to Israel than the less advanced projectiles that currently fill the terror group’s arsenals.

Exceeding nuclear limits

The Mossad chief noted that Iran was on track to exceed the limits on uranium enrichment set by the 2015 nuclear deal (shortly after his speech Tehran announced that it had indeed exceeded that limit), known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Since US President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal last year, Tehran has threatened to begin enriching uranium to levels and quantities beyond the agreement.

In this file photo taken on February 25, 2009, Iranian technicians walk outside the building housing the reactor of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in the Iranian port town of Bushehr, 1,200 kilometers south of Tehran. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP Files/AFP)

“The threat is that Iran will step up the enrichment and the amounts. Imagine if Iran gets military-grade uranium and then an actual bomb,” Cohen said.

“The Middle East and, I think, the world will look different if this happens, so the world can’t allow this to happen,” he added.

The Mossad chief dismissed claims that Iran’s nuclear program was for peaceful purposes, like medicine.

“There is nothing innocent in Iran’s actions in general and in its nuclear project in particular,” he said. “All claims that the enriched uranium is for research or power are a total lie.”

Cohen lauded his service for conducting a 2018 operation to steal what Israel said was Iran’s secret nuclear archive, containing the Islamic Republic’s mothballed plans to construct a nuclear weapon.

The Mossad chief said six Mossad agents — two women and four men — would be receiving the 2019 Israel Security Prize for their work in conducting the operation.

“In James Bond movies, one person saves the world at the last minute again and again. In the Mossad, it’s groups of men and women,” he said.

Rare opportunity

In his wide-ranging speech, Cohen also said his intelligence service had identified a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach a regional peace agreement.

“We created a task force that is focused on the field of foreign policy and strategy that is meant to advance [the cause of peace] with the various tools at the disposal of the Mossad and outside it,” he said.

“The Mossad has identified at this time a rare opportunity — perhaps the first in the history of the Middle East — to reach a regional understanding that would lead to an inclusive regional peace agreement.”

According to Cohen, this opportunity comes from shared interest with countries throughout the region in fighting Iran and Islamic terror groups, like the Islamic State, and from the close relations with the White House and the Kremlin.

“This creates a window of opportunity that is perhaps once-in-a-lifetime,” he said.

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