Tel Aviv — “Everyone knows that we’re behind this and we should be proud!”
The comment appeared on the Facebook page of the Israeli Defense Forces’ chief spokesperson following the assassination last week of an Iranian nuclear scientist. Despite the usual silence from Israeli officials, the quip reflected the widely held consensus that Israel’s Mossad was responsible for the hit.
Amid accusations abroad that the killing represents state-sponsored terrorism and the realization that such actions won’t necessarily stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the covert war is still seen the preferred method among many Israelis for fighting Tehran.
“Covert action definitely has an impact; the question is, how much,” said Ephraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “I am sure it slows [Iran] down. There were forecasts of them finishing much sooner. So far we’ve done rather well.”
The speculation comes amid heightened concern that Iran could reach the point of obtaining a nuclear weapon in the next year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday told an Israeli parliamentary committee that Western sanctions on Iran would not be sufficient to stop its nuclear quest. On Tuesday, an Israeli general told reporters that a nuclear-armed Iran could deter Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah.
The tension has escalated concern that Israel might decide to launch a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear targets. But such an attack would not take the form of the one-and-out attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear installations, say experts.
Because Iran’s nuclear program is highly dispersed at various sites around the country, an effective attack could likely last more than two weeks, said Uri Dromi, a former government spokesperson and air force pilot. Even then, it is not at all certain that Israel has the capacity to deal a fatal blow to the Iranian nuclear program, Dromi said.
In lieu of a high-risk attack on Iran, undercover sabotage is seen by many Israelis as the next best means of staving off the nuclear threat.
“If Israel indeed [killed the Iranian scientist], this is part of a clandestine war, fought in a pinpoint way with minimal losses to deny Iran a nuclear weapon,” said Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official and a former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. “From the Israeli standpoint, what is the alternative … all-out war? The fact is that Iran is the only country in the world that openly calls for Israel’s destruction, and is at the same time hard at work creating weapons of mass destruction.”
To be sure, a minority of experts disputed the effectiveness of the assassination campaign.
“There’s only one benefit — it might frighten scientists in the nuclear project, and they might take more counter measures,” said Ephraim Kam, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. “I’m not sure there’s much other benefit. How many can you kill? I’m not sure it’s a very efficient way to stop the nuclear project.”
Meir Javedanfar, Tel Aviv-based Iran analyst, said that assassination of nuclear staff would not prompt Iran from altering its plans. However, he argued that the bite of crippling economic sanctions could produce an improvement because it threatens the rule of the Islamic regime.
Avner Cohen, an Israeli nuclear expert at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, wrote in Haaretz that the Israeli public doesn’t question the campaign because to do so would be seen as traitorous. He speculated that the covert campaign would harden the resolve of the Iranians to proceed with their efforts, however.
“It’s very possible that the damage of such assassinations are much larger than the utility,” he said.
Inbar was one of the few Israeli analysts to openly speculate that Israel probably had a hand in the assassination. He said the killing is reminiscent of Israeli efforts in decades past to sabotage weapons programs of enemy states, such as Egypt’s missile development program in the 1960s and the Iraqi nuclear project in the ‘70s.
More recently Israel is believed to have been behind the assassination of top Hamas and Hezbollah chiefs.
Inbar said that the current covert war, which is thought to include bombings of military installations and cyber-sabotage, was spearheaded by the recently resigned chief of the Mossad, Meir Dagan.
“We don’t have a clear address for the responsibility for the covert actions in Iran, but I don’t think you need to be too imaginative to realize that there are only a few security services that have such a capability.”
A total of four Iranian scientists have been assassinated in two years, and a fifth escaped a botched attempt. Over the same period, computers managing the enrichment efforts have been paralyzed by two software viruses. In recent months, three explosions have sown destruction at Iranian military sites believed to be linked to the nuclear program.
Iran vowed to take revenge for the assassinations. On Friday, Thai authorities arrested two Lebanese men who were allegedly part of a Hezbollah plot to attack Israeli tourists in Bangkok, prompting travel warnings from both the U.S. and Israel.
On Monday, an Israeli parliamentary committee reviewed attack preparedness at Israeli and Jewish sites around the globe. Reflecting the government’s policy of ambiguity surrounding covert attacks, Committee Chairman Danny Danon declined to acknowledge a link between heightened level of alert and the Tehran assassination.
Still, such a campaign is rooted in Israel’s aversion to inaction in the face of threats, and the willingness to take bold risks to overcome them. Acting preemptively to seize the advantage is a motif that stretches back through most of Israel’s military and political history.
The impulse to be proactive is also rooted in a psyche shaped by the trauma of helplessness during the Holocaust, said analysts.
“If there’s something that Israelis don’t like, it’s the feeling of being helpless,” said Dromi. Facing grave threats, he said, “You don’t just sit there.”