Ex­plo­sions at Iran’s nu­clear sites have ex­posed fis­sures in Is­raeli pol­i­tics

The National - News - - OPINION - CON COUGHLIN Con Coughlin is the Tele­graph’s de­fence and for­eign af­fairs edi­tor

Sus­pi­cions that Is­rael has been re­spon­si­ble for mys­te­ri­ous ex­plo­sions at fa­cil­i­ties linked to Iran’s nu­clear weapons pro­gramme have deep­ened fol­low­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary pub­lic spat be­tween two prom­i­nent mem­bers of the Is­raeli se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment.

For decades Is­raeli mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence chiefs have rigidly ob­served the coun­try’s strict pro­to­col that they never make any pub­lic com­ment on sen­si­tive oper­a­tions un­der­taken over­seas.

This is par­tic­u­larly the case when it comes to a deadly foe such as Iran. Is­raeli of­fi­cials are well aware that any mis­step could pro­voke a fierce re­sponse from Tehran, which funds and sup­ports a num­ber of mili­tias close to Is­rael’s bor­ders, such as Hezbol­lah in south­ern Le­banon and Ha­mas in the Gaza Strip.

Con­se­quently Is­rael has never claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for as­sas­si­na­tions car­ried out be­tween 2010 and 2012 of prom­i­nent Ira­nian sci­en­tists be­lieved to be work­ing on their coun­try’s con­tro­ver­sial nu­clear pro­gramme, even though the killings were widely be­lieved to have been car­ried out by Is­rael’s Mos­sad in­tel­li­gence ser­vice. Sim­i­larly Is­rael has never claimed credit for in­tro­duc­ing the pow­er­ful Stuxnet virus into vi­tal Ira­nian com­puter sys­tems linked to the coun­try’s clan­des­tine nu­clear weapons pro­gramme in 2007.

There­fore, the pub­lic row that has erupted in Is­rael over sug­ges­tions that it was be­hind the re­cent spate of ex­plo­sions in Iran pro­vides a rare glimpse of the sim­mer­ing ten­sions that lie at the heart of its in­tel­li­gence es­tab­lish­ment, as well as point­ing to its in­volve­ment in the at­tacks.

In the first ex­plo­sion, which took place in late June, Iran’s mil­i­tary com­plex at Parchin – linked to its weapons pro­gramme – was badly dam­aged. This was fol­lowed by a sec­ond, and more se­ri­ous at­tack at the ura­nium en­rich­ment fa­cil­ity at Natanz, where the regime has been ac­cused of seek­ing to pro­duce ma­te­rial for a nu­clear war­head. Western in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials be­lieve the Natanz at­tack may have set the Ira­nian pro­gramme back by up to 18 months.

Of­fi­cially, the Is­raeli govern­ment has made no com­ment on claims by Iran’s Is­lamic Repub­lic News Agency that the at­tacks were car­ried out by “the Zion­ist en­tity” – a fre­quently used Ira­nian ex­pres­sion for Is­rael.

Is­rael’s of­fi­cial code of si­lence has been bro­ken, though, by claims made by Avig­dor Lieber­man, the coun­try’s hawk­ish for­mer for­eign min­is­ter, that the di­rec­tor of Mos­sad Yossi Co­hen was be­hind a leak to The New

York Times that the coun­try was re­spon­si­ble for the Natanz at­tack.

Cit­ing “a Mid­dle Eastern in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer”, the news­pa­per said the fire in the Natanz build­ing used for pro­duc­ing cen­trifuges had been caused by Is­rael. “There was an op­por­tu­nity, and some­one in Is­rael cal­cu­lated the risk and took the op­por­tu­nity,” the anony­mous of­fi­cial was quoted as say­ing, adding that the Natanz fa­cil­ity had been “com­pletely de­stroyed”.

This prompted Mr Lieber­man to ac­cuse Mr Co­hen of be­ing re­spon­si­ble for the leak. Speak­ing on Is­raeli Army Ra­dio, Mr Lieber­man called on Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu to take ac­tion against the in­tel­li­gence chief. “An in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial says that Is­rael is re­spon­si­ble for an ex­plo­sion in Iran,” he said. “I ex­pect the Prime Min­is­ter to shut the leaker’s mouth.”

This is not the first time that Mr Lieber­man has clashed in pub­lic with the Mos­sad chief. In Fe­bru­ary he re­vealed that Mr Co­hen had trav­elled to Qatar, ac­com­pa­nied by an Is­raeli mil­i­tary gen­eral.

Mr Co­hen, who has been mooted as a pos­si­ble fu­ture leader of Mr Ne­tanyahu’s Likud party, has not re­sponded to Mr Lieber­man’s ac­cu­sa­tion re­gard­ing Iran. But the fact that Mr Lieber­man, who heads one of Is­rael’s main op­po­si­tion par­ties, is pre­pared to crit­i­cise the coun­try’s in­tel­li­gence chief in pub­lic il­lus­trates the ex­treme sen­si­tiv­ity of the Iran is­sue in Is­raeli pol­i­tics.

At the same time it ap­pears to con­firm Is­rael’s in­volve­ment in the at­tacks, thereby rais­ing the prospect of an Ira­nian re­sponse, a move that could have se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for se­cu­rity in the re­gion.

While Iran’s Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps – which has ul­ti­mate re­spon­si­bil­ity for the regime’s nu­clear weapons ac­tiv­i­ties – has de­clined to com­ment on the at­tacks, cit­ing “se­cu­rity mea­sures”, the coun­try’s state-run me­dia has hinted that these in­ci­dents will re­quire a change in Iran’s strat­egy to­wards its en­e­mies.

Ten­sions have been mount­ing be­tween Iran and Is­rael af­ter Tehran an­nounced it was to re­sume work on its ura­nium en­rich­ment ac­tiv­i­ties in re­sponse to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from the 2015 Iran nu­clear deal.

Speak­ing at a news con­fer­ence shortly af­ter the Natanz ex­plo­sion, Is­raeli For­eign Min­is­ter Gabi Ashke­nazi re­marked: “We have a longterm pol­icy not to al­low Iran to have nu­clear abil­i­ties. This regime with those abil­i­ties is an ex­is­ten­tial threat to Is­rael.”

In ad­di­tion to tar­get­ing its nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties, Is­rael has car­ried out dozens of air strikes against Ira­nian-backed forces in Syria. Is­raeli war­planes were also re­ported to have car­ried out a bomb­ing raid against an Ira­nian mis­sile fac­tory in south­ern Iraq in Jan­uary.

To date, Iran has not re­sponded di­rectly to the up­surge in Is­raeli ac­tiv­ity. But that could eas­ily change now that Is­raeli politi­cians and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials no longer seem to have any qualms about dis­cussing their anti-Ira­nian oper­a­tions in pub­lic.

A pub­lic spat be­tween mem­bers of the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment ap­pears to con­firm Tel Aviv’s role in the at­tacks

Reuters

Spats over na­tional se­cu­rity point to po­lar­i­sa­tion in Is­raeli pol­i­tics

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