Israeli Row With Iran Triggers Memories of One-time Ally

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While Chief of Staff Benny Gantz appeared this week before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and offered the prediction that the Israel Defense Forces would have to embark "on an initiated attack move" in the Gaza Strip, the IDF was involved in planning and exercises which will help it meet the range of challenges it faces in the region.

The November 12 explosion in Iran, near the town of Karaj, at a Revolutionary Guards base, tickled the hypothesis glands that attribute every such iniquity to the Mossad. The blast killed 17 people, most notably Hassan Tehrani Moqaddam, the darling of the revolutionary Islamic regime.

Iran students praying at the Isfahan nuclear plant in Iran. Credit: AFP

"May there be many more," Defense Minister Ehud Barak is quoted as saying in response to the news.

There was no explicit official response to the event in Israel, as has usually been the case in its war with Iran during the past three decades - a war conducted according to secret but clear rules. It is a subversive war, not entirely unnoticeable but swallowed up into the usual background noises without crossing the threshold from routine to emergency.

The disagreement within Israel regarding the proper policy on Iran's nuclear ambitions broke through to the surface during this past year, ever since Barak failed in his efforts to push Gabi Ashkenazi to cut short his tenure as chief of staff and appoint Yoav Galant in his stead.

This created an optical illusion, as though the disagreement over how to deal with Iran was one that could be defined as being between hawks and doves. In fact, at the decision-making level - the heads of the operational bodies and the handful of partners to their oversight in the Knesset - only a very tiny minority has come to terms with the idea of a nuclear Iran. The debate is between hasty hawks and level-headed hawks.

Revolutionary Iran is Israel's only non-Arab enemy, a state that was an ally in the past and is threatening the Jewish state at both close (Lebanon and Gaza ) and long ranges, though it shares no common border with it. The fact of its being non-Arab, in a conflict that has always been defined as "Arab-Israeli," offers an opportunity for dampening Iranian hostility: The Persians, who have always controlled Iran even though they constitute only about half its population, scorn the Arabs and consider themselves superior to them. Their attitude toward the Arabs is utilitarian, in the Israeli context. Even if all of Israel were to convert to Islam tomorrow, the fight between Persians and Arabs over supremacy in the Gulf will continue - and about that too a bitter argument rages in Israel.

Mossad involvement, too

Iran's distance from Israel means that it is not just the IDF that is involved in this ongoing war - despite the impressive reach of the air force, the navy, and the information-gathering and operational branches of Military Intelligence. The Mossad is involved, too. Cooperation between these organizations reached its peak in recent years. During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, Tamir Pardo, now the Mossad chief, was a member of the staff of Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, the then-chief of the Operations Directorate at the General Staff. Pardo has now appointed R. to work with the current Operations Directorate; he is a veteran, experienced operations man at the Mossad who might eventually go back to a top post at the agency.

Intelligence-community historian Yoav Gelber has found that at the end of the 1948 war, Israel had already established in Tehran "Base 1" of the "special roles officers" unit, which eventually became Military Intelligence Unit 504.

Beginning at the end of the 1950s, defense relations between Iran and Israel were conducted via two parallel and sometimes competing channels: the Mossad vis-a-vis the Savak, Iran's combination of foreign intelligence and internal security intelligence; and Israel's MI vis-a-vis Iran's. The ties became especially close after the July 1958 coup in Baghdad. At that time the non-Arab triangular alliance of Israel, Turkey and Iran was established.

The terrifying head of the Savak, Timur Bakhtiar, hosted his interlocutors at his organization's plush facilities. His Israeli counterpart, Isser Harel, did not find a suitable place like that back home for lodging his guests from Tehran and Ankara. He thus hired architect Dora Gad to plan the Midrasha (a word denoting a study center ) at Glilot, north of Tel Aviv. For the Iranians, an especially large suite of rooms was built; for the Turks, middling if comfortable accommodations were provided.

The ties between the Mossad and the Savak continued even after Harel quarreled with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and resigned, and after Bakhtiar had gone from being the shah's executor (and executioner ) to being a threat to him. Their successors, Maj. Gen. Meir Amit and Gen. Hassan Pakravan - both of them men with more open personalities than their predecessors - advanced the ties even further.

In the 1960sthe eastern department of the Tevel branch of the Mossad (which oversees relations with foreign intelligence services ) - Nahum Admoni, David Kimche and Nachik Navot - orchestrated work on the Iranian portfolio from an office in Tel Aviv. Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, air force commander Ezer Weizman and many other officers, among them some who trained the Iranian army and others who helped the Kurds harry Iraq, were welcome guests in Iran.

With the generation of Iranians that preceded the rocket, aviation and space scientists who are now threatening Israel, Israel's Defense Ministry - according to media reports - wanted to develop jointly a missile called "Flower" and a fighter plane from the Aryeh series. The relations between the defense establishments (and the economic establishments, from oil to agriculture and construction ) continued until the Khomeini revolution, in 1978, and the shah's flight, the following year. Three decades of cooperation, most of it in secret and some of it open, were followed by three decades of hostility, yet the time that has passed has not erased the store of knowledge about the Iranian infrastructure that accumulated in Israel.

A familiar country

Israel has never had an enemy like this. IDF officers, including Barak in his youth, visited there, air force combat pilots flew in Iran's skies, and intelligence people worked there unhindered. In many senses, despite its skill at concealment and its cunning on certain issues, from the fate of Ron Arad to the nuclear sites, Iran is familiar to Israel.

Many Israelis have immigrated here from Iran or have worked or traveled there. The country has always had a fanatical Muslim public, which limited the shah's room for maneuver and which demonstrated against Israel (for example when its national soccer tour managed to lose to the host team in Tehran at the height of the War of Attrition, in April 1970 ). But up until nearly the time of the revolution, Israeli tourists were able, for example, to lodge undisturbed at the backpackers' hotel Amir Kabir in Tehran, to ride local buses if they wanted to visit Shiraz or Isfahan, and to head north to the Turkish border, as long as the winter snows were not too harsh.

Iran's land and sea borders are long. Its cities are crowded. Opponents to the regime are networked and up-to-date. And the Revolutionary Guards and their partners/competitors at the Intelligence and Security Ministry, the heir to the Savak, are apparently more skilled at attack than at defense - a typical characteristic of such organizations.

Under the direction of Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran has been building, cautiously more than quickly, an infrastructure for nuclear weapons - as distinct from the weaponry itself. It is advancing along three parallel routes of enriching materials, which also include development of missiles and warheads

Statements by the heads of the regime, and testimony by top intelligence people before the U.S. Congress, suggest that Iran intends to play in the middle of the field, so as not to provoke those who are hot to bomb the infrastructures as soon as possible. Creation of a first but lone nuclear warhead is liable to elicit an attack on Iran. Thus, it prefers to prepare half a dozen or more dispersed and hidden warheads, fitted perhaps to an intercontinental ballistic missile, so as to be able to threaten Washington and New York for purposes of deterrence.

Even more than the Israelis, the Americans are close to the boiling point vis-a-vis Iran, more because of its actions in Iraq than its nuclear efforts. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey issued warnings in this direction this week at a congressional hearing. On that very day - which was also the day that Gantz appeared in the Knesset - the head of the ruling Military Council in Egypt, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, hosted American Gen. James Mattis, head of CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command, which covers Egypt and Iran, Iraq and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

It will not come as a surprise if in the coming weeks, in response to the incrimination of the Revolutionary Guards for a large attack on the American forces pulling out of Iraq, the Americans will land a warning blow on an Iranian target. The table is wobbling and some of the options are in fact under it.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: מלחמת הצללים בין ירושלים וטהראן

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