Last week Meir Dagan did something no former Mossad chief has ever done. He took a busload of journalists to a secret place and spoke to them for about three hours. Dagan discussed a raft of issues but uttered two key statements - Iran will not produce a nuclear bomb before 2015, and a military offensive in Iran would be disastrous.
Dagan is the hero of the century. In the past eight years he rehabilitated the Mossad, headed daring operations and obtained rare intelligence. His biggest achievement was time. Dagan is the man who won time vis-a-vis Iran. But the shadow man's decision to come out into the light and unleash his tongue was inexplicable. Some think it caused Israel severe strategic damage.
The prime minister responded with rage to the former Mossad chief's statements. Benjamin Netanyahu thinks Dagan has sabotaged the diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But Netanyahu isn't alone. Senior officials in the United States, Britain and France this week castigated Dagan for his utterances. The White House and Capitol Hill expressed shock and anger. Major allies of Israel saw the former Mossad chief's briefing as incomprehensible and irresponsible.
First, Dagan was censured on the professional level. Iran already has enough fissionable material for one or two nuclear bombs. If the Ayatollahs resort to desperate measures and opt for high-grade uranium enrichment instead of low-grade, they can make the change in less than a year. Dagan says the Iranians don't intend to do so before 2015. But there's a difference between intention and capability. Iran might obtain a military nuclear capability within a year or two. Dagan the intelligence man made a misleading statement that produced an erroneous intelligence interpretation.
Dagan was then censured on diplomatic grounds. In the past year, the Western powers got the international community to adopt a firm approach to Iran. The success stemmed in part from the feeling of urgency Israel instilled in the powers. Now comes the former Israeli Mossad chief and blurs the sense of urgency. The Russians, Chinese, Germans and Italians cannot be expected to be more Catholic than the pope. Dagan hurt Israel's allies and played into the hands of officials abroad who dismiss the Iranian danger and seek an excuse not to address it.
The third criticism of Dagan concerns the military option. His statements about the grave consequences of an attack on Iran are balanced and correct. But one of the main tools to put pressure on Iran was the implied threat of an Israeli military attack. The international community has also begun to pressure Iran seriously for fear of a sudden strike by the Israel Air Force. Now Dagan has weakened the leverage. He made the Israeli threat seem unreliable and not serious. The man who was in charge of thwarting the Iranian nuclearization made the Iranians think they can continue galloping to the bomb because they are not in any real danger.
Dagan probably thinks Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are dangerous people. He is afraid they might make some foolhardy move in Iran. But the things he said around the end of his term have not neutralized the military option. Rather, they damaged the attempt to impose a diplomatic-economic siege on Iran. So Dagan did not remove the possibility of an attack on Iran, but brought it closer.
Senior American, British and French officials compared the damage done by Dagan to the damage caused by the complacent, unfounded American intelligence evaluation released at the end of 2007. Senior Israeli officials compared the accuracy level of Dagan's evaluation to that of Military Intelligence's evaluation that determined in 1966 that no war was expected in 1967. All these officials sighed in exasperation. Dagan left many mouths open in Washington, London, Paris and Jerusalem.
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