Former Israeli spy chief talks down strike on Iran nuclear sites as 'stupidest idea'

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan gave a lengthy interview to CBS's 60 Minutes just days after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Washington to drum up support for an Iran nuclear strike.

Ronen Zvulun/AP/File
In this January 2011 file photo, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) hugs Meir Dagan, then outgoing Mossad chief, after thanking him at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. In a lengthy interview to CBS's 60 Minutes yesterday, recently retired Israeli spy chief Meir Dagan said that Israel must consider alternatives to a military strike on Iran.

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In his first American television appearance yesterday, recently retired Israeli spy chief Meir Dagan said that Israel must consider alternatives to a military strike on Iran. His pronouncement came just days after Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States, in which the Israeli prime minister worked to drum up American support for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, which Mr. Netanyahu considers an existential threat.

“An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way how to do it,” Mr. Dagan told CBS news, according to the transcript of the interview. CBS says that Dagan, who led Israel's Mossad from 2002 to 2011, “knows more about Iran’s nuclear program than just about anyone, because it was his job to stop it.” The Iranians suspect that under Dagan, the Mossad was responsible for assassinations, faulty equipment, and computer viruses that set back their nuclear program, according to CBS, which will air Dagan's full interview on 60 Minutes this weekend.

But on the same day as his CBS interview, Netanyahu indicated to TV reporters in Israel that an Israeli strike is still very much an option in his mind. While he prefers a diplomatic solution, he said, the time frame for an Israeli strike on Iran is “not a matter of days or weeks, but also not of years,” Haaretz reports. “The result must be a removal of the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran’s heads,” he said.

According to a separate Haaretz report, Dagan made clear in his interview that he thought there is time to pursue options other than a strike, including encouraging regime change in Iran. He also said that he trusted the Obama administration to choose the right strategy for handling Iran, even as Republican presidential candidates and legislators painted President Obama as weak for not being willing to advocate for a strike.

Mr. Obama said “the military option is on the table and he is not going to let Iran become a nuclear state and from my experience, I usually trust the president of the US,” Dagan said. (The Christian Science Monitor this week looked at why Netanyahu does not have the same trust in Obama’s strategy.)

Dagan also broke ranks with Netanyahu on Iran’s calculations. The prime minister has often painted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the rest of the Iranian leadership as unpredictable, irrational actors. But in his CBS interview, Dagan said the Iranian regime is “a very rational regime. … maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.”

Iran’s state-run PressTV highlighted this comment, headlining its story about the interview “Dagan says Israel must not attack ‘rational’ Iran.

The Monitor reports that Ayatollah Khamenei gave “unprecedented” praise to a US leader this week, applauding a speech by Obama earlier this week in which he tried to scale back discussion about a strike on Iran and criticized Republicans for “bluster” and “big talk.”

“This talk is good talk and shows an exit from illusion,” Ayatollah Khamenei told Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a senior clerical body, according to a translation by Agence France-Presse. “But the US president continued saying that he wants to make the Iranian people kneel through sanctions, this part of this speech shows the continuation of illusion in this issue." 

The Monitor also reported yesterday that according to one survey conducted in February, nearly two-thirds of Israeli Jews oppose a strike without US assistance. A second survey showed that 58 percent opposed a unilateral attack. The opposition, according to the Monitor, is not so much about whether it is right to do so, but whether the attempt would be successful – and the consequences if it isn’t.

Reuters reports that during his US visit, Netanyahu requested “advanced ‘bunker-buster’ bombs and refueling planes” that would increase Israel’s ability to hit Iran’s underground nuclear site and its chances of success. No agreement has so far been made in response to the request.

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