The race against the arms race (JERUSALEM POST) By YAAKOV KATZ, YOAZ HENDEL 06/08/12)
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As in other operations by the Mossad, this one – in late 2006 – also
began when Unit 8200, the IDF’s Signal Intelligence unit,
incidentally intercepted a phone conversation and an electronic
reservation a senior Syrian official in Damascus had made in a London
According to various reports, Israeli and US agencies had tapped the
Syrian official’s communication lines since 2002. He had cultivated
contacts over the years with North Korea, and his numerous trips to
Pyongyang had attracted the attention of the CIA and Mossad.
At this stage though, the existence of a Syrian nuclear program was
based simply on speculation and mainly on a number of phone calls
between North Korea and a place in northeastern Syria called al-Kibar
intercepted by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
While antennas at Unit 8200’s base north of Tel Aviv received the
Syrian official’s reservation, a group of young agents sitting not
far away at Mossad headquarters were busy discussing the Second
Similar to the rest of the Israeli defense establishment, the Mossad
was not immune to public criticism after the war. For two years,
Mossad agents had carried out dozens of secret missions and had
risked their lives to collect information about Iran and its proxies
scattered across the Middle East. They had paid particular attention
to the smuggling routes Iran used for its nuclear project and
scrutinized the smallest clues related to the Iranian Revolutionary
Guard Corps’ activities in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere.
Some of this information enabled the Israel Air Force to destroy
Hezbollah’s long-range missile arsenal on the first night of the
Second Lebanon War in 2006. Nevertheless, the intelligence
achievements and successful covert operations could not prevent the
agents at Mossad headquarters from castigating themselves.
The young men and women in the espionage agency were part of the
Mossad’s Caesarea Branch, known for its covert operations overseas.
Despite the months that had passed, they were still frustrated for
having been “frozen” during the war. All of the men had served in
combat units; almost all of them had undergone arduous training. But
during the war, the Mossad did not let them enlist with the
reserves. “You are too valuable,” explained the head of the
department, himself a graduate of an elite IDF unit. “Besides, think
about if you were needed for an immediate operation here.”
The war was still on everyone’s mind, and the decision makers were
preoccupied with public relations aimed at saving Prime Minister
Olmert’s image and with approving operational plans for the army.
They pushed the Mossad aside.
The call that came through on the red secure phone startled everyone
in the room. On the line was the head of the department, who updated
them about the Syrian official’s trip to London. The agents were
familiar with the protocol in these situations and immediately set
preparations to put a new operation into motion.
Two days later, after studying the Syrian official’s facial features
and the layout of the prestigious London hotel where he was supposed
to be staying, the agents split up and boarded various planes to
different destinations. They would rendezvous at the European capital
and wait for their target at the airport and the hotel.
During their last briefing before leaving on the mission, their
instructions had strongly emphasized gaining access to the official’s
laptop or, to be more exact, the information it contained. Two days
after arriving at the hotel, the intelligence operatives had
reportedly succeeded in installing a Trojan horse on the computer and
gleaning all of its contents.
The hard drive contained construction plans, letters, and hundreds of
photos that showed the al-Kibar complex at various stages of its
development. In photos from 2002 the construction site resembled a
tree house on stilts, complete with suspicious-looking pipes leading
to a pumping station at the Euphrates. Later photos showed concrete
piers and roofs, which apparently were meant to make the building
look inconspicuous from above or as if a shoebox had been placed over
the structure to conceal it.
The pictures of the facility’s interior, however, left no room for
doubt. The Syrians had built a nuclear reactor.
Despite the signs and speculations during the two years preceding the
Mossad’s operation, the agents still found this evidence shocking. No
one in Israel’s intelligence establishment had imagined that Syrian
president Bashar Assad, who had succeeded his father seven years
earlier, had decided to break all known taboos and defy all
intelligence assessments to develop a nuclear bomb. Most startling
was the advanced stage at which Syria’s program was discovered.
The intelligence community also was taken aback by the discovery that
Iran was involved and had provided funding and support so that Syria
could build a reactor right across the border from Israel and at a
time when the future of Iran’s own nuclear program was so unclear.
Officials in the CIA, the Mossad, and the IDF’s Aman scoured old
files, searching for clues that they might have overlooked and
categorized as insignificant but could now help piece together the
Syrian nuclear puzzle.
It was possibly the biggest intelligence discovery since the
beginning of the decade.
WESTERN INTELLIGENCE agencies had reportedly uncovered the first
evidence of a connection between Syria, Iran, and North Korea at
Hafez al-Assad’s funeral in June 2000. An entourage accompanying the
funeral procession had included top Iranian and North Korean
officials. Pictures from the funeral had aroused the suspicions of
the Mossad’s nonconventional weapons investigators.
Any link found between North Korea and Iran was always a point of
concern, so the Mossad, then under the command of Efraim Halevy, had
classified the information that the investigators had collected as
But the meeting of these heads of state at the funeral appeared to be
a one-time incident. Nothing seemed more preposterous at the time
than the North Koreans and the Syrians cooperating on the development
of such nonconventional means as nuclear weapons.
In 2006, the sketches and documents that the Mossad agents reportedly
succeeded in obtaining from the senior Syrian official’s laptop
clearly showed that the reactor project was concealed under a front,
that is, a farm used to conduct agricultural experiments. Few in the
Syrian government and defense establishment, however, were privy to
the true nature of the mysterious al-Kibar complex.
The complex was located near the Turkish border and about 130
kilometers from Iraq, which since 2003 had been under the control of
US and Coalition forces. Dir al-Zur, the desert region in northeast
Syria where al-Kibar is located, was declared a closed military zone
even for most of Syria’s senior commanders.
Syria had invested too much money in the project for incidental or
intentional information leaks regarding its planning and execution.
The vision of the younger Assad and the IRGC, which had financed the
project, was that by the time Israel and the West found out about the
project, it would be too late for an attack.
Each of the involved parties had a different guiding interest in the
project. The North Koreans wanted to make hundreds of millions of
dollars and prove how powerful they were in the international scene.
In line with their reputation as shrewd economists, the Iranians
wanted to spread their nuclear investment to additional locations in
order to deter an Israeli attack and, at the same time, establish a
reserve facility in case their deterrence did not succeed.
According to assessments made after the reactor was bombed, Iran had
spent close to $2 billion on the entire project by bringing the North
Korean technology to Syria and purchasing additional components for
operating the reactor.
Iran loaned some of the money to Syria, though Assad could never
repay the debt. During Ahmadinejad’s visit to Syria in 2006, he
guaranteed the money.
But the Syrians themselves had the greatest interest in the project,
given that it was in their country. Assad built the reactor in spite
of Operation Opera, the Israeli operation in 1981 that destroyed a
nuclear reactor in Iraq.
Assad’s decision must have been made hastily and without prior
serious indepth discussions regarding Israeli intelligence
capabilities and the Israeli response once it learned of the reactor.
In the eyes of Syria’s supreme ruler though, creating additional
deterrence against Israel was a way to strengthen his standing in the
Arab world, to position himself as a world leader, and maybe even to
force Israel to return the entire Golan Heights. For him, nuclear
weapons were not only about military might but also about taking
Syria from the backbenches of the region to the forefront of the
In mid-2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert contacted President George W.
Bush directly in an effort to impress upon the US that the Israelis’
assessment was that the pictures showed a nuclear reactor on the
verge of becoming operational. Washington, however, was slightly
skeptical and wanted to study the material further.
In their discussions, Olmert told Bush that as far as Israel was
concerned the reactor “needed to disappear.” Bush did not dismiss
this option, but the professional ranks in his office explained to
the Israelis that before doing so three basic questions needed to be
1. What is the real purpose of the facility in the pictures?
2. In what stage is the nuclear program?
3. What can be done to stop Syria from going nuclear?
These questions brought about a period of collaboration that
continued up until the week of the attack itself. “The relationship
between Israel and the United States peaked then,” a former top Bush
administration official said in an interview. “There was
unprecedented sharing of intelligence and the dialogue reached an
unbelievable level of intimacy.”
In the meantime, to answer these questions, the Mossad and Aman
ramped up their intelligence-gathering efforts. They thoroughly
interrogated people suspected of having knowledge of the Syrian
program, and every piece of information justified a new round of
People from the Israeli defense establishment began working according
to a timeline, trying to discover the so-called point of no return
for the nuclear program, or when it would be too late to attack.
According to former defense minister Amir Peretz, if the reactor were
allowed to go online, they would have to reconsider whether to take
Therefore, in his mind, the attack had to occur before that happened.
Olmert and Peretz invited a small number of military specialists and
scientists to discuss the potential consequences of both bombing the
reactor and ignoring the project.
ONE OF the participants was retired Maj. Gen. David Ivry, who in 1981
was the IAF commander during Operation Opera’s attack on the Iraqi
reactor. The arguments for and against a similar strike, as well as
about the operational issues, were the same ones they had addressed
almost three decades earlier. Among the meeting’s participants were
those who claimed that Bashar Assad had built the reactor only in
order to impress other Arab countries. They claimed that he had no
intention of taking the reactor to the stage where it would present
an existential threat to Israel. The overwhelming majority thought
In their opinion, Israel’s implicit or quiet acceptance of a nuclear
reactor in a Muslim-majority country in the region (as had happened
in the Iranians’ case, when it first began exploring nuclear power)
would start a nuclear arms race among other Arab countries, even the
Olmert was determined to attack, mainly to rebuild the deterrence
threat that had been crushed during the Second Lebanon War and maybe
to prove to himself and to the Israeli people what he was really made
of. According to a senior US government official, the meetings
between Bush and Olmert ended with a mutual understanding: the
reactor posed an “existential threat” to Israel, a threat that
therefore justified a military attack.
After weeks of discussions and debates in the administration, Bush
contacted Olmert and shared his plan for dealing with the reactor.
According to the senior US government official, Bush told the Israeli
prime minister that in his opinion the ideal solution was first to
approach the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), headed by the
Egyptian Mohamed Mustafa ElBaradei. In the event that the IAEA did
not help, they could take the evidence to the UN Security Council and
ask for sanctions against Syria. If that option failed, then and only
then would the United States contemplate a military option.
Olmert, whom fellow Israelis perceived as a political dove without
any backbone, came out of these meetings looking as if he knew how to
hold his own. He completely dismissed the American plan. Israel had
had a bad experience with ElBaradei, who systematically had chosen to
overlook Iran’s mounting nuclear violations. In the IAEA’s opinion,
Iran was simply a law-abiding country whose goals and tactics were
all part of a legitimate political game. Moreover, in Israel’s view,
sanctions were not a reliable tool. In 2007, when Bush spoke about
future sanctions against Syria, the Israelis already knew that within
a short period of time the Syrian reactor would become active.
“Allow me to remind you,” Olmert told the president (according to a
senior official in the Bush administration), “that at the beginning
of these talks, when I presented the intelligence material to you, I
said all along that the reactor needs to go away. If we reveal the
data to the UN, the Syrians will build a proverbial kindergarten on
top of it and prevent a strike forever.” According to the same
source, at this point Olmert realized that the United States was not
going to attack the Syrian reactor. Had he looked closer, though,
Olmert would have seen the evidence much sooner.
THREE YEARS earlier, during the Sudanese massacre in Darfur, human
rights groups had pressured the American administration to take
military action to prevent the genocide there. Bush had heard the
calls and searched for a viable solution. For him it presented a
classical scenario of the forces of good fighting the forces of evil
to prevent the murder of the weak and oppressed. The military command
suggested attacking the Sudanese Air Force to relay a clear message:
no more genocide. Convinced, the president was about to green-light
But then his closest advisers convinced him to back down, claiming
that with US troops already in Iraq and Afghanistan, an attack
against another Muslim majority country would only increase hatred
toward America and increase public sentiment against him. They
persuaded him it was more important to solve his current problems.
The attack against Sudan never took place. “Had the Israeli prime
minister understood this dilemma,” the American official said, “he
never would have expected Bush to order an air strike against the
On June 19, 2007, a few months before the Israeli strike, Olmert
arrived in Washington for a meeting with President Bush. While
newspaper headlines claimed the leaders spoke about the Palestinian
peace process, they spent the majority of their meeting discussing
the nuclear reactor under construction in Syria.
“We plan to strike the reactor,” Olmert reportedly told the
president. Bush tried to restrain him, suggesting alternative modes
of action. From the American administration’s standpoint, a war
between Israel and Syria would seriously damage the statebuilding
process in Iraq and would even risk the stability of the Coalition in
Afghanistan. But Israel’s prime minister politely explained that he
was not there to ask the administration for permission; rather, he
wanted to update him on Israel’s intentions.
“Israel was not looking for approval from the American government,”
the top administration official explained. “Israel made it clear that
there were no traffic lights and no requests for green lights or red
In his memoir Decision Points, published in November 2010, Bush
himself supported this description. “Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t
asked for a green light, and I hadn’t given one. He had done what he
believed was necessary to protect Israel,” Bush wrote in his book.
The Israelis’ decision to inform the American administration of its
plans derived from a few considerations. First, the Israeli
government under Ehud Olmert enjoyed warm relations with the Bush
In the meetings held in Israel prior to the attack, participants had
raised the question of how it would affect Israel’s relationship with
the United States. Some of the participants, like Ivry, remembered
the aftermath of Operation Opera.
When Menachem Begin sent the IAF jets to strike Saddam Hussein’s
nuclear reactor, Israel used American military equipment without
prior coordination with the United States, and the US administration
felt it had hurt the chances for peace in the Middle East. Two weeks
after the 1981 attack the UN assembly approved a resolution
denouncing Israel, with support from the United States, which usually
prevented anti-Israel votes. The Reagan administration even decided
to freeze deliveries of F- 16 fighter jets to Israel temporarily.
A decade later, however, when the American Army was fighting in Iraq,
the administration recognized the importance of the Israeli operation.
The Olmert administration of 2007 showed it had learned its history
lesson. Despite the Americans’ opposition, Olmert’s advisers still
argued in favor of sharing the operation’s full itinerary with the
Bush administration. This decision proved to be correct.
According to a senior official in the Bush administration, “From the
beginning, both leaders said that Syria could not have a reactor.
Bush agreed and was not disturbed with Israel’s actions, nor did it
affect his relationship with Olmert.”
That same source also referred to the Israelis’ expectations that
Bush would not leave office before stopping Iran’s nuclear
program. “I think that an Israeli who knew of Bush’s decision not to
bomb Sudan and Syria would have been hard-pressed to think that he
was going to bomb Iran, which was a far more dangerous operation,” he
In Israel, which had proven twice that it is capable of destroying an
enemy’s nuclear reactor, intelligence and operations officers
continued to ponder the possibility of a third strike, this time
They understood, though, that exerting political backbone, as Olmert
had done, would not always be enough. After the successful bombing in
Syria, one major question remained unresolved: how could Israel
repeat its success in Iran?
This article is adapted from Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War,
published in May 2012 by Potomac Books. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem
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