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How Israel stole Iran's nuclear secrets

It is being hailed as one of the most audacious intelligence coups in history. JC Foreign Editor Michael Daventry looks at how it happened, and what it means for the Iran deal.

    (Photo: Flash90)

    The spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu barely able to contain his excitement as he paced back and forth around the stage, pointing out his props and slides, was remarkable enough.

    But that was as nothing compared with what was truly remarkable — an intelligence coup that is already regarded as legendary.

    The Israeli prime minister had just uncovered — literally, by pulling away dust sheets to reveal shelves of filing — the evidence that showed Iran had for years been engaged on a secret nuclear programme.

    “Iran lied, big time,” Mr Netanyahu told a hastily-assembled room of journalists on Monday. “A few weeks ago, in a great intelligence achievement, Israel obtained half a ton of material”.

    His presentation was closely coordinated with the United States, coming just days before President Trump decides whether to abandon the international deal that was said by its supporters to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

    Mr Netanyahu’s words were dramatic. But they barely came close to conveying the drama of the Mossad’s unprecedented operation.

    (Photo: Flash90)

    The cache — containing tens of thousands of pages, many of them handwritten — was snatched by Mossad agents in a single night, from a ramshackle warehouse in a suburb south of Tehran, the Iranian capital. Sources say the building had been under constant surveillance by Israeli intelligence from the moment it was first discovered in February 2016 until the decision to act was taken.

    That moment came one night in January this year.

    This was not a data transfer of the kind that has made the Mission Impossible movies so thrilling. The documents were not copied onto a portable hard drive, nor transferred electronically back to Israel.

    Every file and CD — weighing a collective half a ton — was transported physically in a single night.

    And not one of Mossad’s “human assets” — Israeli agents and Iranian informants — was harmed in the operation, intelligence minister Yisrael Katz told Israeli radio on Tuesday.

    It is no exaggeration to say that all of this happened under the Iranian government’s nose; Iran’s foreign ministry building was so close to the warehouse that the Mossad agents could have driven to it in the centre of Tehran in barely half an hour.

    “This was a highly complex operation, over a long period of time, in a deeply hostile environment,” said James Sorene, chief executive of the Bicom think-tank.

    “To remove so much physical material in such circumstances is nothing short of remarkable.

    “When you consider it alongside Israel’s apparent ability to identify Iranian arms shipments to Syria as they leave Tehran, you can only conclude that the Iranian regime is severely compromised by the brilliance of Israeli intelligence.”

    The United States was informed about the operation shortly after it concluded and Mr Netanyahu first discussed the contents of the documents with President Trump on March 5, during a meeting in the White House.

    Last Saturday, the two leaders discussed on the telephone how Israel would announce the operation to the world.

    The four-month gap between deployment and announcement was, officials said, because the bulk of the material was in Persian and needed to be translated and interpreted.

    (Photo: Flash90)

    Operations like these are familiar territory for the Mossad.

    The agency has a history of operations overseas dating back to 1960, when agents successfully captured of Nazi lieutenant Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him back to Israel for trial.

    More recently, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated and a fifth wounded in operations between 2010 and 2012, incidents attributed by the Iranian government to Israel.

    Just last month, the agency was accused of masterminding the assassination of a prominent Hamas member in Malaysia, although Israeli sources denied involvement.

    “From an operational aspect, this is amazing, and all credit goes to the Mossad people. This is one of the greatest intelligence operations in the State of Israel’s history,” Mr Katz said this week.

    “The Iranian leadership was aware of the fact that Israel got its hands on its most classified documents. The instruction to hide them was issued after the [international nuclear] agreement was signed in 2015 and they wanted to hide the deception so that they would be able to use it in the future.”

    With the exception of the US, Benjamin Netanyahu’s theatrics prompted a cautious response from the international community.

    Observers said his presentation contained no evidence that Iran had been pursuing a nuclear weapons programme after the 2015 deal was signed.

    Iran also issued denials. “What we saw from Netanyahu was a childish, ridiculous show we have seen in recent years,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi told state TV on Tuesday.

    “Why should Iran store such important documents in an abandoned industrial warehouse?” he asked.

    But Iran did not deny there had been a break-in at the warehouse and that a tranche of documents had gone missing.

    There were also reports on Israeli television that authorities in Tehran had launched “a wave of arrests” following the exposé, with the death penalty sought for those responsible.

    Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — the five other countries that signed the 2015 deal with Iran –—may not be convinced by the material uncovered this week.

    But few would argue the Mossad operation itself was not an astonishing feat.

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