Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has decided that Maj.-Gen (Res) Meir Dagan, the director of Israel’s external service, the Mossad, must go at the end of the year, or early 2006 at latest. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that he has offered the job to Avi Dichter, who recently retired as head of the domestic Shin Beit service.
Most observers believe Dichter will take the offer up, but not before mid-2006. After five grueling years, most of which were spent keeping a step ahead of Palestinian terrorism, he wants time out for rest and study in the United States, before taking up a new and challenging job.
According to our sources, Sharon was disappointed in the performance of Dagan, one of his closest personal friends, in his three years in office – especially in the Mossad’s failure under his leadership to find a way of halting Iran’s nuclear program.
During his visit to Paris this week, Sharon warned French president Jacques Chirac that failing an all-out international effort to stop them, the Iranians would by the end of 2005 have reached the point of no return in their ability to enrich sufficient quantities of uranium for military purposes. The decision on whether to go ahead and manufacture a nuclear bomb – and when – will then be entirely at the discretion of Iran’s leaders.
The prime minister had counted on Dagan, reputed in the IDF for his gifted ability to design, organize and execute bold operations behind enemy lines, to come up with a method of stalling Iran’s gradual transfer of all its nuclear facilities below ground in the last three years to sites well fortified against aerial and missile attack. Sharon had also expected the Mossad to find a way of striking the production lines of the centrifuges needed for the uranium enrichment process and the assembly lines of missiles capable of reaching Israel.
Failing penetration of the Islamic Republic, Sharon had hoped the Mossad would alternatively strike at the sources and supply routes for the equipment and materials Iran purchases outside for keeping its nuclear industry running.
Sources close to Dagan offer three reasons why none of these courses were feasible.
Sharon refused to authorize deep undercover operations
Most of the equipment and materials that sustain Iran’s nuclear industry comes from Russia, China or North Korea, countries in which it is hard for the Mossad to operate. In any case, Sharon was never willing to authorize any Mossad plan of action in those countries. In places where deep Mossad penetrations were authorized, the Mossad was strikingly successful – for instance in the targeted assassinations of Hizballah operations chiefs in Beirut and the liquidations of Hamas undercover operatives deep inside the Palestinian command center in Damascus. The penetration of Hizballah’s security and intelligence fortifications was as tough and complicated as any attempt to reach inside Iran’s heavily guarded nuclear facilities would have been.
All three Israeli prime ministers officiating in the last decade, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, preferred cooperation with Washington’s diplomatic efforts to terminate the Iranian nuclear program rather than an undercover Israeli operation inside Iran. All three refused to heed warnings that Tehran was keeping the talks going to buy time for its nuclear weapons capability to mature.
In the interim, in 2003, the Iraq war erupted. And in mid-2004, Iran was discovered to have spread a large terrorist network across Iraq. At a signal from Iran the network could have shot into action and turned the tables of the guerrilla war against the American-led coalition armies. That was when Washington warned Jerusalem to hold off from any operation against Iran, Iranian targets anywhere outside the country or even the Tehran-sponsored Hizballah terrorists in Lebanon, for as long as no green light came from the Bush administration. From that moment, Israel’s hands were tied.
Israel‘s option of a strike against Iran remains open
Some Israeli intelligence experts regard as an extreme exaggeration the estimate that Iran will reach the point of no-return at the end of this year. This view, which is not shared by all parts of the community, holds Iran is still two or three years away from this point and has more than one technical glitch still not overcome. What this means is that no one can rule out a possible Israeli operation against Iran’s nuclear industry; the option is still open.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources add that the Israeli intelligence community was taken aback by Sharon’s haste in offering the Mossad directorship to Dichter. While no one questions his great ability or his proven success at the head of the covert campaign against Palestinian terror and al Qaeda which is acclaimed by professional agencies around the world, the Mossad is a different creature. Its purview is quite different from that of an anti-terror agency, it deals with different types of data and its methods of operation are developed for arenas that are wider and more distant than those of a domestic service. Its personnel are of a different type – much smaller than the Shin Beit, with fewer agents in the field.