Israel push on Iran included a steady dose of media leaks

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2012 

TEL AVIV, Israel — Nestled deep in the halls of Israel's defense headquarters, a man known as Agent 83 fingered with care his model of what a potential Iranian nuclear bomb might look like.

The agent, who had become an expert on the Iranian nuclear program, was showing off the model to a group of foreign reporters on a hot August day, the third such time he had been asked to showcase his expertise in the second half of 2009.

"I hope you don't have any questions after this. I hope it is clear that Iran is working toward building a nuclear bomb," he told the departing reporters.

Within days, accounts of Agent 83's story appeared in articles across the U.S. and Europe — Iran had advanced technological understanding of the workings of a nuclear weapon. It was one of dozens of "exclusives" on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, the majority of which had originated with Israeli sources.

Such access to Israeli experts for international journalists has been critical to spreading Israel's view that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In recent months, talk of Iran's nuclear ambitions has fueled the Republican presidential campaign, served as the backdrop for this week's meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and earned a pledge from Obama on Sunday that the United States would resort to military means if necessary to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

Israeli officials acknowledge that the widespread acceptance in the West that Iran is on the verge of building a nuclear weapon isn't based just on the findings of Israeli intelligence operatives, but relies in no small part on a steady media campaign that the Israelis have undertaken to persuade the world that Iran is bent on building a nuclear warhead.

"The intelligence was half the battle in convincing the world," an Israeli Foreign Ministry official told McClatchy, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the inner workings of Israel's outreach on the topic. "The other half was Israel's persistent approach and attitude that this was not something the world could continue to ignore."

The official had recently returned from a trip to Washington and marveled at how the topic has become a major one in the United States. "U.S. politicians were falling over each other to talk about Iran," he said. "In some ways, that is a huge success for Israel."

Israeli officials have been hesitant to acknowledge their part in persuading the world of the threat of a nuclear Iran. Yoel Guzansky, who headed a department that studies Iran's nuclear weapons program in the Israeli prime minister's office from 2005-2009 and is currently a fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said that Israel was concerned the world would misunderstand its role.

"Israel doesn't want it to look like it is pushing the West toward a war with Iran. There are those that said Israel pushed the U.S. towards a war with Iraq, which is untrue," said Guzansky. "Today regarding Iran, Israel is not telling the U.S. to attack. They are saying something more nuanced: Present a credible threat, carry a big stick. Everyone's preference is to solve this diplomatically."

If a military option against Iran were taken, Guzansky said, Israel likely would pay the largest price in retaliation in the form of missile attacks that would hit Israeli civilian areas.

Shimon Stein, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany and former head of arms control at the Foreign Ministry, said that Israel slowly developed its outreach and media efforts on Iran over more than two decades.

"We were diplomatically actively pursuing the Iranian issue for decades," he said. But the Israeli campaign moved into the public sphere five years ago when the Israelis decided they needed public opinion to also drive Iran policy. "Now it is a new ballgame," Stein said. "Now we added extra resources to mobilize our government and also world opinion."

He recalled a meeting with Russian diplomats in the early 1990s, when Israel was trying to persuade the United States to offer Russia commercial incentives to stop Russian assistance in the construction of a nuclear facility in Iran.

"It did not work," Stein said. "Years later I remember raising the issue with a high-ranking official in the German government. He said, 'Ah! I remember you coming to us and we heard you but we did not exert enough pressure on the Russians and we did not take it seriously enough.'"

As Israeli diplomats were working to convince governments of the Iranian nuclear threat, other organizations, such as the Washington-based Israel Project, were pressing the Israeli position with journalists and others.

Founded in 2002, one of the Israel Project's earliest goals was to raise awareness on Iran.

"Our work — since the beginning — has been to encourage Iran to make a choice between their nuclear program and the things they want in the world," said Jennifer Laszlo Mirzrahi, the founder and president of the Israel Project.

The campaign has been successful, she said. "In a year like this year, nobody can get elected without having a strong Iran policy," she said.

Coordinating media coverage, such as the Agent 83 briefing on the workings of the hypothetical bomb, was critical to that effort. Often such access was timed to take place before critical events.

In the year after U.S. intelligence agencies published a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that downplayed the Iranian nuclear threat, an unprecedented number of leaks over Iran's alleged progress on nuclear weapons was released to the press. They culminated in reports published in Israeli newspapers that Iran had secret uranium enrichment facilities. In 2009, world leaders caught up at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, where Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy revealed a yet-undisclosed facility at Qom.

Israeli officials also said it was no coincidence that a flurry of reports on Israel's imminent strike on Iran filled the press last fall just ahead of a report from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Guzansky said the possible Israeli strike leaks to the media were "an important tool" for the government.

"It is psychological warfare. You leak to get the enemy or your friend to think X or Y," he said.

Sever Plocker, a columnist for the popular Hebrew-language daily Yediot Ahronot, wrote in a recent column that the Israeli media campaign had been a success.

"It seems clearly that the Israeli campaign of last fall, through which rumors were spread of an impending Israeli attack on Iran, has achieved its goals," he wrote. "The Western statesmen grasped at it and used it to impose yesterday the '?crippling' ?sanctions on Iran that Prime Minister Netanyahu had already demanded two years ago."

Stein said that regardless of the tactics used, Israel was justified in raising awareness on Iran.

"We had a quite meaningful contribution on placing the Iranian issue on the agenda. It's not only an Israel problem now, it's a regional problem," he said.

His point was driven home in February, when Israel's minister for strategic affairs, Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon, said that Iran is developing a missile that could strike targets more than 6,000 miles away — such as the East Coast of the United States.

The missile project is "aimed at America, not Israel," said Yaalon, a well-known hawk who advocates a military strike on Iran by Israel and its allies.

He argued during a presentation at Israel's 2012 Herziliya Conference that Iran was pushing forward with its plans to build a nuclear weapon.

One European diplomat who was in attendance couldn't help asking how Yaalon spoke with such certainty.

"He is one of these Israeli figures who talks like he knows everything that is happening on the ground in Iran. Like they are sitting with the scientists and know when they are going to fit the warhead on the missile," he said. "But the truth is that none of us know anything 100 percent of the time — even though Israel does a very good job of convincing."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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