Israel names Iran expert as new Mossad chief

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 29, 2010 

JERUSALEM — Israel on Monday named a veteran spy to head Mossad, a sign that the country's main espionage agency will continue to be active and aggressive and that Iran will remain at the top of the Israeli foreign policy agenda.

Tamir Pardo, who's to succeed current director Meir Dagan at the end of the year, pending approval by a panel of judges, "is the right man to usher the organization through the coming years in the face of complicated challenges," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his eight years in office, Dagan is said to have revolutionized the Mossad, put top priority on Iran and pressed for expanded operations oversees. His name appears in several of the cables divulged by the Wikileaks Website Sunday, in which he warns U.S. officials of Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Pardo earlier had served as Dagan's deputy, and his policy views are said to be closely linked to Dagan's.

Israel's efforts stop Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program — a topic that was widely covered in the U.S. cables — will be among his top challenges.

A series of cables through 2008-2009 show U.S. diplomats and Israeli leaders pleaded with Russia not to sell Iran powerful S-300 anti-aircraft missiles capable of shooting down aircraft more than 120 miles away. In one February 2010 cable, a quid pro quo deal is suggested by which Israel would increase its arms deals with Georgia — with which Russia fought a 2008 war — unless Russia canceled the S-300 deal. Israel also offered to provide Russia with a number of weapons systems and unmanned aerial aircraft.

By September 2010, the diplomacy appeared to have succeeded. Russia announced the cancellation of an agreement to sell Iran the missiles.

Iran has accused Russia of thwarting the missile sale because of U.S. and Israeli pressure, but the cables now provide new evidence for its claim.

The cables also reveal a number of Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, urging the United States to act against Iran. Those states have publically condemned Israel on numerous occasions but have never spoken openly against Iran.

Only a handful of cables have been released of the more than 250,000 that Wikileaks said it would reveal on its Website. Israeli leaders, however, said that the information in the cables supports what Israel has been arguing for years — namely that a nuclear Iran would threaten the entire Middle East.

So far, none of the cables discussed undercover operations that Israel is suspected to have carried out against Iranian targets.

On Monday, Iran accused Israel of attacking two nuclear scientists in Tehran. Security experts in Israel said that Iran could be behind the attacks if the scientists had been considering defecting.

Iran also has accused Mossad of assassinating several Arab figures, including the January 2010 death of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel.

Dubai police published photographs and passport details of dozens of people it said were behind that assassination, many of whom were traced back to Israel.

Though Israel never admitted its involvement in Mabhouh's death, the incident was considered embarrassing for Mossad chief Dagan.

Several Israeli newspapers suggested that it could prompt Netanyahu to choose a new Mossad head from outside the organization. But the announcement Monday of Pardo's succession confirmed that Netanyahu wanted to continue Dagan's policies.

When Dagan was first named to his post, former prime minister Ariel Sharon said the Mossad should regain its "allure" in the Middle East. Dagan has been called a "determined street fighter" who re-energized the Mossad and doubled its budget.

Pardo served briefly as Dagan's deputy but quit the Mossad last year because of frustration with Dagan's unwillingness to groom him as a successor.

Israeli analysts noted that Pardo is close to the Netanyahu family. He served in an elite army commando unit with Netanyahu's brother, Yonatan, during the famed raid on Uganda's Entebbe airport in 1976. Yonatan died on the mission to free passengers of a hijacked Air France jet.

Pardo is briefly mentioned in the book written by Ido Netanyahu, the youngest brother in the Netanyahu family.

Pardo beat out several other high-profile candidates, including Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet, and Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who resigned last week as head of military intelligence.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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