All eyes on Tehran

A new book recounts the most recent decades of Iran’s quest to destroy Israel through a slow process of strangulation and attrition, and Israel’s attempts to resist through a combination of clandestine, kinetic, and diplomatic means. Its admirably sober tone is at once refreshing but also chilling.

Target Tehran joins a growing list of books chronicling the course of Israel’s shadow war with Iran—decades long and, from the vantage point of the present, seemingly interminable. But where many of these cloak-and-dagger histories—the works of Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Meshaal, valuable as they are, come to mind—succumb to an almost irresistible temptation to embellishment and a fawning adoration of Israel’s clandestine exploits, Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar’s entry distinguishes itself with its refreshingly sober tone and balance of content.

 

Bob and Evyatar—senior military correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and the former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report, respectively—recount the most recent decades of Iran’s quest to destroy Israel through a slow process of strangulation and attrition, and Israel’s attempts to resist through a combination of clandestine, kinetic, and diplomatic means. Notwithstanding the frightfulness of this objective— the destruction of the authors’ own country—the pair do not caricaturize Iran or its officials. There are no “mad mullahs” gracing the pages of Target Tehran. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme clerical leader, is portrayed as austere, pensive, and calculating. Nor are the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its external Quds Force arm, or operatives from Iran’s powerful Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) depicted as irrational fanatics. Whatever their eschatological anticipations, they do not impact their day-to-day operations. These are professionals: slowly, methodically pursuing an end-goal, wicked as it may be, with determined focus. Target Tehran does not even mention The Mahdi, Shia Islam’s central messianic figure, nor the alleged imperative driving Iran to seek Israel’s destruction, viz to bring about his arrival and the end-times. At most, the book mentions in passing that Iran is motivated equally by “religious ideology” and “national grandeur” in pursuing this goal.

 

This sobriety of tone is at once refreshing but also chilling. It is precisely the pursuit of an irrational end through incremental pragmatic action that has made Iran such a formidable foe for Israel, and one that has confounded the international community. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a totalitarian theocracy. Its apparatuses, extensions, and proxies have committed unspeakable horrors that rival the worst produced by ISIS, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Yet, Iran has nevertheless positioned itself as a member of the family of nations. Most Western nations have full diplomatic relations with Iran; its representatives sit on the councils of the most august international bodies. Its practice in warfare, and its voice within the international community, even have an impact on the course of the law of war. At the same time, the Islamic Republic of Iran abhors the liberal international order, seeking to gradually fracture it so it can pursue its objectives and interests unfettered. Tehran is, at once, perceived as a normal state and treated as such by the international community, while truly being a revolution. This, it owes to its pragmatism.

 

That pragmatism may be the critical factor distinguishing the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of Israel’s destruction from the myriad attempts by the Jewish state’s prior adversaries—and the one that gives Tehran a chance of success.

 

But neither is Israel a helpless lamb silently awaiting its slaughter. The Mossad, arguably the most central of Target Tehran’s extensive cast of characters, is impressive in its reach, powerful, and lethal—characteristics that have imbued Israel’s spy agency with its legendary aura. But unlike the portrayal of Israel’s special forces arms or its intelligence agencies in books like No Mission is Impossible or Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service, Bob and Evyatar’s Mossad is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. It is a very human organization, and its limitations, both in capabilities and in its ability to impact Iran’s nuclear program, are on full display.

 

That is, because like all institutions or agencies, governmental or otherwise, the Mossad is comprised of human beings. And human beings are not neutral creatures. We are flawed and biased. Our histories form our personalities, and our personal interests and experiences impact our actions and choices. As a rule, Target Tehran fixates almost obsessively on the individuals that make up ostensibly neutral bodies. And this is to the authors’ credit, a needed reminder especially in an era where the garb of neutrality afforded by seemingly prestigious affiliations is increasingly being exploited by activists to advance ideological, political, or personal agendas. Organizations, it turns out, really are just the sum of their parts.

 

The influence of personalities on institutions is ever-present. Bob and Evyatar go to painstaking detail to demonstrate how the lack of chemistry between an Israeli and an American leader, as an outgrowth of their personalities, can create daylight between nations; or how warm personal ties between a CIA Director and his Mossad counterpart can bridge gaps and promote the pursuit of mutual national interests. Or how an International Atomic Energy Agency chief like Yukiya Amano can be so fixated on preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as to insist on turning a blind eye to the myriad violations of the deal by Iran, as brought to his attention by the Israelis.

 

But turning back to Mossad. It is to this agency, more than any other body, that the task has fallen to challenge the fate that Iran has set for Israel. How it pursues this task has largely depended on the personality of the agency’s director. Meir Dagan, the former paratrooper and Sayeret Matkal officer, pushed his agency into more daring and lethal pursuits than his cerebral and philosophical predecessor Efraim Halevy. And the dapper and loquacious Yossi Cohen, with his love of designer suits, insisted time and again on using intelligence and the Mossad’s accomplishments to wage a humiliating psychological war against Iran—a flashy approach that sharply contrasted with that of his spartan predecessor Tamir Pardo.

 

Broadening Israel’s regional partnerships and peace treaties is one avenue that the Mossad has pursued to counter Tehran. Given the centrality of diplomacy to this effort, which in time would blossom into the Abraham Accords, it is no wonder then that this signal accomplishment was achieved during the tenure of the polished Cohen—a schmoozer by all accounts, fluent in Arabic and in the customs and sensitivities of the Arab world.  Target Tehran makes it clear that this prize resulted from the tireless efforts of several prior Israeli prime ministers and intelligence heads; but it is an undeniable accomplishment, one indebted to Cohen’s unique skillset, to have carried those efforts across the finish line.

 

Target Tehran does not conceal its authors’ view of the Abraham Accords. The book recounts, in painstaking detail, Israel’s countless tactical accomplishments in curbing Iran’s ambitions— assassinating scientists, using ingenious methods to damage or destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, and perhaps even providing critical assistance to the United States when it assassinated Qassem Soleimani, storied commander of the Quds Force. But the Abraham Accords stand apart as a singular strategic achievement, the crown jewel of the Mossad’s accomplishments, and a sea-change in the strategic balance of power between Israel and Iran. Suddenly, Israel, the once isolated regional pariah, had amassed a new host of wealthy, powerful, and pro-American regional friends, who shared Israel’s fears of Iran and a border with their mutual adversary.

 

But Target Tehran was published on April 3, 2023. The paperback edition, if it will take into account the developments of the intervening time, is not due out until September 24, 2024. In the meantime, the Middle East has once again undergone an upheaval, one that began on October 7, 2023 and that has strained the ties built through the Abraham Accords. As Israel pursues its quest to destroy Hamas, the inevitable carnage and destruction wrought upon Gaza due to the terror group’s intertwining of its assets with its civilian surroundings— a fusion unprecedented in the annals even of urban warfare—has left the Jewish state on its backheels diplomatically.

 

It is worth noting that the state-owned FlyDubai airlines, and Etihad Airways, the UAE’s second-largest carrier, resumed flights to Israel in late November, a signal that the Emiratis continue to value the partnership. But the war in Gaza has not been concluded and may in fact be far from over. At the time of writing, Israel may be preparing an incursion into Rafah, where it is believed the last remnants of Hamas are entrenched—but where over 1 million displaced Palestinians from the rest of the coastal strip have also sought refuge from the ravages of war. The impact on civilian lives, despite Israel’s best efforts can nevertheless be expected to be high. Might this be the action that breaks the ties between Israel and its newfound Arab allies, strained by six months of war? Time will tell.

 

But whether, after the embers of this war have finally faded, Israel finds itself isolated or not, there is another narrative thread that binds together the decades recounted by Target Tehran: Israel will always be out in front in the fight to curb Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and its broader regional ambitions and desires to impact the global order, will have a detrimental impact on the lives of countless people beyond Israel’s borders. One need only look at the havoc wrought by the Islamic Republic in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and, above all, Syria to get a glimpse of the world remade in Iran’s image.

 

But the international response to Israel sounding the alarm over Iran’s ambitions has been tepid, hesitant. Even the leading global powers would rather avoid such a confrontation if they can. Of course, the threat that Iran and its numerous proxies pose to them and their interests is distinct from Israel’s inevitable fate in the worldview of the Resistance Axis: annihilation. The urgency evoked in Jerusalem by such unyielding enmity will necessarily make the fight against Tehran, in many ways, Israel’s alone. If the Jewish state emerges victorious form this struggle, and perhaps once the dust of history has settled on this chapter, the world may recognize the debt owed to this small country for having battled and defeated the Islamic Republic’s ambitions.

 

A final word must be said: Target Tehran is not without flaws. Some are minor factual errors which can be easily corrected in future prints, like misidentifying the late Qassem Soleimani as the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and not its external arm, the Quds Force, or incorrectly stating that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs constitute the country’s demographic majority. Others reflect deeper conceptual flaws. The authors rely on the concept of ketman, or dissimulation, to express the discrepancy between Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the prohibition placed on such activities by two of its Supreme Leaders. Relying on an outside scholar, they write “Persian culture…has perfected the art of deception; an ancient Persian term ketman translates roughly as concealing and camouflaging one’s true thoughts. The Iranians…attach little meaning to words, and should be judged on actions, something that was…often misunderstood by Western negotiators.” But deception is an intrinsic part of statecraft, even more so with autocratic states. Such esoterica are unnecessary to understand Iran’s behavior and detract from the book’s otherwise serious and sober tone. Thankfully, this was the sole exception.

 

Target Tehran: How Israel is Using Sabotage, Cyberwarfare, Assassination—and Secret Diplomacy—to Stop a Nuclear Iran and Create a New Middle East, by Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar. Simon & Schuster, pp 368.

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