We discovered recently that Israeli intelligence operatives have been active inside Iran, engaged in secret and dangerous missions aimed at stopping that country’s nuclear program. Although no Israeli government spokesman has confirmed such activities, our sources say that Israelis — not Iranian dissidents or other paid mercenaries — carried out the assassinations of at least four nuclear scientists in Tehran over the past three years.
The killing campaign was aimed at persuading anyone in the scientific field in Iran to stay away from the nuclear program. Ethicists and strategists may debate the morality or efficacy of this covert violence, but it is, undoubtedly, right out of the traditional Mossad playbook. The director of the Mossad offers the prime minister several options, like a menu from which he may choose. And if extreme intimidation in the form of murder is chosen, then it is the task of Israel’s spies to carry it out and not be caught.
There is an extra element of worry, however, in Iran. About 25,000 Jews still live in that country. From time to time, Iran’s hard-line authorities have targeted the Jewish minority with false accusations of spying “for the Zionists.” The Jews, and other ethnic groups lacking power and influence in the new Iran, are easily victimized. Many have been imprisoned, typically tortured to elicit false confessions, and some have been hanged.
Derailing Iran’s nuclear work is currently the Mossad’s top-priority project, which has come along with many unique challenges. But the delicacy of having a local Jewish community in the midst of a clandestine battlefield is nothing new to Israeli spies, and it gets at a particular complexity that the Mossad has always confronted when operating all over the world.
With regard to Iran, the agency has faced a similar situation before, and has subsequently developed a strict policy: Don’t be in touch with the local Jews. Don’t use them as saboteurs, killers or even as lookouts in any meaningful way.
The pattern, if non-Israeli Jews are utilized at all, is — at most — to tap them for logistical help, such as lending an apartment, without telling them why. In Iran, it is unlikely that Israeli operatives are doing even that. For the Mossad, this is a policy born of a history of bad experiences.
When the scandal remembered in Israel as the Lavon Affair — named for Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon — erupted in 1954, Israeli intelligence chiefs finally realized that the consequences of being caught were far worse when Jews living in the target country were used as agents. Two Egyptian Jews were hanged and four others sentenced to long prison terms after their espionage cell was caught carrying out bombings and other sabotage meant to embarrass Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.