Is the Mossad Too Obsessed With Iran?

Even among Israel's tough security chiefs, Meir Dagan has always been known for his raw nerve. As a military trainee he would wander around the base during his off hours flinging a knife at trees and telephone poles like a circus entertainer, one fellow soldier recalls. He earned one of his first decorations as a young commando in Gaza, for snatching a live grenade from the hands of an enemy fighter. Long-haired and confident, Dagan would sometimes bring his pet Doberman, Paco, along on raids. His propensity for solving problems by force continued even after he retired from the military. He was leading a task force on terrorist financing in 2001 when his men told him they had discovered a European bank being used to channel money from Iran to Hamas. "We have the address, no?" Dagan asked his intel officers, according to a participant in the meeting, who asked not to be named for fear of angering Dagan. "Burn it down!" The horrified intelligence officers stalked out of the room in protest. (Dagan declined any comment for this story.)

Soon afterward Dagan was brought in to rejuvenate the Mossad, Israel's storied foreign intelligence serv-ice. Eight years later, after a string of covert successes attributed to the agency, he has become the country's longest-serving and most influential spy chief. His men revere him (an affection that does not extend to all their bosses, according to a recent internal survey cited by Mossad sources); even Israel's civilian leaders heed his strategic advice. But critics say his influence has been achieved at a cost: Dagan, 64, has systematically reoriented the Mossad to focus almost exclusively on what he (and most Israelis) see as the dominant threat to the country—Iran. He views almost all of Israel's national-security challenges through that prism.

The Israeli government's single-minded focus on Tehran has caused friction with the Obama administration, which is seeking to engage Iran and to promote a deal with the Palestinians. Publicly there is no rift: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he supports efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program diplomatically, as long as harsh sanctions are imposed if no progress is shown. But the threat of a unilateral Israeli attack remains on the table—and while that threat may give the Americans leverage in talks with Tehran, an actual attack might well invite Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia.

Dagan is not arguing for a quick strike. In fact, he recently pushed back to 2014 his estimate of the date when the Islamic Republic might have the means to build and launch nuclear weapons. But his uncompromising focus on Iran at the least reinforces Netanyahu's hawkish bent. One French intelligence officer, who didn't want to be identified discussing internal Israeli politics, describes Dagan as a "tailwind" carrying Netanyahu toward military action.

As the Iranian threat has grown and Israel's political leaders have been damaged by scandal and the 2006 war with Hizbullah in Lebanon, Dagan has become one of the most powerful figures in the country. He was appointed by then–prime minister Ariel Sharon after a period of retrenchment for the Mossad, and has done much to restore the agency's reputation for ruthless efficiency. His men are considered responsible for two of the Jewish state's highest-profile recent successes: the assassination of the notorious Hizbullah mastermind Imad Mugniyah in Damascus last year, and the discovery of a key piece of intelligence that led to the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor that fall. When news leaked out this September that intel agencies had discovered a previously unknown uranium--enrichment facility in the Iranian city of Qum, Dagan's men quietly got the credit, although it was the Americans who made the announcement. Netanyahu occasionally travels to Dagan's office for briefings, rather than the other way around. (A Netanyahu spokesman also declined to comment.)

That kind of favoritism has irked rivals in Israel's intel establishment. They argue that his focus on Iran has led to a diversion of resources from more immediate threats. "Why is Iran more dangerous than Syria?" asks one Military Intelligence officer, who did not want to be identified criticizing Dagan. "[Syria] has an enormous army on Israel's border, and chemical weapons that could destroy this country." Some Israeli strategists argue that Damascus should be more aggressively courted, in an effort to encourage President Bashar al-Assad to sever his ties to Tehran. Dagan, on the other hand, holds that peace talks with Assad's regime are a waste of time as long as Iran remains Syria's dominant partner.

Dagan's powerful persona may be overcompensation for an early life marked by danger and deprivation. He was born in 1945 on the floor of a freezing freight car making its way from Siberia to Poland. His family, whose name was originally Huberman, fled to Israel when he was 5, on a ship that nearly sank in a storm. Meir stood on the deck wearing a life vest and gripping an orange, convinced that he was not long for this world.

Dagan dropped out of high school to try out for the Israeli military's prestigious commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, but didn't make the cut. (At Military Intelligence headquarters they complain that Dagan still nurses resentment over the slight.) Dagan eventually enlisted in an armor unit, where his sense of the existential dangers to his country only grew. "We suddenly found ourselves in a constant series of wars," he recalled to a journalist in 1999.

In 1970 Sharon, then head of the Israeli military's Southern Command, tapped the 25-year-old Dagan to command a unit of elite special-forces troops operating in the Gaza Strip. On one occasion, according to Israeli press accounts, Dagan and some of his men dressed as Palestinians, entered Gaza on a fishing boat, met with a group of PLO fighters, and killed them all. The unorthodox commando methods of the unit, called Sayeret Rimon, helped reduce terrorist attacks inside Israel significantly, but some of Dagan's men later recounted tales of atrocities: shooting Palestinians in the back and then claiming that they had tried to escape, according to one allegation. Dagan was never charged, however, and he defended himself to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in 1999, insisting that the Rimon years were not a "Wild West period … We never believed that killing women and children was permissible." Still, he added, "orders to open fire were different then. There were fewer restrictions."

At the time, the Mossad was entering its heyday. American spies found the agency's help indispensable during the Cold War. (CIA operatives were astounded when the Israelis managed to procure a Soviet MiG-21 for inspection in the mid-1960s.) By the early 1970s, when Palestinian terrorist organizations became the Mossad's biggest challenge, the agency had acquired a reputation for deadly proficiency; its operatives eliminated PLO fighters around the world, including several of those responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

But the agency's influence declined in the 1980s and 1990s as violence flared inside the occupied territories (which are the responsibility of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic-security service, and the military). When then–Mossad chief Danny Yatom ordered an assassination attempt in 1997—sending operatives to Amman to inject a lethal poison into the ear of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal—the plot went badly awry and the director was forced to resign. Yatom's successor, Efraim Halevy, tolerated few risks. European and American spies began complaining that the Israelis no longer had much to offer on the international intel exchange. Although the agency's budget is a state secret, a source in the Finance Ministry says funding in the Halevy years fell by about 25 percent.

Dagan brought his flamethrower approach to the Mossad in 2001, shortly after the second intifada erupted. Dagan had worked on Sharon's campaign the previous year, but the prime minister wasn't just showing gratitude: he wanted an antidote to the timid directors of the 1990s. Dagan had plenty of military experience but had never served in the Mossad, making it easier to shake the place up. He quickly upended the organization internally and began tangling with Israel's other intelligence agencies.

His approach earned him enemies. In the intelligence world the first and toughest fight is always the battle over budgets. Dagan competes for scarce resources and influence with Israel's Military Intelligence and Shin Bet, among others. In a brazen power grab, the Mossad director began ordering his subordinates to stonewall the other agencies. Dagan appointed an enforcer code-named "Mr. A," whose job was to frustrate rivals in MI. According to Mossad and MI sources who did not want to be identified discussing interagency frictions, the tension grew so unbearable that MI officers began avoiding Mossad headquarters. They taunted Mr. A by calling him by his real name.

Dagan was also making enemies inside the Mossad. He became known for inspecting field stations without notice and shouting at the agents, "What have you done for me lately?" His tantrums sparked waves of resignations. "Let them go," the director once scoffed, according to a source who spoke to him. "We can start from the beginning." Dagan slashed the Mossad's list of targets, announcing that the agency would dedicate most of its resources to only two threats: Iran and terrorism from abroad—meaning primarily the Iranian-backed groups Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. "The list must be short," he said. "If we continue pretending we can do everything, in the end we won't do anything."

Dagan's single-minded focus quickly began to show results. American and Israeli agents discovered in late 2002 that Iran had been working with Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan to build an enrichment facility in Natanz. The information was leaked to an Iranian opposition group called the National Council of Resistance, which released it in 2003, causing an international furor. Later, unexplained accidents began plaguing the Iranian nuclear project, delaying the enrichment process. Scientists started disappearing, labs caught on fire, and aircraft connected to the effort mysteriously fell from the sky. Intelligence sources, who declined to be identified discussing covert operations, say Mossad had a hand in several of these incidents. As Dagan's successes multiplied, so did his budget. Now, "whatever we want, we get," says one senior Mossad officer who recently retired but prefers not to speak publicly about the agency.

Yet as Dagan's power base has expanded, some Israelis have begun to worry that the Mossad director has acquired too much political influence. Dagan developed close ties to neoconservative policymakers in the United States during the Bush-Cheney years, and Dagan's critics charge that the Mossad's intelligence estimates are being tailored to fit the director's personal views, just as Bush advisers were accused of "stovepiping" evidence to suit their agenda. In particular, Dagan's hardline position on Syria echoes the warnings of Bush-era neocons that Assad's regime is hopelessly devoted to Tehran. A European intelligence officer who was stationed in Israel several years ago recalls the Mossad boss trashing colleagues who argued for engaging Damascus. "I was under the impression that he felt like he reflected White House policy," the intelligence officer says.

That said, Dagan's dark view of the Iran threat is widely shared. German, French, and British intelligence agencies all sided with him when he disputed the CIA's 2007 National Intelligence Estimate downplaying Tehran's nuclear program. And in Israel, where political influence has always been tied up with military valor, it's not surprising that his voice would be heeded in the circles of power. He was appointed to make the Mossad more aggressive, and has succeeded. What remains to be seen is whether in the long run his aggression will be more dangerous to Israel or to its enemies.

Bergman, senior political and military analyst for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, is the author ofThe Secret War With Iran.