January 13, 2011 | The Jewish Chronicle

Mossad Playing a New Iran Game

Deterrence sometimes demands taking credit for your victories – but in its covert war against Iran, Israel has rarely done so, despite its likely role in many successful sabotages of Iran's nuclear programme.

Outgoing chief of Mossad, Meir Dagan's moment of openness to journalists when, last week, he let it slip that he believed Iran would not be able to build a nuclear bomb until 2015, seemed to reverse that, with Dagan revealing little but hinting Israel may be responsible for the delay.

But Dagan caused a stir because he did not limit his remarks to a time estimate. He added a political estimate about what, in his view, his former headmasters should not do – namely, attack Iran.

Dagan adamantly opposed any military strike on Iran throughout his tenure and with some reason, given the immense logistical challenges and the potentially disastrous diplomatic and security consequences of such an attack – even if it were successful.

In this he was not alone. Had Israel's top political and military echelon felt that a strike could yield the same amount of operational success achieved in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, without such momentous fallout, a strike might have already occurred. Look no further for proof of this than Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs, Moshe 'Boogi' Ya'alon, the former chief of staff who vanquished the Second Intifada. Only a few days ago, Ya'alon said that Iran was off the bomb for at least three years.

Time will tell whether Dagan's remarks were out of line. Regardless, four successive Israeli governments since Ariel Sharon was prime minister tirelessly sought to persuade the international community that Iran was on a course to acquire nuclear weapons and tough measures were needed lest Iran succeeds.

With like-minded countries, Israel could quietly conduct joint covert operations to delay and sabotage; with more hesitant ones, Israel made the case for economic sanctions. Both tools were eventually adopted – and today, their combined effect has yielded considerable success. Iran's programme has been delayed and the economic hardships inflicted upon the country as a consequence of tough sanctions may force the regime to reconsider its priorities.

Critics on the right have chided Dagan for undermining Israel's foreign policy on this vital challenge – by putting the deadline at 2015, they say, Dagan has removed the sense of urgency that led to sanctions and could have given the final push to efforts to build a coalition to strike Iran militarily.

Yet, there are little signs that there is appetite for military action where it most matters – that is, in Washington. And there is something to be said for announcing that international efforts have succeeded in slowing down Iran's efforts. Given how much scepticism Israel encountered until recently about sanctions and their effectiveness, having Dagan say that he now believes Iran's programme has been pushed back another few years is a vindication of what has been tried so far – including sanctions (and not excluding the occasional sabotage) – and an encouragement to forge ahead with more of the same.

Assessments have been wrong in the past, of course – from Iraq to Libya, just to cite two recent examples, the intelligence community misjudged more than once. Then again, on Iran, it appears that Israel had got it right so far: Israeli assessments kept on being stretched, probably due to a fairly good idea of what was happening on the ground coupled with the ability to interfere with it.

Dagan's statement then changes little – and it is entirely consistent with Israeli actions, if not always with its leadership's statements, since Iran's nuclear programme was revealed to the world in August 2002.

Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington