As Israel copes with the COVID19 crisis, Netanyahu has tapped Cohen to obtain medical supplies from Mossad’s intelligence networks. Mossad reportedly delivered 10 million masks.
Yossi Mellman reports:
It is most likely that Cohen is trying to leverage his contacts to charm his acquaintances – the leaders and heads of intelligence in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – to persuade them to help Israel’s deteriorating health system. It is likely that these two states bought their protective and diagnostic equipment from China. If this is the case, Israel is the only country in the world known to have mobilized its intelligence agency for such a mission. It reflects Netanyahu’s incompetence
Soleimani’s convoy was struck by U.S. missiles as he left a meeting at Baghdad’s airport amid anti-Iranian and anti-American demonstrations in Iraq. Supporters of an Iranian-backed militia had agreed to withdraw from the U.S. diplomatic compound in return for a promise that the government would allow a parliamentary vote on expelling 5,000 U.S. troops from the country.
The Pentagon confirmed the military operation, which came “at the direction of the president” and was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.” The Pentagon claimed in a statement that Gen. Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, under indictment for criminal charges, was the first and only national leader to support Trump’s action, while claiming that that Trump acted entirely on his own.
“Just as Israel has the right to self-defense, the United States has exactly the same right,” Netanyahu told reporters in Greece. “Qassem Soleimani is responsible for the deaths of American citizens and other innocents, and he was planning more attacks.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed retaliation for the general’s death, tweeting that “Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.”
Soleimani was the most capable foe of the United States and Israel in the region. As chief of the Al-Quds force, Soleimani was a master of Iran’s asymmetric warfare strategy, using proxy forces to bleed Iran’s enemies, while preserving the government’s ability to plausibly deny involvement.
After the U.S. invasions of Iraq, he funded and trained anti-American militias that launched low-level attacks on U.S. occupation forces, killing upward of 600 U.S. servicemen and generating pressure for U.S. withdrawal.
In recent years, Soleimani led two successful Iranian military operations: the campaign to drive ISIS out of western Iraq in 2015 and the campaign to crush the jihadist forces opposed to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The United States and Israel denounced Iran’s role in both operations but could not prevent Iran from claiming victory.
Soleimani had assumed a leading role in Iraqi politics in the past year. The anti-ISIS campaign relied on Iraqi militias, which the Iranians supported with money, weapons, and training. After ISIS was defeated, these militia maintained a prominent role in Iraq that many resented, leading to demonstrations and rioting. Soleimani was seeking to stabilize the government and channel the protests against the United States when he was killed.
In the same period, Israel pursued its program of targeted assassination. In the past decade Mossad assassinated at least five Iranian nuclear scientists, according to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, in an effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Yossi Melman, another Israeli journalist, says that Mossad has assassinated 60-70 enemies outside of its borders since its founding in 1947, though none as prominent as Soleimani.
Israel also began striking at the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq last year. The United States did the same on December 29, killing 19 fighters and prompting anti-American demonstrations as big as the anti-Iranian demonstrations of a month ago.
Now the killing of Soleimani promises more unrest, if not open war. The idea that it will deter Iranian attacks is foolish.
“This doesn’t mean war,” wrote former Defense Department official Andrew Exum, “It will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war.“
The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported a year ago that Washington had given Israel the green light to assassinate Soleimani. Al-Jarida, which in recent years has broken exclusive stories from Israel, quoted a source in Jerusalem as saying that “there is an American-Israeli agreement” that Soleimani is a “threat to the two countries’ interests in the region.” It is generally assumed in the Arab world that the paper is used as an Israeli platform for conveying messages to other countries in the Middle East.
Trump has now fulfilled the wishes of Mossad. After proclaiming his intention to end America’s “stupid endless wars,” the president has effectively declared war on the largest country in the region in solidarity with Israel, the most unpopular country in the Middle East.
From The Times of Israel, new details on the political ambitions of Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. According to Aaron Milchan, a billionaire backer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asked Cohen about his loyalties.
Milchan told the investigator that when Cohen was a candidate to head the National Security Council in 2013, a position he eventually received, “I was asked if he would be loyal to the couple.” Asked to specify which couple, Milchan laughed and answered, “dad and mom,” an evident reference to Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. “I said I thought he’d be very loyal.”
The chiefs of Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, have long been public figures in Israel. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo made headlines by saying Israel’s security would be enhanced by some kind of deal.
When the Obama and administration and five world powers were negotiating the Iran deal, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy made headlines by supporting the agreement.
But, until now, no Mossad chief has ever moved on to become the country’s prime minister. That could change with the growing political profile of Yossie Cohen, the current Mossad chief. Cohen is not shy about sharing his covert exploits (he spoke with pride recently about Mossad’s assassination program). He does not deny his political ambitions.
Cohen is one of the two people directly suggested by Prime Minister Netanyahu as his successors in the future – the other being Ron Dermer, who is now Ambassador to US. Cohen is playing it smooth: “People tell me that I can step into Netanyahu’s shoes. I certainly see myself in the Israeli leadership also in the future. But I have not yet decided.” Cohen is likely to continue his job for a couple of years, to end up with a five-year term like his predecessor Tamir Pardo, and then he would have to be on a three-year “cooling-down” period before entering politics. Benny Gantz went into politics right after his period was over, after he was army Chief of Staff.
Its seems like spy chiefs are growing into political roles everywhere. Vladimir Putin was a KGB intelligence officer. Former intel chiefs John Brennan, James Clapper and Michael Hayden are leading critics of Trump. Yossi Cohen follows in their footsteps.
President Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran has generated Tehran’s policy of “tit for tat,” and the results worry the world. Drones downed. Tankers seized. Insults exchanged. Yet both countries say—and act—like they don’t want a shooting war. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini said in May, “We don’t seek a war and neither do they.” Trump ordered an aerial attack on Iran and called it off. Instead, both sides have mobilized their intelligence alliances to harass and demonize the enemy. Fears of miscalculation and “false flags” are mounting. The United States and Iran are not at war, but their intelligence services are.
Behind the Iran headlines are multiple secret agencies, acting individually and collectively. The CIA, it is reliably reported, works with Israel’s Mossad, on dirty tricks from assassination to the Stuxnet virus. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen is an unofficial emissary of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to the Gulf monarchies that fear Tehran. The Saudis use Israeli spyware to surveil and harass critics of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
In Washington the CIA’s finding last November that MBS ordered the killing of a U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been ignored in service of facilitating the anti-Iran campaign. Now the agency’s Iran Mission Center is headed by Michael D’Andrea, a career undercover officer and convert to Islam, known for his involvement in torture, drone wars and hostility to Iran. There’s no reason to think Director Gina Haspel isn’t doing the maximum for Trump’s maximum pressure policy.
At the same time, Iranian intelligence is emboldened. Iran has benefited from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Since 2014, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s foreign intelligence and special operations service, has cultivated allies in Baghdad and Damascus by helping drive ISIS out the region’s population centers. Inside Iran, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security actively and viciously suppresses Iranian civil society while regularly boasting of breaking up CIA spy rings. (On at least one occasion, CIA sources admit the Iranians succeeded.) All the while, the IRGC claims its drones are shadowing American ships.
Diplomacy is defunct, for the moment. Yet for all the hype about Iranian aggression, the Iranians’ response has been defensive and limited. Trump’s dispatch of 500 additional troops to Saudi Arabia is a pat on the back for MBS, not a significant military deployment. The leaders in Washington and Tehran prefer to spar via social media and test each others limits in the Persian Gulf and more covert realms.
Are the tit for tat exchanges a prelude to a shooting war? Or are they a substitute for a full-blown war? While the possibility of miscalculation is real, it is also possible that the unstable status quo will become “normal,” and not give way to war. The Iranians, as the weaker party, have every reason to prefer “asymmetric warfare” to open combat. The United States, weary of two failed crusades in the Middle East, has plenty of incentive to avoid a shooting war, even as Trump seeks to punish the country with sanctions.
Covert action entices national policymakers because it offers a path of action that is more aggressive than diplomacy without the costs of war. While Washington pundits fear “another Iraq,” the conflict between Washington and Iran might also devolve into the sort of hybrid war seen in Ukraine in 2013, in which paramilitary clashes and propaganda campaigns proliferated but never culminated in full-blown armed conflict.
Relying on intelligence services, not uniformed armed forces, preserves flexibility for both sides. The Iranians can play for time by attacking U.S. allies, not the United States. After Iran seized a British tanker, Britain’s foreign minister responded it was not contemplating military action and expressed hope that the United States would return to the nuclear deal. By relying on the CIA and Special Operations Command, Trump can reap the benefits of talking tough with Iran without the political costs of being a war-time president.
The president clearly prefers media spectacles to life and death decisions. He lost interest in Venezuela, when he discovered what most outside observer said: there would be no quick U.S. victory. Nor will there be a quick victory in Iran. Just as Trump pivoted from “fire and fury” about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal to embracing a dovish negotiating track with Kim Jong-un, so he is positioned to pivot from “maximum pressure” to reopening negotiations with Tehran As ideological ally Tucker Carlson warned, if Trump breaks his promise to stay out of “dumb” Middle East wars, he will likely harm his 2020 reelection prospects. On the other hand, new talks with Iran could be portrayed as a victory, even if they accomplish nothing. The beleaguered Iranians say they prefer talks over war, so it could happen.
Covert struggle is the norm in U.S.-Iranian relations. The struggle between the CIA and Iranian intelligence goes back to 1953 when the CIA and Britain’s MI6 mounted Operation Ajax to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government. The country was ruled by the pro-American Shah for the next 25 years, with his security services crushing all opposition. When the Shah was deposed in 1979, the Iranians extracted their revenge, launching a war, via proxy forces, to drive the CIA out of the Middle East. In 1983 Iranian-backed forces bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing a number of CIA employees. The following years, the Iranian-backed forces kidnapped the Beirut station chief and tortured him to death. Once a CIA playground, Iran became what the spies called “a denied area.”
Yet over the years both sides managed to contain the conflict. Iran’s revolutionary fervor cooled. After a punishing eight-year war in which Saddam Hussein, supported by Washington, launched deadly chemical attacks, Iran was forced to sue for peace in 1998. After Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 and was forcibly ejected by an U.S.-led international coalition, he became the primary target of Washington, and Iran lost its place as public enemy number one in the American mind.
Since 1996, the Iranians have not been credibly linked to any terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service study. (In 2011 two Iranians were charged with plotting the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, and one was convicted. The Iranian government denied involvement.)
Relations even improved slightly after 9/11. Iran, it is often forgotten, denounced the al-Qaeda attack and supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to rout the Taliban. Iran opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and supported anti-American forces there. Yet the two countries shared a common enemy in the Salafist jihadists who regard the Shiia Muslism of Iran as heretics. When ISIS overran western Iraq in 2014, Shiite militia groups mobilized to fight the jihadist forces, with the open support of Iran. “IRGC advisers were often on the front lines with the militia groups they supported, and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, was occasionally photographed on the battlefield,” intelligence reporter Mike Giglio recenty noted in the Atlantic. The 5,000 American troops in Iraq pursued the same goal: defeating ISIS.
Now that ISIS has been driven out of the region’s biggest cities and Washington is openly hostile to Iran, the IRGC is in a strong position in Iraq. Iran can use its Iraqi allies to rally local opinion against the United States or even to attack U.S. troops.
What’s new on the American side is the collaboration of Saudi Arabia and Israel intelligence. Until Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) took power in 2015, the Saudis rarely tried to project power outside of the kingdom. Now the Saudis stand accused of deploying use senior intelligence officers to kidnap and kill Khashoggi.
The Saudis once positioned themselves as guardians of the Palestinian national aspirations, and if they had contact with Israelis, they kept it very quiet. Now the Saudi are supporting Jared Kushner’s Middle East Development Project to buy peace by investing up to $50 billion in the West Bank. The plan that has attracted virtually no Palestinian support but it is popular in the Persian Gulf investing class.
Mossad has the same agenda, Yossi Cohen said at a conference in Israel earlier this month. “The Mossad has identified at this time a rare opportunity — perhaps the first in the history of the Middle East — to reach a regional understanding that would lead to an inclusive regional peace agreement.”
According to the Times of Israel, the Mossad chief said, “the opportunity comes from a shared interest with countries throughout the region in fighting Iran and Islamic terror groups, like the Islamic State, and from the close relations with the White House and the Kremlin.” In other words, Kushner’s “peace plan” and Mossad’s anti-Iran agenda seem to be two sides of the same coin.
Given the belligerent incoherence of Trump’s statements and the angry militance of Iran’s response, a full-blown war is a real possibility. But so is a limited hybrid war waged by rival intelligence services that know each other too well.