Former Israeli Spy Chief Weighs in on Attacking Iran

Ahmadi_nejad_2012_pakistanOpinions abound on whether the US/Israel/tandem force should or should not strike Iran to prevent them from acquiring the means to develop nuclear weapons. However, in an unprecedented interview with 60 minutes, Mr. Dagan, former Director of Israel’s central intelligence agency, the Mossad, offers a refreshingly prudent perspective regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear programme and a pre-emptive Israeli attack against the obstinate regime (Stahl).

“An attack on Iran before you explore all other approaches is not the right way to do it…” asserts Mr. Dagan.

Dagan develops a nuanced argument that sets aside the polar alarmist and cautious arguments of should or shouldn’t the attack be done. The Israeli spy chief, known for aggressive tactics against his enemies, instead, highlights a few caveats that drive the assertion that not only shouldthe attack not be done now, it should be pursued by the Americans if done at all.

And Prudence Indeed Will Dictate

“I never said there’s a lot of time [to explore other options], but there is moretime.” The interview reports that Dagan’s Mossad spent over a decade dispatching spies and sabotaging Iran’s nuclear efforts with faulty equipment and computer viruses. Dagan, however, an experienced politician with a wry smile, asserts that he will not address or confirm any of these reports.

In a back to International Relations 101, Mr. Dagan also reminds viewers of the nature of leadership and the instincts of leaders to want to stay in power by making rational decisions. The caveat that rational judgment is subjective to a Western vs. non-Western-style of thinking, while referenced by Mr. Dagan, does not change the nature of his argument: Ahmadinejad and company are rational actors. This assertion comes from arguably the most knowledgable source on the nature of Iranian leadership, someone who has the incentive, capability, and expanse of sensitive dossiers on the subject.

“No doubt are they considering all the implications of their direction. They will have to pay dearly and all the consequences of it, and I think the Iranians, in this point in time, are going very carefully in the project. They are not running into it.”

It’s Not Really a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World Anymore

The next question posed by the interviewer addresses a discomfiting point. If the Iranian regime is so rational, then why can’t they be allowed to have nuclear weapons?

The question is not illogical in itself, but speaks to a greater and dangerous misunderstanding of current nuclear weapons and non-proliferation theory, derived from what’s left from a generation groomed on the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) Doctrine.

Mutually Assured Destruction, the doctrine that assumes that two actors will not engage in nuclear weapon’s decisions that will result in the destruction of both of their respective countries, was very applicable to the Cold War and a bi-polar geo-political context. However, it is not a pliable doctrine. It is no longer applicable in the traditional sense. The interviewer’s line of questioning is concerned and educated and not wrong, but rather, working within an outdated frame of reference.

The frame of reference, now, is much more complex. It includes the basic applications of the MAD Doctrine but in an experience derived and layered global context. Meaning, between two countries of equal nuclear power, MAD Doctrine still contributes, not drives, their non-use. However, many other factors also contribute and more heavily weigh in any particular country’s non-use or being a non-receiver of a nuclear attack. These factors include: sitting under the nuclear umbrella of a more powerful official or unofficial nuclear weapons state, perceptiveness to the regional and economic implications of attacking another country, limitations, whether technological or practical on their ability to procure a “successful” attack, and seemingly most delicately, the unwritten taboo of nuclear weapons’ use.

Simply, beginning at the first use of the atomic bomb on Japan and further solidified with the development of global initiatives and treaties against the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon technologies, like the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nuclear weapons have become a taboo solution to inter-country disagreements.

If one country were to wage a non-nuclear attack on another, whether unprovoked or not, and the second country were to respond in a nuclear fashion, that second country would undoubtedly run a very high risk of being alienated by the international community. This country would become an instant pariah. Among other consequences, the nuclear country would likely incur sanctions that would immediately stifle their economy. Further, they would also likely draw the military ire of an ally or other countries friendly to the country they attacked. This situation is easily played out in a number of inter-country relationships, from Pakistan and India to the United States and North Korea. The situation would be unambiguous. Any provocation short of a nuclear attack cannot be returned with one, not because the two countries would destroy each other but because the nuclear-use country would not be able to exist in a post-attack world.

Status Quo Stability

An understanding of chess-board geo-politics is necessary to truly piece together the mass of the nuclear game (Stahl). Each country is a piece in play, some more powerful, strategic, tactical, and some, who are simply just pawns. Looking at an Iranian working nuclear weapons program through a tactical lens, one that disregards the up ending of every geo-political web, as an antiquated frame of reference does, simplifies an Iranian chess-move on a strategic board. Most clearly, back to Stahl’s question, if nuclear weapons are taboo and Iran knows that it would draw the ire of the entire world if it had them, they stillcan’t have them because it changes the leverages of the game. It gives an M-16 to a country used to handling a .22.

Dagan muses, broaching the subject of sanctions and oil prices, “Do you think that an Iranian regime will bring stability to the region?”

Stability is the sticking point. The status quo, with the “Nuclear Weapon States” (NWS) of the United States, France, China, Britain and Russia, and the nuclear states who have defied part of the established non-proliferation taboo (India, North Korea, Pakistan, and unofficially, Israel), have created a checker-board geo-political stability. Overturning this stability willoccur if Iran is allowed a nuclear weapons capability. An Iranian nuclear capability is a proxy capability to create a new status quo.  Not only would it be the impetus for other countries in the region to develop their own nuclear programs, but it gives Iran an important new choke-point on world oil prices–the Iranian primary industry and source of income.

Whether the claims that an Iran can and will ignite a tinderbox Middle East are overblown, the point that remains is irrefutable. The instability and acquired Iranian geo-political power brings the current context of US, Israeli, and Iranian argumentation into the international fold. Even if MAD doctrine, the nuclear use taboo, and Dagan say that Iran’s leadership is rational, Iran cannot possibly be allowed to have nuclear weapons because it will upset the balance as is.

Go Tel (Aviv) It on the Mountain, Mr. Spymaster

Dagan goes on to say that an attack on Iran will not even destroy its nuclear program. To what effect, then, is any of this information actionable, if nothing can be done at the end? What sort of morassic situation  have we come to?

Dagan asserts, almost lethargically, that, “If I would prefer that somebody would do it (attack Iran), I would prefer that the Americans to do it.” Israel has perhaps the greatest stake in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons to an Iranian regime; however, again, the greater political context of chess-board politics comes back in to play here, too. Additionally, the complexity of a successful attack is not lost on the former spy chief. En masse, the Iranian nuclear complex is much different than was the Iraqi reactor destroyed by the Israeli “Operation Babylon” or the Syrian nuclear reactor that the Israelis destroyed in a surprise attack in 2007.

The Iranian nuclear developments are fortified, geographically distant, and numerous, and any attack on these complexes, will draw a response different in nature than the Israeli’s attack. Underlying logic says, a unilateral attack by Israel will not destroy the 12 plus sites, and it will draw a “reign of missiles” (possibly 50,000, according to Dagan) upon the small but populated country. Iran’s nuclear complex would be damaged, but Israel would be destroyed.

An attack by the United States has a much higher chance of success with a seemingly fewer impactful responses by Iran. Meaning, the United States has a greater capability to take out not only Iran’s nuclear complex, but the second response capabilities that Iran would be likely to employ. The leap from a directed attack on Iran’s facilities to a full-scale war with Iran derives from their response. Iran will not go quietly into the night, and Dagan, tacitly, understands the dirty work that must be done that the Israelis cannot do alone.

Because, Because, Because, Because. Because (Of the Wonderful Things He Does)

What seems to be the overlooked factor, here, is less the nuts and bolts of do the Iranians, will the Iranians, won’t the Iranians, but the dynamic domestic political context in the United States and Israel and between and between the United States and Israel. The pressures of the geo-political web that the two anchors is only arguably as important as what each country canactually pursue given its domestic political situation and inter-country politics.

The relationship between Israel and the United States is deeply embedded in the US domestic political character. American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America’s pro-Israel Lobby, is one of the most influential groups, en bloc, in the United States. The amount of money and weight behind an AIPAC endorsement in, let’s say, a presidential race, is well-known and well-rooted in reality. President Obama is in a precarious position, as is any president in an election year in his first term. What can he possibly do from now to November? And what can he do (or not do) and still get reelected? Domestic pressure to act aside, the tensions between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are well documented.

So, we approach the all-important question of timeliness-in-intelligence and political action. Here, both Dagan and Obama’s assertions that there is more time yet to discuss military action on Iran and the timetable of Iran’s increasingly aggressive diction is important.

In a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee, DNI Clapper indicated that though Iran has the capacity to eventually produce nuclear-grade materials, it would take years after this capacity is reached to have a fully developed weapon. While the fact that the capability to enrich Uranium to a certain percentage underlies the capability to “go all the way” is lost on many, the idea that the nuclear, able to bomb Israel, Iran, is years away, puts the aggressive rhetoric regarding a pre-emptive strike on Iran in clearer context, especially given Dagan’s assertions that Israel should wait.

The Shadow of a Burning Bush

The summative significance here is not an enlightening one, but a logical one. The domestic political context of the US would not, at this time, allow for a military strike on Iran. It is an election year, and though AIPAC is a hugely influential voting bloc, President Obama is haunted by the specters of the past decade. Trillions of dollars, two wars, two steps back and one forward in a seemingly life-less economy would not allow for it. Dagan, Israeli’s former spy chief, whether to dirty Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agenda, or in candor, defers action to the United States, citing the inefficacy of an Israeli attack and rational nature of the Iranian regime. Changing the status quo of a region, and the geo-political standing of a country is one issue, but igniting a tinderbox, prematurely, and with every domestic-political reason not to, speaks to a game that’s only in the seventh inning stretch.



*Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Lint Center Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. or any employee thereof. The Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Lint Center Bloggers.

About the Authors:

Brittany Minder received her BA in International Relations from Stanford University and she serves as the Lint Center for National Security Studies Public & External Affairs Associate.

Timothy W. Coleman serves as the Director of Communications at the Lint Center for National Security Studies.


Stahl, Lesley, Interviewer. “The Spymaster: Meir Dagan on Iran’s Threat.” 60 Minutes. CBS: 11 March 2012. Television. <;storyMediaBo&xgt;.

“Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance.” Arms Control Association. Arms Control Association, n.d. Web. 12 Apr 2012. <>.

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