The Israeli intelligence officer who really knows what the Iranians are talking about

The Times of Israel meets Major M., an immigrant from Tehran who has been helping the army understand the Islamist regime, and still hopes to return

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Major M at IDF Military Intelligence Directorate's main base north of Tel Aviv (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Major M at IDF Military Intelligence Directorate's main base north of Tel Aviv (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth, an uproar ensued. Had the Iranian president called for genocide — foreshadowing future characterizations of Israel as a germ and a cancer — or had this, as some translators suggested, merely been a poor government rendering of a rather nuanced metaphor, which called more gently for the “occupation regime” to vanish, ever so passively, from the pages of time?

A Talmudic-level discourse ensued. The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele, siding with the co-founder of the Mossadegh Foundation, called the genocidal interpretation “propaganda distortion” that enabled Western hawks to “bracket the Iranian president with Hitler as though he wants to exterminate Jews.” Ethan Bronner of The New York Times, after speaking with translation experts in the US and Iran, ruled that the passive “vanish” was wrong and that, while the word “map” had never been spoken — the quote referred to the pages of time or history — the phrase, in the original Persian, “certainly seems” to contain a similarly destructive intent.

In north Tel Aviv, at IDF Military Intelligence headquarters, one young, Iranian-born Israeli officer, who spent his days interpreting raw intelligence on the Persian desk, could only laugh. After all, that very quote, lifted from Ayatollah Khomeini, had been carefully painted by the regime on the side of the Jewish elementary school he attended in northern Tehran. “It’s the reason I’m sitting here,” he said in an interview.

Major M., who today serves as deputy commander of one of the units in the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, has spent the majority of his service combating Israel’s top security threat, Iran. He is a small part of a significant and seemingly quite successful shift within the Israeli intelligence community, which, after years of following the Arab world, was forced to re-order its priority list and focus on an altogether different foe. Adapting to this shift is quite difficult, said one former Military Intelligence officer. “The language is different. The social, cultural, political mores are different. The history is different. All that changes the context,” he said. “You listen to two people speak and if you don’t have the context, you might not interpret it right.”

Major M.’s story and the role he fulfills in Military Intelligence, which can only be sketched in faint detail, illustrate a small part of a large and still-ongoing pivot that has helped Israel in its diplomatic struggle with Iran, its alleged operations on Iranian soil, its roiling shadow war abroad, and its larger understanding of the changing Middle East.

A memory that starts after the revolution

M. was born, the youngest of four children, in Tehran in 1977. Ayatollah Khomeini, at the time, was in exile in Iraq, sending forth scathing, anti-shah cassette recordings to his native land. M.’s father was a successful businessman, an exclusive distributor of baby bottles. “He worked four hours a week,” said M. “Two hours on Monday and two hours on Wednesday, and that afforded us the good life.”

His mother, as was then common among Iranian women, he explained, stayed at home and raised the family. They were active members of the Jewish community, thriving under the decaying rule of the shah.

Before M. even remembers himself, though, the shah was pried from power, Khomeini was greeted as a savior by millions and the Iran-Iraq War had nearly begun. The new leadership, ill-equipped to run what had been a massive, Western-developed military under the Shah, began drafting all able bodies to its ranks. M.’s brother and many of his cousins, fearing the draft, left for Israel. M. does not remember it, but as a two-year-old he, his sisters and parents accompanied his brother to Israel and dropped him off with relatives in Bat Yam. He and the rest of the family returned to Tehran.

Tehran skyline via Shutterstock
Tehran skyline (Tehran image via Shutterstock)

M. lived in a Jewish neighborhood in the northern part of the capital. When walking around the city, family members kept their Judaism cloaked. They went by common Iranian names and did not give any outward expression to their faith. At home, he said, they kept kosher, observed Shabbat and made their own wine, which was not available for purchase.

“I wouldn’t call it a double life,” he said. “We just lived modestly, not accentuating our Jewish identity.” There were occasional calls in Persian of “Juhud,” he added, “but if you didn’t break the laws and lived by the rules, there was no problem.”

His downstairs neighbor, in fact, was an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and M.’s father, a cantor at one of the synagogues and a leader of the Jewish community, was friendly with him. His father, M. said, always recalls fondly the day that he and the IRGC officer piled into a jeep together to go and look for three elderly Jewish women who were feared dead in a missile attack. “Eighty Muslims died in that attack and the three ladies survived,” M. recalls.

The family’s finances suffered under the ayatollahs, M. said, but remained in far better shape than most. Rice, oil and cigarettes were available for purchase only through government-issued ration cards, or on the black market, but “as a child, it was a good life, excellent. We lacked for nothing.”

The trouble, though, came at school. The students were all Jewish, he explained, as were some of the teachers. The principal and assistant principal, along with most of the school administration, were Muslim. “Their goal,” he said, “was to ensure that you’re not teaching Zionism or going overboard with the Jewish education.”

School days started with communal chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” All of the Jewish students, he recalled, would cheat in the “Death to Israel” chant, replacing the Persian pronunciation of Israel with a similar word, which means “angel of death.” Greeting the students, though, on their way into school, was the Ayatollah Khomeini quote that Ahmadinejad later used.

In sixth grade, during Friday night services, M., disgusted by the statement, found a sharp metal object and scraped away the quote.

One Saturday — sometimes a school day and sometimes not, depending on the generosity of the Education Ministry — the principal lined up the student body for morning assembly. After the customary chanting and the cleanliness inspections by the teachers, the principal went to the front of the hall and told the student body that “an un-Islamic deed had been done… and I know who did it.”

M. was ordered to the front of the hall and beaten in front of everyone. Then he was sent to wait for the principal in his office, where he was beaten again. And then the situation got even worse: The principal told him that his act was not a prank. It was a Zionist act, a product of his education at home, and that it had to be passed on to the state authorities.

The school janitor, a Jew, who had witnessed the affair, saw M.’s mother nearby and called her urgently into the school. The principal charged her with inculcating the children with an anti-Islamic education and insisted that he would report the entire family to the authorities. Only after three or four hours of arguing and pleading, was his mother able to settle on a bribe, a payment to the school and a commitment to have the Khomeini quote restored, at their own expense, as soon as possible.

A Jewish Iranian woman praying at the tomb of Esther (via Shutterstock)
A Jewish Iranian woman praying at the tomb of Esther (Jewish Iranian woman image via Shutterstock)

Immediately afterwards, the family began planning their covert immigration to Israel.

M. remembered his departure vividly. He said that watching the 2012 movie “Argo,” and its tense airport scene, gave him goose bumps. His family, too, he said, told no one that they were leaving. Only on the morning of their departure, he said, did he tell his two best friends that he was going to Shiraz, a code word among the Jews that meant Israel. He arrived at the airport along with his mother and two sisters — his father had to stay behind, as an entire family was not allowed to leave the country together — and sat in a departure terminal that resembled the one in “Argo.” He clutched his schoolbooks to his chest, he said, so that, if asked, he could contend that he was merely going on vacation to Istanbul and would be doing homework while away.

Unlike the movie, in which the US nationals escape on a Swiss Air flight and sip champagne as soon as the plane lifts off, they flew on an Iranian airliner and were terrified until they reached Turkey. Once there, they called a telephone number of an embassy employee, who sent a car to the airport and, within days, arranged Israeli passports for the family. “In Israel,” he said, “I first met my older brother.”

M.’s father remained in Iran for another year. He obtained a fake passport and was nearly ready to leave when IRGC agents knocked on his office door. They found the passport in his drawer and arrested him. “If you are caught doing this sort of thing,” M. said, “you usually never get out alive.”

After paying “tons of money” and pulling every string he had, he was allowed out on bail. Having helped many other Jews escape Iran, M.’s father had good connections with the Balochs, the desert dwellers who live on the eastern plateau. For two weeks he traveled with them by camel and jeep convoy to the border region and finally, with their help, slipped across the border into Pakistan, where, M. said, the Jewish Agency had a representative who was able to get him a passport and fly him to Sweden and from there to Israel.

In uniform

M. was drafted into the IDF in 1995. As a testament to the priorities of the intelligence establishment at the time, he was slated to become a Merkava tank mechanic. Only once he had started basic training did the Military Intelligence Directorate tap him on the shoulder.

His job at the outset, he said, keeping his description deliberately vague, “was translating the intelligence data of what, we’ll say, was attainable.”

In those days the Persian desk at Military Intelligence was both smaller than today and mostly staffed by what the IDF calls lahagistim — those that knew the lahag, or dialect, either as a mother tongue or from relatives around the house. M. was sent to officers’ school, after repeated requests, and was put in charge of a platoon of soldiers that translated raw intelligence.

He remained in similar posts until 2004-5, at which time the army “needed to step up” its Persian instruction, he said. M. was charged with putting together Military Intelligence’s Persian-language instructional manual and helped shape all Persian instruction in the intelligence corps. “Within seven months we can take someone from nothing and make them qualified,” he said.

A former parsist, as they’re known, confirmed this. Today a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he said he came from a Russian-speaking home and that, from seventh grade on, he had studied Arabic in school. Like many Israeli students, he said he figured it would land him a job with Military Intelligence when the draft board came calling.

And in fact in 12th grade, in late 2004, he received a summons to take a language test. He met with army representatives five or six times, he said, taking a battery of written tests, and then received a letter in the mail, asking him if he’d like to try out for “something new.”

He showed up at the scheduled time and was given yet another test. This time, the test included a made-up language consisting of numbers, symbols and letters. “An airplane might mean the number four,” he said. “They made up a new set of rules.”

The teenagers were given a set amount of time and asked to complete sentences and explain passages that they had read. Weeks later, he was called back again and told that the test he took was an aptitude test for language and that he had been chosen, along with several dozen others, to learn Persian. He could either go back to Arabic, where he had started, the army told him, or study Persian. He chose the latter.

M. said that he headed the instruction of Persian in the IDF Military Directorate for several years and that beyond the laws of the language he also lectured occasionally on history and politics and fed the recruits the local food so as to further immerse them in the culture.

He would say little else about the nature of the instruction and the way the language skills were implemented in the soldiers’ subsequent army service. The student filled in some of the blanks. He told The Times of Israel that after five very intensive months of study, the soldiers were split between those who were better at reading comprehension and those who had “more of an ear.” After several more months, followed by one-on-one coaching in the unit, the soldiers were split into desks that are divided by subject. Internal politics, he said, might be one such subject. The Geneva talks on Iran’s nuclear program, he agreed, have likely been their own subject during recent months.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, third right, speaks, in an endorsement ceremony led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, in Tehran, Iran on Saturday, August 3. (photo credit: AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, third right, speaks, in an endorsement ceremony led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, in Tehran, Iran on Saturday, August 3. (photo credit: AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)

A soldier is expected to understand what is being said and to note what is significant in every document or conversation. His or her summaries are then passed on to an officer who heads the subject team and from there, the student said, they could merely be filed away or passed to the desk of the government or to “this or that sort of commander” in the field.

After several years of preparing soldiers for this sort of work, M. was promoted to deputy commander of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s officer’s school. “Five hundred officers came out from under my hands,” he said, “and for me, for someone who came here from Iran, that is a great source of pride.”

Today M. is the deputy commander of a different unit in military intelligence. He was not authorized to discuss his post but he did share his two dreams for the future. One, he said, after an impactful recent trip to Poland with the army — his first real exposure to the Holocaust — is to somehow introduce Holocaust studies to the 20,000-person-strong Jewish community in Iran. “I have this in my head and I want to do it,” he said.

The second dream is occasionally sparked by a nugget of intelligence that sends him back to the vistas of his youth. Sitting at a desk featuring the old, pre-revolution flag of Iran, he said, “My dream is to visit Iran again. And my real dream is to be [Israel’s] military attaché in Tehran. That is my hope.”

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