Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. Fakhrizadeh, a very senior Iranian nuclear scientist, was just assassinated near Tehran. Pollard spied for Israel against the US decades ago and is now not only a free man but is free to leave the US for Israel. What’s the connection?
A. The links are many. Both instances are currently very much in the news. Israeli intelligence avoids taking
credit for the assassination of Fakhrizadeh even as US sources point to Israel’s Mossad. Israel initially denied
any link to Pollard but quickly had to own up. The United States is deeply involved in both cases.
Of particular interest are the broader strategic, moral and realpolitik aspects of both the assassination in Iran, which is fresh news awaiting fleshing out with details, and the Pollard spy case, about which virtually everything is known. There are very few good aspects and many bad and ugly ones.
Q. Start with the fresh news: Fakhrizadeh.
A. At the international level the timing of this assassination, indeed the assassination itself, appear to be
directed at pushing Iran toward an ever more angry and vindictive attitude regarding the nuclear issue.
Accordingly, Iran’s ire will be directed toward advancing its nuclear project and against an anticipated effort by
the Biden administration to renew the JCPOA nuclear deal of 2015 which the Trump administration abandoned.
Biden can hardly be pleased with what appears to be a hostile effort by Israeli PM Netanyahu to sabotage his plans for dealing with Iran. Here it bears repeating that neither Netanyahu, who is up to his neck in criminal indictments, nor lame-duck US President Trump, has a moral right or mandate to make major decisions that compromise the incoming US administration. That the threat of escalatory Iranian armed retaliation is low does not diminish the highly problematic risks involved.
This is the conventional wisdom. But there is an equally valid alternative possibility. The Fakhrizadeh targeted killing, following upon earlier blows struck either allegedly or admittedly by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities, archives and scientists, should have a highly demoralizing effect on Iran. Fakhrizadeh was an extremely central strategic figure in Iran’s nuclear project. The country’s most sensitive assets appear to be wide open to penetration and sabotage. Iran’s counter-intelligence and VIP protection capabilities are seemingly extremely weak. This could be one good reason for Tehran to accept a renewed JCPOA that restores a measure of security.
Then too, the Biden administration does not necessarily have to view the Fakhrizadeh assassination as a blow to its prospective Iran policy, even if we assume that both Trump and Netanyahu intended it as such. After January 20, Biden can play ‘good cop’ and offer Iran assurances that, in return for a renewed JCPOA, attacks on its scientists and facilities will cease.
This would require on Iran’s part verifiable compliance--full access to its nuclear installations; no more cheating. Israel’s compliance could conceivably be achieved through US-Israel understandings regarding the Palestinian arena: no pressure from Washington in return for minimal concessions from Israel concerning settlements. In any case, neither Palestinian nor Israeli politics are likely in the near future to prove congenial to a renewed peace process.
Biden can also continue Trump’s policy of encouraging Arab states to normalize relations with Israel regardless of the unresolved Palestinian issue. Netanyahu’s Israel, like many of its Arab neighbors, may continue to oppose the JCPOA, but only politically and diplomatically.
Q. Where are the Arabs in all this?
A. If Iran is going to retaliate, the Saudis and Emiratis do not want to be caught in the crossfire. The Saudis are
already compromised by the reports of a meeting on Saudi soil just over a week ago between Netanyahu and Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Iran will argue that they plotted the assassination together, or that MbS at least knew
The Emiratis are liable to be compromised if, as Israeli security sources warn, Iran retaliates against the many fresh Israeli tourists visiting Dubai, a major Iranian commercial partner just across the Gulf. To be on the safe side, the UAE condemned the assassination as ‘criminal’.
To be sure, most Sunni Arab states are pleased that yet another blow has been struck, presumably by Israel, against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But that is precisely their point: let Israel do the dirty work.
Q. Those are the realpolitik aspects. But is the international media coverage of the Israel angle fair in your view?
A. Up to a point. There is recognition that Israel cannot be proved to have perpetrated the attack and that it does
not acknowledge a role. There is ample praise for Israel’s presumed phenomenal intelligence and clandestine
operational capabilities. The media remembers that Netanyahu put Fakhrizadeh on notice back in 2018 when he
revealed the stolen Iranian nuclear archive.
Then there is the totally counter-productive inclination of Israel’s leadership and media to ‘hint’ at an Israeli role and puff itself up in pride (Netanyahu: “I can’t tell”). If and when Iran retaliates against Israel and/or Israelis, it can hardly be blamed for drawing a fairly obvious conclusion.
What is missing, however, is the strategic backstory. Nowhere in the international media or even, surprisingly, the Israeli media, is there an explanation for why Israel is expending so much security energy against Iran, whether the issue is Iran’s precision missile and nuclear projects or Iranian incursion into Syria and Lebanon. One New York Times article, typically, mentions Israel as “Tehran’s great nemesis”.
Why does no one remind the public that Iran’s political and security leadership regularly demands and threatens Israel’s destruction. That Iran is the only country in the Middle East, or indeed the world, that openly seeks to destroy Israel. That one United Nations member, Iran, regularly threatens to destroy another, Israel, and the international body takes no action.
Here is a symbolic selection of Iranian threats from a very partial list published five years ago in The Atlantic by editor Jeffrey Goldberg:
- Supreme Leader Khamenei: “The Zionist regime is a cancerous tumor and it will be removed”.
- Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guard: “Soon there will be no such thing as the Zionist regime on Planet Earth”.
- Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, who freely admits taking his orders from Tehran: “Israel . . . . is an aggressive, illegal, and illegitimate entity, which has no future in our land. Its destiny is manifested in our motto: ‘Death to Israel’”.
Q. On and on it goes. But isn’t this just tedious fundamentalist propaganda that can be safely ignored, like the rantings of a few Palestinian religious figures in Gaza and Ramallah and a few West Bank settler rabbis?
A. No. The difference is that Iran is building a missile and nuclear capability aimed at Israel. It is trying to
build up its precision missile arsenal and its proxy forces near Israel’s northern borders, with the specific goal
of threatening and deterring Israel so it won’t hinder the overall Iranian missile and nuclear program.
The difference is that from Israel’s standpoint, the Iranian threat is existential and exclusive. Whether or not this or that attack on Iranian assets, allegedly by Israel, is tactically wise--this one was not--this basic fact about the Iran-Israel confrontation should not be forgotten or ignored. It is relevant, for example, when assessing the verdict of ex-CIA chief John Brennan that the Fakhrizadeh assassination was a “criminal act”.
A ‘criminal act’ by a ‘nemesis’? Hardly.
Q. Turning to Pollard, hasn’t everything been written? Apropos criminal acts, Israel spied on its American strategic ally and benefactor. Apropos US-Israel security relations, US anger was and still is understandable . . .
A. Which is why it behooves the Netanyahu government to refrain from its usual hyper-nationalist,
Holocaust-recalling rhetoric if and when Pollard arrives in Israel. This is not Trump v. Biden. This would be
Israel antagonizing the entire US intelligence establishment, its critical ally administration after
administration. This would be Israel insulting the American Jewish community that Pollard betrayed.
Israelis have a hard time accepting that Pollard was no angel, no devoted Jew sacrificing himself for Zion. He tried to sell his espionage services to other countries before Israel. He wanted and received money. These facts belie the argument that he was compensating Israel for intelligence that was unfairly denied it under US-Israel exchange agreements.
Q. Pollard served 30 years, far more than Americans caught spying for Russia or China.
A. Pollard spied against the US on behalf of an ally of the US. That is one difference. His actions potentially
cast suspicion on the loyalty of the many Jews who faithfully serve the American security community--now, as in
Pollard’s day, at the highest level. That is another. His sentence was vindictive, but understandable.
Israel has apologized to the United States. It owes an apology to the American Jewish community, another strategic ally. It should greet Pollard on a very very low key, give him a modest stipend, and forget about him.
Q. Bottom line?
A. During the build-up to the 1991 First Gulf War, long after Pollard was tried and sentenced, I was acting head at
Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. A package arrived by standard mail. The return address
indicated a Jewish name living in Washington DC. Inside was a highly classified briefing book about Iraq prepared
by an official American security institution.
A missile attack on Israel by Saddam Hussein seemed very likely. Washington was telling us to remain passive. The inevitable conclusion was that an American Jewish supporter of Israel thought we should receive information being denied us at a critical time. Or that we were being set up; tested.
The lessons of the Pollard affair have not been ignored or forgotten. I called several witnesses into the room. I phoned then-IDF Chief of Intelligence Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. In front of the witnesses I described the cover of the briefing book and told Amnon I intended to shred it without opening it, and to ignore its sender.
For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.