The outgoing chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service has offered the closest acknowledgement yet his country was behind recent attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear programme and a military scientist.
The comments by Yossi Cohen, speaking to Israel’s Channel 12 investigative programme Uvda in a segment aired on Thursday night, offered an extraordinary debriefing by the head of the typically secretive agency in what appears to be the final days of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.
It also gave a clear warning to other scientists in Iran’s nuclear programme that they too could become targets for assassination even as diplomats in Vienna try to negotiate terms to try to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord with world powers. United States President Joe Biden has dispatched his diplomats to revive the landmark deal from which his predecessor, Donald Trump, walked away in 2018.
“If the scientist is willing to change career and will not hurt us anymore, then yes, sometimes we offer them” a way out, Cohen said.
Among the major attacks to target Iran, none have struck deeper than two explosions over the last year at its Natanz nuclear facility. There, centrifuges enrich uranium from an underground hall designed to protect them from air strikes.
In July 2020, a mysterious explosion tore apart Natanz’s advanced centrifuge assembly, which Iran later blamed on Israel. Then in April of this year, another blast tore apart one of its underground enrichment halls.
Iran nuclear programme is peaceful
Cohen did not directly claim the attacks, but his specificity offered the closest acknowledgement yet of an Israeli hand in the attacks. The interviewer, journalist Ilan Dayan, also seemingly offered a detailed description in a voiceover of how Israel snuck the explosives into Natanz’s underground halls.
“The man who was responsible for these explosions, it becomes clear, made sure to supply to the Iranians the marble foundation on which the centrifuges are placed,” Dayan said. “As they install this foundation within the Natanz facility, they have no idea that it already includes an enormous amount of explosives.”
They also discussed the November killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian scientist who began Tehran’s military nuclear programme decades ago. The US and its regional ally Israel suspect that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. But Tehran has long maintained its programme is peaceful.While Cohen on camera does not claim the killing, Dayan in the segment described Cohen as having “personally signed off on the entire campaign”. Dayan also described how a remotely operated machine gun fixed to a pick-up truck killed Fakhrizadeh and later self-destructed.
Cohen described an Israeli effort to dissuade Iranian scientists from taking part in the programme, which had seen some abandon their work after being warned, even indirectly, by Israel. Asked by the interviewer if the scientists understood the implications if they did not stop, Cohen said: “They see their friends.”
They also talked about Israel’s operation seizing archival documents from Iran’s military nuclear programme. Dayan said 20 agents – none Israelis – seized material from 32 safes, then scanned and transmitted a large portion of the documents. Cohen confirmed that the Mossad received most of the material before it was physically taken out of Iran.