Israel may have decided not to assassinate the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program because it prefers to keep him alive and watch what he is up to, even as other Iranian nuclear experts have been assassinated in recent years in hits attributed to the Mossad, an Israeli TV report suggested on Friday night.
Revealing that Israel had removed from a warehouse in Tehran a vast archive of Iran’s own material detailing its nuclear weapons program, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday night named Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a professor of physics and an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as the director of the project. “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” urged Netanyahu, showcasing the material that he said proved conclusively that Iran has lied when it says it has not sought nuclear weapons and that the 2015 nuclear deal was built upon “Iranian deception.”
Netanyahu returned to the same Fakhrizadeh again shortly afterwards in his remarks, stressing the centrality of the project leader’s work on the Iranian program.
“If Iran ever chose to weaponize (enrichment), Fakhrizadeh would be known as the father of the Iranian bomb,” a Western diplomat told the Reuters news agency four years ago.
Given that many of his close aides have been killed over the years in assassinations linked to the Mossad, it was “reasonable to assume” that Fakhrizadeh would also have been “picked out” for assassination by the Mossad over the years, intelligence expert Ronen Bergman said on Israel’s Channel 10 news.
Since Fakhhrizadeh is still alive, said Bergman “one can say: apparently there was an assassination plan.” And apparently it was rejected during the years when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, Bergman added, choosing his words carefully given the limitations of military censorship when it comes to matters of national security.
“Apparently, there were those who came to Olmert… and said, listen, there is a danger that the operation will fail; there is a danger that the forces on the ground will be discovered.”
Olmert evidently chose to heed those concerns and not approve such an operation, said Bergman, a well-connected journalist on Israeli intelligence and security who recently published a landmark book, “Rise and Kill First,” on “the secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations.”
Olmert was prime minister until 2009, when Netanyahu succeeded him.
“At another time,” more recently, went on Bergman, Israel’s military intelligence apparently “said maybe we’d be better off with Fakhrizadeh alive, so that we can keep track of him, rather than Fakhrizadeh dead, because a dead man produces no intelligence chatter.”
Aharon Ze’evy Farkash, a former head of Military Intelligence in the Israeli army, told Hadashot TV news that Fakhrizadeh would presumably have been closely watched over the years — to see where he was going, what he was doing, and to note the areas where he disappeared from view.
Israel has never acknowledged assassinating people involved in the Iranian nuclear program.
The Israeli TV reports Friday evening added more details to earlier information on the Mossad haul; the Israeli spy agency three months ago extracted a vast archive of Iran’s own nuclear weapons documentation from a warehouse in Tehran, in an operation hailed by Netanyahu as one of the greatest in Israeli intelligence history. The reports indicated that some 100 people would have been involved in the operation, including its planning, from start to finish.
Mishka Ben-David, a former senior Mossad operations officer, told Channel 10 that Israel has been “collecting material” on the Iranian nuclear program “without pause for over 20 years,” including by sending “our people to check” suspicious activities.
The TV reports intimated that Mossad operatives might have needed to enter the warehouse on more than one occasion, so as to be certain they would be able to open the safes in which the archive was stored.
The reports said Israeli intelligence monitored the archive and planned the operation in a process that continued for two years before it was carried out in January. The material — which the US confirmed this week is authentic — was apparently loaded into trucks and spirited back to Israel without a hitch. Considerable material was left behind, the reports said.
“Clearly if the [Israeli agents in Iran] had been caught,” said Ben-David, “the price would be colossal, almost unthinkable… Israeli agents, using false identities, in a country where the only result [if they were caught] would be the gallows.”
Channel 10 cited unnamed sources saying that the Iranians were horrified to find themselves so “penetrated” and aware “that the long arm of the Mossad can get to them.”
“The Mossad is active almost everywhere you could think,” Ram Ben Barak, a former deputy head of the Mossad, told Hadashot TV news. “We can get to any place.”
“I’m not jealous” of whoever was responsible for the security of the archive, said Bergman. Indeed, Bergman said someone had put it to him this week that this individual “is not going to be fired. He’s going to be fired at.”
The Mossad smuggled out the documents and digital files with Iranian agents “on their tails,” Hadashot reported earlier this week, based on briefings by Israeli officials.
Netanyahu revealed the operation Monday as he displayed the trove of documents in a presentation.
The operation required an expansive operational infrastructure within Iranian territory, Hadashot reported.
The warehouse storing the files was located in the Shorabad suburb in southern Tehran, in an industrial area. Mossad discovered the warehouse in February 2016, and had had the building under surveillance since then. Before arriving at the site, the secret archives had been moved by Iranian authorities several times in a bid to keep their whereabouts a secret.
In late January of this year, Mossad agents received pinpoint information pointing them to certain safes in a specific container inside the warehouse. The team then broke in, removed the files and transferred them to a secondary location.
From there a complex extraction operation began.
According to Hadashot, Iranian officials realized that information had been taken before the files were out of the country. Mossad agents managed to smuggle the data out of Iran with authorities “on their tails,” searching for them.
The warehouse was maintained by the Revolutionary Guard’s Intelligence Organization, formed in 2009 by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and headed by cleric Hossein Taeb.
Hadashot Arab affairs analyst Ehud Ya’ari said Western officials now believe a reckoning is in store for Taeb and other officials under whose watch the top secret files were taken.
Channel 10 News’s Arab affairs correspondent Zvi Yehezkeli said Tuesday Iranian authorities had launched a wave of arrests following Netanyahu’s exposé, and that those responsible could face execution.
Hadashot further reported that though Israel was anxious to provide the data it has obtained to the US, Europe and other allies, its most important audience may be the International Atomic Energy Agency. Israeli leaders are intent on demonstrating to the atomic watchdog the depth of Iranian deception, and to reveal to them the infrastructure of lies upon which Tehran based its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.
Hadashot said that the decision to publicize the contents of the intelligence heist was taken at a meeting involving Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Mossad head Yossi Cohen, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, Tamir Hayman.
All reportedly agreed that the data should be publicized with “as much noise as possible.”
Netanyahu on Monday night appeared on TV to present the file trove, saying it was a vast archive of Iran’s own documentation demonstrating that Tehran worked to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal and brazenly lied to the international community about it — facts which, the prime minister claimed, totally undermined the legitimacy of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers.
US President Donald Trump has until May 12 to decide whether to pull the US out of that deal.