Ex-IDF intel. chief: Israel must continue covert ops in Iran

Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash believes that the Biden administration will not rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal before the June Iranian presidential election.

“Don’t worry, we are there in Iran; we will make sure they do not cross the line,” said senior Russian officials during a visit to Israel.

It was during Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash’s 2001-2006 term as chief of IDF Military Intelligence.

Ze’evi-Farkash and the Russian officials were debating how much Israel could trust Moscow to be its last line of defense to make sure that the Islamic Republic did not go nuclear, even as Russia was helping Tehran progress in various nuclear realms.

The retired IDF major-general was not satisfied by the initial reassurance, and responded with a characteristic stinging reply, “You’ll make sure? Just like you made sure that China, India and Pakistan would not go nuclear?” (All three countries obtained nuclear weapons – in 1964, 1974 and 1998, respectively – despite Russian opposition.)

A bit taken aback, but never wanting to back off, the Russian officials said, “No, we will really try because it is not good for anyone for Iran to be nuclear,” citing Iran’s Islamic radicalism and the millions of Muslims living in Russia about whom Moscow always has nightmares.

It is with this skepticism that Ze’evi-Farkash comes to the questions of those who think Tehran can be coaxed out of nuclear weapons or that it will give up the pursuit.

Despite his skepticism that Iran can be prevented from getting nuclear weapons indefinitely, he is strongly in favor of putting off that grim day for as long as possible.

Further, Ze’evi-Farkash believes that the Biden administration will not rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal before the June Iranian presidential election.

“I don’t know if they [the Biden administration] will get a completely new or improved deal. Even though [president Donald] Trump is gone, a deal is far-off for the US. There won’t be a deal before June,” he told The Jerusalem Post Magazine in a recent extensive interview.

Continuing over tea and pastries while sitting socially distanced at his spacious home on a gray afternoon, he stated: “There is a big struggle in Iran between extremists and pragmatists. Some accuse [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani of putting Iran through something intolerable. The US broke the [nuclear] deal, so” there is no reason to make a new deal.
As a result, Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stipulated, “First, you get rid of the sanctions. After that, we will come back to the agreement’s provisions” in terms of nuclear limitations.

Getting animated, Ze’evi-Farkash – who made aliyah at 14 from Romania and broke into Israeli society when he was embraced as a true talent by the IDF – said this disagreement between Iran and the US about how to return to the 2015 deal and negotiations “is the Archimedean point. Biden, and the US through his voice, clearly said no.

“Iran will want more and more concessions for agreeing to attend negotiations,” he predicted. “Only Israel can impact the situation,” and it is a separate question whether it will have an impact.

IN ZE’EVI-FARKASH’S view, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overly aggressive tactics banging heads with the US led to the Jewish state being cut out of the Iran nuclear negotiations during the key 2014-2015 period.

The former Military Intelligence chief recalled that in July-August 2003, during his term, Israel’s more calibrated strategy helped the US and the EU uncover and lead to the elimination of the Islamic Republic’s covert Parchin nuclear facility.

Another element of Ze’evi-Farkash’s criticism of any Netanyahu strategy that entails open confrontation with the US over Iran nuclear issues, as opposed to quieter, behind-the-scenes networking, relates to his nuanced view of the 2015 deal itself.

“The deal is not great. But the situation now is much worse than in 2015. Compare things now to May 2019. Trump had gotten out of the deal in May 2018. For a full year Iran had strategic patience, and they did not move a millimeter besides small issues” related to concealing past knowledge they had acquired.

Next, Tehran “started to threaten: If you don’t come back to the deal, we will do 1, 2, 3 and 4 – increased volume of enrichment, higher-quality enrichment, advanced centrifuges which are six times faster. Now they have enough uranium for two nuclear weapons,” if they decided to break out.

“They have made uranium metal, which looks like pita bread,” he said with a deadpan, “but represents a very advanced stage. They have made it harder for the IAEA to conduct inspections,” with big delays, some of which have not been publicly reported, dating back to December 2020, he said.

The former intelligence chief said, “Under the JCPOA, they wouldn’t have been allowed to make uranium metal for 15 years…. An agreement with holes, and I hope in the future with smaller holes, is still better than an Iran with no deal.”

Another problem that Ze’evi-Farkash flagged was the July 2020 $400 billion 25-year deal between Tehran and Beijing regarding oil, cyber, intelligence, nuclear and a variety of other issues.

Although the public narrative at the time of the interview with the Magazine was that the deal would not be final or implemented until sometime in the future, he said that “20% of China’s energy is imported from Iran. There are secret annexes to the China-Iran deal which are already happening, but the deal has not been publicly finalized so as not to anger the Saudis.” Essentially, he had already correctly predicted the deal was happening and would be fully consummated, which occurred last week.

Pointing out that former Bank of Israel governor and US Federal Reserve vice chairman Stanley Fischer has warned that China will pass the US as the world’s premier economic power within 20 years, he added, “with corona – some say by 2025 or 2030.”

While Israel brags about the $3b. in defense assistance it gets annually from the US, he said that the backing China is giving the Islamic Republic dwarfs that sum.

Further, he said that China has enhanced its global image with coronavirus vaccine diplomacy, selling to weaker and needier countries, while the US was focused on its own issues.

He said Chinese support for Iran has and will keep it strong, and cited a special plaque posted at the Isfahan enrichment nuclear facility expressing gratitude to China for its assistance.

In one of his most striking analytical points, he said that Iran does not really care about extending the nuclear limitations beyond the 2030 sunset deadline.

Though Tehran pretends to have a super hard line that the 2030 deadline cannot be extended, he said all of this is negotiation strategy.

Instead, he said, the ayatollahs have tremendous strategic patience and a long-term outlook. As long as they can get to the nuclear threshold at some point without serious resistance or threat from the US, they do not care much about the timeline.

But he warned that the Iranians “are vehemently determined to get to the nuclear threshold” both to secure their regime and to empower themselves regionally – whether it be in 2030 or 2040.

Personally, Ze’evi-Farkash believes that the largest hole in the 2015 nuclear deal was that it permitted Iran to continue developing its ballistic missile program.

He said any new deal “needs to include the ballistic missiles. If they were limited to 1,000 kilometers, Israel could rest” more easily, since the Jewish state is more than 1,000 kilometers away from Iran.

Moreover, he said that sanctions should not be removed until limits on ballistic missiles are added to the deal.
For Ze’evi-Farkash, this issue is especially crucial given that Jerusalem can already see the result of letting an enemy, Hezbollah, reach a point of obtaining a massive missile arsenal within range of the whole country and which can overwhelm Israel’s missile shield.

Stating that the worst part of the threat from Hezbollah is not the more than 150,000 rockets it has, he clarified that the biggest problem is Hezbollah’s potential ability to fire thousands of rockets per day.

This would be too many rockets at once for Israel’s missile defense to prevent significant casualties.

Ze’evi-Farkash said that a big advantage the Islamic Republic has is that it “has a long-term strategy…. We don’t have one. And if we have a long-term strategy, we do not follow it. We only deal with short-term issues,” noting that Israel bungled the Al Ghamr and Baqura territories with Jordan.

His point was that if Netanyahu had spent even a modicum of energy shoring up relations with Jordan, Israel could have leased these areas indefinitely as part of its 1995 peace deal.

Instead, Israel had to return them to Amman because Jordan was furious with general Israeli conduct and was in no mood to grant Jerusalem anything.

In contrast, he said Iran thinks in a long-term, very pragmatic way, saying “even after [the assassination of Mohsen] Fakhrizadeh, they can push off their response. It does not matter if they respond right after the June elections or much later.”

On a related note, he said, “Iran understood that there was a 50/50 chance that Trump would lose the US election, so they made a decision to push off any major moves until after the election.”

Another example where he worries about Tehran’s long-term planning is its ability to threaten Israel from Syria.

To date, Jerusalem has had success with ongoing attacks on Iranian positions and weapons transfers in Syria.

However, he discussed Iran’s new strategic deal with Syria which he said will eventually bring to them an Iranian version of the S-300 or S-400 antiaircraft missile system.

At that point, Israel may no longer have the same operational freedom in Syria that it currently has.

This is because the Islamic Republic is determined “not to allow Israel to do whatever it wants…. This would endanger the sole achievements in Syria of Khamenei and Hezbollah” after pouring in money and soldiers.

ZE’EVI-FARKASH’S ADVICE on dealing with Iran involves a range of moves.

He does not believe broad military force will resolve the standoff with Iran, but at this stage says, “When everyone is trying to define their position, Israel must continue covert operations, not just in Syria – in all places.

“The nation of Israel doesn’t believe in miracles. It’s built on them, but we don’t count on them. We always prepare. So we need to stop things from getting bad with Syria. Some of what we do is publicized, most is not,” he said, waxing a unique mix of bold and philosophical.

In addition, he said that Israel can slow down Iran and adversaries using its cyber capabilities, since “cyber has no boundaries. You can do things without leaving any fingerprints.”

He was referencing foreign reports attributing to Israel cyberattacks on Iran’s port of Bandar Abbas in May 2020 and on its Natanz nuclear centrifuges with the Stuxnet virus in 2009-2010.

Still, Ze’evi-Farkash said using force by itself is not a long-term solution. “We cannot repeatedly attack them [like with Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear programs]. They are too smart, have too many precision-guided missiles, and will soon have satellites to watch us just like we watch them.”

Moreover, he said that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and knowledge are spread out widely and defused among its dozens of universities.

He added that Iran could also retaliate with significant rocket strikes on Israel from Iraq and Yemen, if the Jewish state undertook a broad attack against Tehran’s nuclear program facilities.

In terms of Iran’s top proxy, Hezbollah, he explained incisively that it “suffered its largest blow when we withdrew from Lebanon. They lost legitimacy with everyone for attacking Israel…. What Hezbollah wants is not a war with Israel, but one big short successful battle of a few days where it regains legitimacy.”

This kind of event has happened a few times with short skirmishes between Israel and Hamas.

Ze’evi-Farkash supported and paraphrased the recent speech by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi, saying, “Hezbollah has changed Lebanon into an urban war zone. All the houses that have weapons – I am very sorry, don’t sleep there. It is lawful and it is proportionate [to attack such sites]. You, [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah are not safe there. I will go after you. Nasrallah understands… Lebanese cities would be destroyed, so he won’t fight beyond a few days or a week.”

MOVING TO the impact of normalization with Arab countries on Israel and the region, he said that the trend “cannot be pushed back” and predicted that there would also be normalization with Saudi Arabia “within six months to one year.”

He said normalization is the one area where Netanyahu acted in a long-term strategic manner and should also be given credit for a “huge achievement.”

In terms of the impact on Iran, he said that “after normalization with the UAE and Bahrain, they feel we are choking them,” creating new allies close to their border, and have inverted Tehran’s preference to pressure Israel with proxies on its border.

Ze’evi-Farkash said the normalization trend “will also be good for Jordan and Egypt…. It is a major change for all of the moderate Sunnis. It is not a surprise that Morocco and others” are joining in.

Though even during his term he had quiet meetings with Arab intelligence officials, he said that the change meant that “after 72 years Israel became an open and official part of the region.”

He said that “the central basis for normalization was the common struggle with the Shi’ite-Iranian crescent and its nuclear program. They [moderate Sunnis] want us to be with them if Iran becomes a nuclear power.

According to Ze’evi-Farkash, another major significant impact of normalization is “there won’t be annexation during the term of the next government whether [led by] Netanyahu” or even others on the political Right – normalization is more important.”

THE FORMER intelligence chief has some other predictions for the future.

In a June 2018 speech, Ze’evi-Farkash had audaciously predicted that by 2025, Israel would have 10,000 satellites and other forms of surveillance which collectively would provide enough constant video surveillance of the Middle East sufficient to carry out targeted killings of terrorists at any time and any place in the region.

Asked if he still stood by this prediction nearly three years later, he responded, “I come back to the IDF chief’s multiyear plan. It speaks explicitly not about merely one unit, but about the entire IDF having the capability to gather real-time intelligence to connect the headquarters, the data and those on the front.”

“Whether from a smaller drone, a larger remotely operated aircraft, special forces, human-operated aircraft or other means, now a mere company commander has intelligence coverage for everything around him at a distance of 500 meters,” he said.

In addition, he said that new levels of technological integration have “made it possible to streamline intelligence collection, planning, selecting targets and carrying out attacks far beyond Gaza and Lebanon,” on a new level which was not previously possible.

A fascinating aspect of Ze’evi-Farkash is that he knew and commanded some current top IDF officials back when they were younger officers.

One story he told the Magazine was about Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi.

Halevi eventually followed in Ze’evi-Farkash’s footsteps, serving as Military Intelligence chief from 2014 to 2018, served as OC Southern Command, will become IDF deputy chief of staff in the near future, and is viewed as a potential successor to Kohavi himself.

Yet back when Ze’evi-Farkash was Military Intelligence chief, Halevi was still a mid-level lieutenant-colonel, at the time commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.

Speaking in metaphors to avoid revealing classified information, Ze’evi-Farkash said, “I won’t forget the event. Halevi needed to go into a ‘zoo’ to find a ‘specific old elephant,’ to lift its left leg up and to see what was written on it.”
Halevi came to Ze’evi-Farkash to sign off on using additional military resources for the operation beyond what was standard and what Halevi could authorize on his own.

He recounted that there was a debate between Halevi and an IDF technology expert about how many soldiers and how many ropes would need to be involved to lift what he called, with a flicker in his eye, the “elephant’s leg.”

Halevi wanted to use a rope, and the technological expert suggested two soldiers. Ze’evi-Farkash ruled in favor of the technological expert, despite Halevi’s argument that he could not complete the mission with two soldiers.

However, when Ze’evi-Farkash arrived to attend a rehearsal of the operation, including a physical mock-up, he saw that Halevi had gone ahead with his single rope idea.

Ze’evi-Farkash seemed to travel back to that moment as he described when “his eyes met Halevi’s determined eyes, and I understood I couldn’t harm his authority in front of his unit, but I also needed to stand up for the authority of the IDF intelligence chief.”

The bottom line from the story is that Halevi is daring, confident and committed to the mission no matter what, and “had a laser-like ability to accomplish unusual and incredible tasks…. I think he would be one of the best IDF chiefs.”
If Halevi follows Kohavi, it would be two consecutive IDF intelligence chiefs ascending to the top job, a major trend reversal from the 2006-2019 period when all of the IDF chiefs had served as OC Northern Command.

Ze’evi-Farkash said an IDF intelligence chief as head of the entire IDF makes a lot of sense because it is one of the only other positions where an individual must interface and learn about all of the arms and dynamics of Israel’s armed forces.

Moreover, he added that the Military Intelligence chief gains rare experience interacting with the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet, as well as the prime minister himself.

All of this is a reason to take Ze’evi-Farkash’s views seriously on the dynamic security issues confronting Israel with Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, normalization and the US.

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