Explosions at Iran's nuclear sites have exposed fissures in Israeli politics
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.
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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 long-term 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.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor
Updated: July 9, 2020 09:14 PM