Ronen Bergman is clearly irritated when he addresses the “intolerable chatter” of Israeli politicians on the prospects of an Iran strike.
“You know the famous quote: ‘If you’re gonna shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!’” he says. “I think this approach we adopted of having to convince the world that it must ‘hold us back’ so we don’t attack Iran is delusional. The world knows we can do it, especially after the bombing of the Syrian site. We don’t need to prove it to anyone.”
Bergman says that he is particularly upset when belligerent statements are made by senior officials as part of domestic political battles.
“What we have here is Shaul Mofaz wanting to show that he’s tougher than Tzipi Livni, and he does it at the expense of the global oil market. It’s crazy.” Bergman says, referring to skyrocketing oil prices in the wake of Minister Mofaz’s remarks on Iran.
Bergman, one of Israel’s foremost security and terrorism experts, has been following Iran for many years and is passionate about the subject. Last year he published a book about Israel’s struggle against the Iranian threat that topped the local bestseller list for long weeks. The book has now been published in English under the title The Secret War with Iran, prompting an interview with Ynetnews on some of today’s burning questions.
Let’s start with the million dollar question: Is Israel capable of striking Iran’s nuclear sites?
Israel has the ability, through various means, to hit Iran’s nuclear sites. Our politicians have said it too. The sites are of course heavily fortified, but for the time being only a small part of them is underground. News reports suggesting that everything is in bunkers aren’t true. Keep in mind that it is hard to do this sort of thing underground; we’re not talking about hiding a pencil case.
However, Israeli intelligence and military officials are not talking about destroying the Iranian nuclear program, as was done in Iraq – at most, they are talking about considerably slowing it down. We should also keep in mind that the strike on the Iraqi reactor did not completely eliminate the threat. After all, 10 years later they were again on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough. The strike merely forced the Iraqis to divert the previous effort to a different track.
What are some of the operational problems Israel will face should it decide to strike Iran?
While Israel is certainly capable of launching an attack, this entails several problems. For one thing, we cannot compare Israel’s arsenal to what the United States has in terms of means. Such an operation would require many sites to be attacked more or less simultaneously, while neutralizing considerable defensive measures – the Iranians have deployed a crazy number of missile batteries. Moreover, even if such attack succeeds, it will only succeed in hitting the sites we know about. What about the secret sites we don’t know about?
In short, we need a combination of intelligence and operational capabilities in order to launch such strike. To some extent Israel possesses such capabilities, but to some extent it does not. We may indeed have drawn up plans for such operation, but it doesn’t mean that it will happen tomorrow.
An attack on Iran would only happen as the absolute last result. In my book I quote Dr. Eli Levita, deputy director of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, who says that the worst nightmare for Israel is an American president – any president – calling our prime minister and giving us the green light to attack Iran, on our own.
What kind of Iranian response do you expect to a possible strike?
The Iranian response to such attack could materialize in various forms. At this time Iran has a missile arsenal that can reach Israel; we are talking about roughly 70 Shihab missiles that pose a similar threat to the Iraqi Scud missiles in the First Gulf War. As such, it’s not such a big problem. Some missiles will fall in the sea, while others will be intercepted by Arrow missiles; such response would cause some damage, but it won’t be an existential threat.
Journalist Uri Avneri once spoke to me about the famous quote: “If a dog bites a man, that’s not news – but if a man bites a dog, that’s news.” He said this sentence had one exception – when a dog bites a man nobody cares, except for the man who was bitten. Well, we can say that if missiles land here it will certainly matter to the people who would be hurt. But it’s not an existential threat.
An issue that is more problematic in my view is Hizbullah, particularly their ability to target interests overseas, as they have done in Argentina. The Iranians are in fact employing two arms here that are a sort of insurance policy. They use the threat of terror to deter Israel and the US from attacking, and they want a nuclear bomb to ensure that nobody would do to them what was done to Saddam Hussein.
In addition, an Iranian disruption of the flow of oil could have a critical effect on the global oil market. I mean, look at what happened when Mofaz spoke about attacking Iran, sending oil prices up – and this while he merely spoke about it. Imagine what would happen in case of an actual attack.
You mentioned Hizbullah’s terror threat: Do you foresee the group avenging the assassination of commander Imad Mugniyah? Are they interested in revenge?
They are very interested. It may be too early to assess the implication of Mugniyah’s assassination on Hizbullah’s operational activity – I don’t know whether even Hizbullah itself can assess it. However, the symbolic meaning of the assassination is immense and is much greater than the operational meaning. He was Hizbullah’s hero.
I’m certain there will be attempts to avenge his killing. In fact, I think they are looking to do something on a magnitude we haven’t seen before. Sadly, for us it is difficult to protect every single target. Physical security will only solve the problem to a certain extent. The great hope here is that we will acquire the intelligence information needed to thwart such attacks. The fact that the Mugniyah assassination was carried out shows that Hizbullah has been infiltrated. We can only hope that this will also enable us to thwart revenge attacks.
Let’s talk about the book: What prompted you to write it?
I’ve been covering Iran for many years now and have dealt with it extensively. To my great regret, many of my predictions over the years have materialized, including the intelligence defeat that led to the Lebanon War setback vis-à-vis Hizbullah. This issue was very much on the agenda, yet I felt that I wanted to provide a bird’s-eye view that starts with the last years of the intimate relationship between Israel and the Shah, just before the Iranian Revolution.
After the book was published in Hebrew I got responses from readers who said that suddenly everything makes sense to them. They said they were familiar with various events described in the book, but now understood the full logic behind them. This is what I wanted to do, to provide a sequence, a sort of timeline that would offer deeper insights.
Having said all that, the important aim at the end of the day was to provide the undisclosed details of the secret war that has been pitting the West against Iran for the past 30 years. I was a student of Christopher Andrew, a historian who has stressed the importance of intelligence in shaping momentous events. He said that one cannot study history without understanding the role of intelligence. Yet as opposed to World War II, for example, which was an open war with an intelligence aspect to it, here there is no open war – almost everything is secret and below the surface.
How is the English version different from the Hebrew version?
In fact, I had to re-write large parts of the book. For one thing, much has happened in the meantime, such as the attack on the Syrian site and Mugniyah’s killing. I estimate that about 70% of the book is different.
Overall, entire chapters had to be rewritten and large sections were added. For example, the account of Israel’s failed attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal using a biological agent appears only in the English version of the book. Many other new details were also added throughout the book.
On a final note: We spoke about Hizbullah’s terror threat. What should we expect in case hostilities are renewed on the Lebanese border?
Hizbullah fears that in case of an attack on Iran, and a Hizbullah response in the form of a terror attack overseas or rocket attacks on Israeli targets, the IDF will take advantage of the opportunity and attack Hizbullah in Lebanon. Therefore, the organization is trying to create deterrence vis-à-vis Israel.
A particularly worrisome aspect in this context was Russia’s problematic conduct during the Second Lebanon War. For example, information gathered at Russian intelligence outposts in Syria was handed over to Hizbullah during the war and used against the IDF. This is a very grave matter.
We should keep in mind that just like we had the Winograd Report, Hizbullah had their own Winograd commission – they also tried to draw some lessons. In fact, Mugniyah was leading this process – this is why he was in Damascus. I believe they have learned some lessons and integrated them into their preparations for a possible Israeli attack.