Israel’s intelligence chiefs divided over Iranian bomb

Mossad Chief Meir Dagan has recently given up smoking his beloved pipe in staff meetings. Instead he plays with a large hunting knife.

But some are beginning to wonder whether the old hunter is losing his aim.

The cabinet voted unanimously on Sunday to extend Mr Dagan’s term as head of Mossad until the end of 2010, by when he will have been chief for eight years. That doesn’t mean that ministers were overjoyed at the prospect.

Mr Dagan owes his extended tenure to one factor only: the Iranian nuclear threat. He is the only one offering a concrete strategy. But behind the scenes, muttering is increasing.

Last week, Mr Dagan told the Knesset Foreign and Defence Affairs committee that the demonstrations in Iran would peter out and that they would have a nuclear weapon by 2014.

These predictions caused ire both within government and among Mr Dagan’s colleagues/rivals in Military Intelligence.

Israel has been warning for years of a volatile Iranian regime, on the brink of nuclear power, and now Mr Dagan pronounces them stable, and gives them five more years to work on their bomb.

Not only does this seem to clash with much more urgent assessments voiced recently by Military Intelligence Chief General Amos Yadlin, but it seems to run counter to Israel’s international position that there is almost no time left to deal with the threat.

Relations between the two main branches of Israeli intelligence are going through one of their routine low periods. In the background are differences over Iran, and also, at least according to Arab news sources, a round-up of an Israeli spy-ring in Lebanon.

There are arguments over assessment, tactics and presentation. The military is in favour of moving quickly towards a decision over a strike.

It believes that from the moment Iran reaches a nuclear “technological threshold”, some time next year, it will be too late to act, and therefore it has put about a much more ominous date.

But for now, Mr Dagan is still in charge.

He believes that clandestine methods can continue to push back the day when Iran is actually capable of strapping a real bomb on to a real missile.

For another five years at least.

Last updated: 12:26pm, June 25 2009