The cabinet in Jerusalem quietly took leave Sunday, Jan. 2, of Meir Dagan, marking the end of his eight remarkable years as head of the Mossad, Israel's external intelligence, espionage and covert warfare service. His retirement – after several extensions – also won a backhanded mention in Tehran.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Revolutionary Guards aerial arm, told the Fars news agency: "Many spy planes and ultra-modern aircraft of our enemies have been shot down. We have also shot down two Western reconnaissance drones in the Persian Gulf." He did not say when this happened, only: "It is the first time we are announcing it."
The Iranian official, say debkafile's intelligence sources, was aiming a dig at Meir Dagan by hinting at Tehran too may have had successes against "our enemies." That was the best – or worst – Tehran could do after the French Le Canard Enchaine's glowing account of Israel's secret war against Iran's nuclear program. Thursday, Dec. 30, the journal, known for its good connections with French intelligence, reported that Israel had won the help of the American CIA and British MI6 for its covert operations after promising to hold back from a direct military attack on Iran's nuclear installations.
The publication describes the Mossad as responsible for the liquidation of five senior Iranian nuclear scientists and planting the Stuxnet cyber worm in the program's computer systems. Also attributed to Israeli intelligence is the explosion in Iran's most important Shihab-3 ballistic missile arsenal at the Imam Ali mountain base near Khorramabad on Oct. 12 last year. Le Canard reported that 18 Iranian nuclear technicians died in that attack and many of the missiles were destroyed.
Judging from the French intelligence description, Meir Dagan led this successful secret war on Iran not just for Israel but for the West at large.
Even if Le Canard embellished those feats somewhat, they are still pretty impressive. The measure of their success was conveyed in a laconic comment by Moshe Yaalon, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Strategic Affairs in a radio interview on Dec. 29. He said: "Iran does not currently have the ability to make a nuclear bomb on its own" – throwing out all previous forecasts of Iran's close approach to this capability as no longer valid.
Was this delay due to Stuxnet? Yaalon did not say. But he referred to Western pressure (sanctions) when he predicted that this pressure would force a decision in Tehran between stopping the nuclear program or stopping to exist.
"I don’t know whether this will happen in 2011 or 2012," he said, "but we are talking in terms of the next three years" – i.e. 2014 will be the critical year," said the minister. By then, either Iran will have a bomb or the Revolutionary Islamic regime will be gone.
Yaalon's timeline, the clearest heard thus far from any Israeli official, means that Meir Dagan is ending his tour of duty at the high point of the undercover war he managed, having successfully tipped the scales against Iran's nuclear progress.
The minister said cautiously in the same interview: "We cannot talk about a point of no return" – meaning that the greater part of the contest still lies ahead – until the moment comes for the Iranian regime to abandon its drive for a nuclear bomb if it wants to survive.
While the Western media by and large has high praise for Dagan's accomplishments, the consciousness of the inevitable failures on his record colored his parting address to the Israeli cabinet Sunday. He used it to pay tribute to Mossad and its agents: "Our people," he said, "have only two weapons: their cover stories and their sharp wits. Otherwise, they are on their own with no chance of rescue."
So where was the Israeli Defense Forces in the fateful secret war with Iran? The answer, say debkafile's military sources, is nowhere.
In the four years since the 2006 war with Hizballah, the IDF's role has been progressively sidelined in most proactive efforts to safeguard Israel's national security and enhance its strategic standing. History may one day determine whether this decline was the outcome was dictated by circumstances or a function of the personalities of the last two chiefs of staff, Dan Halutz and Gaby Ashkenazi who too is about to retire.
Both began building their political careers and platforms before taking off their uniforms. During their watch, not only did the IDF not face up to the Iranian threat, but it avoided grappling with Iran's junior allies, Hizballah and Hamas, taking no action to prevent them tightening a noose strung with missiles and rockets around Israel's borders. In more ways than one, Meir Dagan stood in for the chief of staff – and the Mossad for the IDF – in bearing the brunt of cutting down Israel's foremost enemies.