Iran seems to be close to having a bomb. For years, Israel has tried to prevent this from happening. Have Israeli intelligence agencies failed?
This is not about Israel versus Iran. On one hand we have Iran, on the other hand most Arab countries except Syria. They’re desperate for the world do prevent Iran from going nuclear. As you remember, the Wikileaks showed Saudi Arabia telling the US, “please do something; we can’t have a nuclear Iran”. The US and the EU are obviously opposed to an Iranian nuclear program as well, as are many other countries around the world. It’s a very broad coalition that understands that Iranian nuclear weapons would change the rules of the game. So, this is not just an Israeli issue, though of course we have an interest in it. But if Saudi Arabia says, “if Iran goes nuclear, we’ll go nuclear”, this is the beginning of a new nuclear race. And there’s enough money in some of these countries to do it.
What would such an arms race lead to?
It would lead to a totally uncontrollable world with devastating results. And if Arab countries let Iran go ahead with nuclear weapons, it would become the dominant power in the region. Imagine what that would mean for oil prices and the control over this very sensitive area of the world. Look at the many fundamentalists, Islamic organizations, that fight the ideas of the West: Taliban, al Qaeda, Jihad: they see their fight as a civilization clash. An Iranian victory over the West, and the crazy ideals of the West, would be a huge boost for them. It’s a dangerous development. That’s why stopping Iran has become the common goal of most civilized countries in the world.
But Israel is the most vocal opponent…
Yes, of course, because Israel is at stake. Iran says Israel shouldn’t exist. It’s as simple as that. And they export their revolution to Arab countries. That’s their idiom – exporting their revolution. They use terror with almost no compunction. Essentially, they’re saying that they have a direct line to God Almighty and take orders directly from him, so they don’t care about anybody else. That, in combination with Iran saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, means we can’t simply look away. That’s we’ve been able to build such a broad coalition against Iran. And the US, EU and UN sanctions are building up pressure on Iran. Have the sanctions stopped the Iranian bomb? No. But I sincerely hope that the pressure is such that the price Iran pays for pursuing nuclear weapons gets higher and higher every week, so that it will agree to end its nuclear program.
What about ending it with a military strike?
That option was recently mentioned by President Obama in a positive way. He said he ruled in this possibility. It’s possible that we have to use force. All this pressure should persuade Iran to end its nuclear program. But I don’t think Israel should use the military option. I don’t agree with some of my colleagues who support a military strike. An attack on Iran wouldn’t add anything to our security.
You served in the Six-Day War, which resulted in a spectacular victory for Israel. But an attack in Iran might not end that well for Israel…
I don’t want to speak about an attack for all sorts of reasons. Besides, it’s not the same enemy we fought in the Six-Day War. This is a different challenge. The Americans have spoken quite clearly about an attack, and I suppose they have plans for how to do it. But one always needs to weigh the alternatives. If we don’t get Iran off the nuclear track, we’ll get up one morning and Iran has nuclear bombs. It’s the same Iran with the same ambitions, the same behavior, the same zeal, conviction and ideology – but with a nuclear bomb. We’d have a much more challenging and dangerous world to cope with. Of course nobody wants to go to war if one can solve the issue without it. Let’s see if we can get some sense into Iran and convince them not to develop nuclear bombs. But to say that there’s no military option would be wrong. Then Iran could just walk away and not listen. That’s why the world, not just Israel, has to see the military option as something real.
Somebody – Iran says Israel – has been trying to stop the Iranian nuclear program by assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. Is such a non-military method useful?
I don’t want to comment on rumors in the press about things that happen in Iran. Some of them have nothing to do with Israel at all. Some may have to do with Israel or America or others. It’s not just an Israeli campaign. The pressure that is put on Iran now may have an effect. In the past, at least once or twice, the Iranians took to reason. For example, when [Ayatollah] Khomeini stopped the war with Iraq, he did so with a very illuminating statement that hade nothing to do with God but with a practical approach: “we can’t afford this war”. I hope the Iranians will engage in this kind of thinking again.
Since Saudi Arabia has become a foe of Iran, is it your new ally?
When the Arab Spring dawned on us, many people just looked at the risks and dangers. Of course the dangers exist, including the growth of political Islam. New alliances can be made. Because of the growing threat of Iran, their ideology and behavior, the weakening of other countries in the region is dangerous. I think these other countries look for new alliances, some official and some unofficial. Some Arab countries talk with us because they’re concerned about Iran. I’m not going to name them, of course, but there’s an understanding that one needs to create alliances, and a nuclear Iran is a nightmare for many Arab countries. That’s why the Saudis pleaded with the US to do something about Iran. Right now there are more risks, but also more opportunities.
In addition to Iran, what do you see as today’s greatest challenge?
The growth of political Islam. It’s dangerous, because it’s not politics, it’s religion. The idea of compromise doesn’t exist. That’s what Iran introduced to this conflict. You can have a conflict between two nations, about borders and so forth, but Iran speaks in religious terms, saying there can’t be a non-Muslim state in the region by the word of God. If you use the word of God as your argument, there can be no compromise, just conflicts. God never compromises: the Muslim God, the Christian God, the Jewish God: God is truth. If you make politics into a godly thing there will be no end to conflicts.
How does this relate to Iran?
The Iranian ideology and policy, which is based on how they understand the scriptures, and the attempt to export this ideology into the politics of other countries – not how you live your live at home – is something we must look at. We see it all over the Muslim world, with the fall of some dictators. The new regimes are still not Western democracies. It’s more and more political Islamic parties. How will they act? Will they be as reasonable and pragmatic as the Christian Democrats in Germany? Wunderbar. Or will they have an extreme interpretation of Islam that will rule their lives? That would be bad for them, and for all the rest of us. The role of political religion is getting more and more focused all over the region as well. In that sphere, the struggle between Shia and Sunni is becoming more important. In the past, it wasn’t there that much. But now you see that conflict in Bahrain, in Syria, in parts of Saudi Arabia. So, the intra-Islamic divide has is becoming an important element that wasn’t there before. The ground is changing around us Israelis, quite surprisingly and quite rapidly. With these changes, one has to be alert to all the possible alliances one could form.
The Arab Spring meant that the ground shifted around Israel. Isn’t that a nightmare scenario for an intelligence minister?
I have to say something that people don’t like to admit: we were taken by surprise. We had no clue. If you and I had sat here in January last year, and if you'd asked if something like the Arab Spring was afoot, I would have had no idea. The American intelligence had no idea; neither did the British. And the Egyptians knew nothing! Mubarak didn’t know that in a day or two he’d be asked to resign. It teaches you humility. We don’t know enough. We know a lot. We intelligence agencies in the West cooperate quite closely. We’re able to predict 90% of developments. But the remaining 10% is very important, so one always needs to plan for the option that one may be wrong. The Arab Spring took all of us by surprise, and we still don't know how it will develop. There was some naïveté in parts of the world: the dictator is out or killed, the people are speaking, and they’ll want democracy. But sometimes the majority doesn’t want democracy. They may not want women’s rights, free speech and change of governments in a democratic way. They may want to go back to the warm feeling of religion, where everything is clear and you don’t need to grapple with difficult issues. We’re in that phase now, where some governments are losing their legitimacy or even falling and the majority speaks. In some cases it looks more promising, like in Tunisia, where the French tradition seems to have penetrated the country and there’s more secularism. Egypt is a question mark. Israel, of course, has a unique interest in Egypt. We don’t interfere with Egypt’s internal affairs, but we have a peace agreement with them. We gave all of Sinai to them just to have peace, and for 32 years we’ve had peace. That has shaped the Middle East in a very positive way and been the basis of stability. We hope and pray very much that they’ll keep the peace agreement, and we think they will. It’s not in their interest to go back to war.
How has today’s open media society changed espionage?
In the old days, when you wanted to know what was happening in the country, you had to send a spy. Now you just turn on the TV. In the past there was one newspaper; now there are a million newspapers and blogs. Everything is in the open, so getting the information is easier. The tricky and interesting part is how to understand it: what’s important; what’s not? What’s hidden in the details? What are they hiding from you? But we need to understand those things, because we need to plan based on some assessment of the future. So, intelligence has an important role, and a lot of money is invested in it, and so are a lot of very smart people around the world, not just in Israel. We try to make a minimal number of mistakes, and correct the ones we find.
…but if a Minister of Finance screws up, the maximum result is a financial downturn. If an Intelligence Minister screws up, people die…
You’re right. And we have to keep thinking of the world of tomorrow, not yesterday. The threats are changing. If we have a war tomorrow, which I hope we won’t, it won’t be the Six Days War. Once the enemies were states; now they’re organizations. The Soviet Union couldn’t kill a single American soldier; al Qaeda has caused damage to America like nobody else has ever done. The changing world situation: what’s what makes my life interesting.
Metro met Meridor at Israel’s embassy in London.