Shabtai Shavit served as director of Mossad (the equivalent of the CIA in Israel) from 1989 to 1996. A former member of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Commission on Future Preparedness on Counterterrorism (for the New York Fire Department), he is a founding member of Friends of Israeli Firefighters and director of EMG Israel, a company which is working on a natural gas project from Egypt to Israel. He was interviewed by Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer and managing editor Joy Weinberg.What do you see as the main threat facing Israel today?
What makes Iran so great a threat?
Iran is a very big country—in size, population, and natural resources, mainly oil and gas, which this year will bring in $60 billion. Iran’s national reserve is about $65 billion, about 2.5 times its national debt, and as long as world oil prices remain high, Iran will have as much money as it needs.
As it needs for what?
To explain, I have to go back to the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq fought an almost ten-year war, eventually won by Iraq. The Iranians have learned the lessons of that war. Their defeat, they concluded, was due to Iraq’s use of long-range rockets as well as chemical weapons introduced during the last stages of the war. As a result, Iran decided to shore up its military operations through chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry, and the capabilities to launch them against its enemies.
To launch against whom in particular?
In the early 1990s, when Iran began to develop and procure non-conventional weapons, it was widely assumed that they would be used as deterrents in a future conflict with Iraq. But as director of Mossad, I was very skeptical about this assessment. Following the research and development pattern of the Iranian arms industry, we discovered that the surface-to-surface missiles they were starting to develop had a range of 1,300 kilometers, which was much longer than what’s needed to hit Iraq from the western side of Iran. Yet, that range was enough to cover all of Israel. We concluded that their objective was not to deter Iraq—but to build offensive capabilities against Israel.
Has Iran developed these weapons and missile capabilities?
Iran already has chemical and biological warheads for their surface-to-surface missiles, with launching capabilities of 3,500 kilometers, which could reach Russia and parts of Europe. They’re developing a ballistic missile with launching capabilities of 5,000 kilometers, capable of striking the U.S. They’re also investing heavily in the eventual building of submarines with missile-launching capabilities. And they are rapidly pursuing development of nuclear weapons to be launched by air, ground, and sea.
From whom are they acquiring technical assistance to proceed at such a fast pace ?
Over the years they have received nuclear assistance from Pakistan, surface-to-surface missile technology from North Korea and China, and technical support from Russian scientists—especially right after the demise of the Soviet Union, a chaotic time when Russian scientists and other technological experts couldn’t find work and make a living, and so they offered their expertise to anyone willing to pay for it. And the Iranians were ready to pay very handsome salaries for these services. Russia is still a main supplier of armaments and nuclear technologies to Iran.
You’ve been talking about capabilities; what about Iran’s intentions?
It’s a good question. As an intelligence officer, I always tried to answer two questions: what are an enemy’s capabilities and what are its intentions? Determining intentions is usually far more difficult than ascertaining capabilities—it’s more of an art. Let’s take Syria, for example. It is very hard to penetrate into Bashar al-Assad’s mind, to know his intentions. However, with the Iranians there are no secrets. They broadcast their intentions, telling everybody their main objective is to erase Israel from the map, destroy the Israeli people—and not only the Israeli people, but all infidels.
Who else do they want to destroy?
That answer is rooted in Iranian religious beliefs that date back to medieval times. There are many tenets—I’ll discuss the main ones. First, according to Shiite writings, Iran’s spiritual leader, who at this time is the Ayatollah Khamenei, is believed to be a reincarnation of God Almighty, infallible and incapable of making mistakes. Second, the Iranian religious leadership is authorized by God Almighty to do whatever is necessary—cheat, deceive, etc.—in order to serve the purpose of the end game; we’ll get to that in a moment. Third, there is to be no religious coexistence in the world. The Iranian people are therefore instructed by God Almighty through their supreme leader to fight the infidels—to either eliminate them or convert them to true Islam.
Their ultimate goal is to establish a global or world Muslim caliphate. And according to their ideology, which is described in many of their religious texts, the twelfth imam—the Mahdi who disappeared in the 12th century—must reappear. In order for this to happen there must be a martyrdom event on the scale of biblical proportions, an Armageddon. All devout Muslims are instructed to be proactive to hasten the reappearance of the Mahdi. Now, if you stretch this “logic” further, one must conclude that Iran’s leaders are intent on perpetrating such an Armageddon. To do so, Iran would need precisely the kinds of weapons of mass destruction it is acquiring, including nuclear warheads.
How widely accepted is this ideology?
These are widely accepted, deep-rooted beliefs among devoted Shiites in Iran.
Does the Israeli leadership share your analysis?
How, then, will Israel stop Iran from carrying out its intention?
Here I am talking only for myself; I stopped working for the government ten years ago. I personally believe Israel should exhaust all political options before deciding to use force, an assessment I believe is shared by the Israeli government and the American administration. This remains a challenge. The politically correct Europeans are characteristically on the fence; unfortunately, they have to learn lessons the hard way. China, which relies on Iran as its main source of energy, is very cynical in its strategic decisions and therefore unlikely to join an international coalition against the Iranians in the foreseeable future. Russia, which has had an adversarial relationship with Iran, including a few wars over some 700 years, has changed course and become Iran’s prime benefactor, supplying weapons systems, building Iran a nuclear reactor, allowing Russian scientists to work in Iran, and more.
How do you account for this shift?
In the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s demise, the Russians were badly in need of money, so it made sense for them to support Iran’s development of nuclear weaponry for a price. But today, with Russia sitting on a huge pile of oil revenues, money can no longer be the reason for the Kremlin’s continuing assistance. What is the reason? The only answer I can come up with is that Russia will do just about anything to regain its status as a superpower, and to do so Russia will oppose the U.S. at every turn. If Washington considers Iran an enemy, then Moscow will consider Iran a friend.
One day, however, the Kremlin will wake up to the realization that a nuclear Iran is not in Russia’s national-security interest. What can be done to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
The Western democracies have tried everything possible—sanctions, threats, temptations, promises, you name it—to convince the Iranians to cease enriching uranium. But Iran won’t budge.
Still, there is some time before Iran reaches the point of no return—how much time is a matter of debate. One possibility is an American military strike. Another is a change of regime through a kind of implosion from within—a revolution by Western-educated Iranians, of which there are many, who are fed up with being kept in a straitjacket by the religious leadership of their country. This may be wishful thinking, but it cannot be ruled out.
If the Americans don’t unleash force and there is no change of regime from within, then the Israeli government will have to face a very hard decision.
If Israel couldn’t defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon, how could she take on a powerhouse like Iran?
It’s a wild exaggeration that Hezbollah humbled the IDF—a perception fed by the media in Israel and internationally. The reality is very different.
First, you have to reframe your perception—this war was different because in the past Israel won its wars decisively, and here the war went on for six weeks without a clear-cut victory. Still, I believe Israel won this war. The situation today is much better than it was before the war. We no longer have Hezbollah sitting on the border; instead, the Lebanese sovereign military and U.N. forces are there. A new U.N. resolution 1701 calls for disarming Hezbollah—it hasn’t been delivered, but it still strengthens Israel politically. And if you were to ask me what the chances are that Hezbollah will shoot new rockets at us tomorrow, my answer would be “nil.”
Would Iran’s leaders agree with your analysis?
Tehran is not happy about what happened in Lebanon because Iran built Hezbollah as a tool to use when it suits the Iranians’ interests and timetable, and then Hezbollah messed it up. In fact, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasralla publicly admitted that had he known what the Israeli reaction would be, he wouldn’t have approved the attack that launched this war.
At Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in NYC, you said, “It takes a lifetime of experience to be an optimist, but I believe the good guys are going to win at the end of the day.” what makes you think the West will prevail?
To answer, I will mix realism with a bit of philosophy. Speaking philosophically, I just don’t believe that the radical Islamists, whatever their brand—Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Iranian ayatollahs—will win.
Let me try to explain with a short story. I did my master’s degree at Harvard University, where I took a class on the Cold War and the relationship between the Soviets and the Americans. Back in the fifties, all the innovative research and development was being done by the Americans, while the Russians took shortcuts—they stole, bought, cheated. The American response was to adopt a strategy where at all times the U.S. would be a step and a half ahead of the Russians. So even when the Russians succeeded in acquiring technology through espionage, America was still half a step ahead of them.
Today the adversaries are different, but the same principle applies. If you compare the translation of Islamic thinking into Western languages with Western writings translated into Arabic during the last 500 years, it’s at the rate of 100 to one. Islam has never been interested in what’s happening in the West. The same applies to technological development. The technologies they’ve acquired are not as a result of their own independent research and development; they come from others.
In short, I believe that Western ingenuity will enable us to remain at the cutting edge. Israel, too, will continue to be more innovative and technologically advanced than the Muslim states. This—our best and strongest advantage—gives me confidence that the good guys are going to win at the end of the day.