November 29, 2020 | The Wall Street Journal

Another Bold Strike Against Iran

The killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh demonstrates Israel’s capabilities and constrains Biden’s options.
November 29, 2020 | The Wall Street Journal

Another Bold Strike Against Iran

The killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh demonstrates Israel’s capabilities and constrains Biden’s options.

Any American intelligence operative who’s worked on Iran has to tip his hat to Israel’s Mossad. The assassination Friday of Iran’s pre-eminent atomic-bomb scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and, even more impressively, the warehouse heist of the clerical regime’s nuclear archive in January 2018, shows a level of risk-taking and accomplishment that has no U.S. parallel. In June there were large, damaging explosions at the Natanz uranium enrichment site, which probably weren’t caused by shoddy maintenance.

The Central Intelligence Agency hasn’t been a particularly bold organization in decades (the aggressive interrogation of al Qaeda members may be an exception). It isn’t only the timidity of the CIA’s senior management and Washington’s political class that enfeebles Langley; it’s the absence of a mission against a state-threatening foe that focuses the mind and attracts real talent. An Iran with nukes would threaten Israel’s existence, not America’s.

Israel has been lethally penetrating the Islamic Republic for at least a decade. Mossad now appears to have stationary surveillance and hit teams positioned in the country. Given the level of internal dissent, which has spread even among children of the original Iranian revolutionaries, it’s possible Israel has acquired valuable agents in Iran’s armed forces and security services.

Though the assassinations of Fakhrizadeh and others, such as Daryoush Rezainejad in 2011, may be the work of Iranian assets in Jerusalem’s employ—Kurds may be the most accessible and motivated—the archival theft is more likely an intrusion in which Israeli officers were on the ground in command. By comparison, it’s doubtful that the CIA has ever deployed a single nonofficial-cover officer inside Iran to sustain either intelligence collection or covert action since the failed Operation Eagle Claw hostage rescue in 1980.

Fakhrizadeh had probably been an Israeli target for some time; the assassination’s timing might have been coincidental, dictated by a fortuitous intercept or piece of human intelligence that convinced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to go for it. But the Israeli achievements, which have continued despite the Iranian regime’s repeated attempts to thwart them, mean that Jerusalem can play havoc with the Biden administration’s hoped-for nuclear diplomacy.

The signal to Democratic Washington is unmistakable: Jerusalem has the means, even without a conventional air attack against Iran’s nuclear sites, to challenge the supreme leader and his praetorians, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who oversee both the nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, where it hurts most. If Israelis can kill Tehran’s most prized personnel and surreptitiously damage its guarded facilities, and Tehran can do little in response, then the clerical regime’s haybat, its unchallengeable awe, is degraded for all to see. For a regime that knows the extent of popular anger against it, that is a perilous situation.

Iran’s theocracy is deeply infected with conspiratorial anti-Semitism. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in particular has Jews on the brain, seeing concentric circles of enmity revolving around Zion. He has difficulty disconnecting Israeli actions from American consent. The Obama administration, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the lead, once spooked Israeli confidence about preventive military action against Iran’s nuclear program. This time, Jerusalem doesn’t have to be so ambitious.

American will to intervene in the Middle East is declining rapidly, and Israel’s position is significantly stronger than it was in 2012, when President Obama began secret negotiations with Tehran in Oman. Israel has Iran in a corner, and Ayatollah Khamenei is obviously scared to escalate. Beyond Mossad’s actions, the Israeli Air Force has been pummeling the Revolutionary Guards and their proxies in Syria, fundamentally challenging Iranian plans in the Levant. Tehran has done little about it.

Joe Biden’s people, who were Mr. Obama’s people, played down Israel’s concerns about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions and imperialism. Trying to get these officials to pay attention to the many unanswered questions about the regime’s militarization of nuclear research and gaping holes in the verification procedures of Mr. Obama’s atomic accord was a hapless task. American flirtations with “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to many Israelis a dance of naïfs.

Distance gives the U.S. the capacity to test theories about foreigners. Being a hegemon encouraged others to follow even when they had doubts. But the evident huge increase in Mossad operations inside Iran isn’t only a byproduct of President Trump’s sympathy. It is an early sign of a new post-American order. Mr. Biden and his officials may try to twist Jerusalem’s arm to go easier on Iran. Good luck. The president-elect’s looming defense cuts will be more telling. The Middle East is all about power politics, and Mossad has begun to show what a committed First World intelligence service can do against a Third World Islamist state whose own security apparatus is increasingly decrepit.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @ReuelMGerecht. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Israel