Earlier this week at CBN's Washington bureau, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ilan Mizrahi, a former Deputy Director of Israel's Mossad intelligence service who also served as head of Israel's National Security Council from 2006-2008. My meeting with Mizrahi was arranged by The Israel Project, a top pro-Israel organization in D.C.
For someone like me who covers Islamic terrorism and the Middle East for a living, it doesn't get much better than a 50-minute, one-on-one meeting with a former senior Mossad official. And Mizrahi did not disappoint.
Razor-sharp and engaging, Mizrahi gave his expert assessment of the threats gathering against Israel, including Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. We also discussed Turkey, Al Qaeda and yes, even Russia. It was an expansive conversation in which Mizrahi shared several fascinating insights.
Today, we'll start with Part 1: Iran and Russia
Mizrahi said Iran will not be able to develop a nuclear weapon this year, although "technologically, they know how to do it." He stressed that it is "the process," and Iran's resolutenesss in acquiring nuclear weapons, that are more troublesome, adding that there is no guarantee the Iranians will not have a bomb before 2015, the estimated date for weaponization that some Israeli officials have offered recently.
Mizrahi said it all boils down to whether Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, wants to enrich enough uranium to make a weapon--a decision he has yet to make, according to the former Mossad spymaster.
Speaking of Khamenei, Mizrahi told me that there is friction between the Supreme Leader and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. "Ahmadenijad has been talking about religious matters," said Mizrahi. "He says his government is directed daily by the Mahdi." The Mahdi, of course, is the Twelfth Imam, or Islamic Messiah, whose imminent return Ahmadenijad has referenced ever since assuming the Iranian presidency in 2005.
Mizrahi says this talk has angered some of Iran's senior clerics and religious authorities--who consider Ahmadenijad unqualified to discuss such matters--and that Khamenei has told him to stop. He added that Ahmadenijad is "much more messianic" than Khamenei, which is saying something.
Ahmadenijad has also angered Iran's Arab proxies, like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, by speaking of an "Iranian Islam," according to Mizrahi. It's this kind of rhetoric that may ultimately prevent Iraq's Shiites from "go(ing) all the way in" with Iran. Mizrahi said there is a worry among Iraq's Shiites that Iran would try to switch the spiritual center of Shia Islam from Najaf and Karbala in Iraq to the Iranian city of Qom.
In any conflict with the Supreme Leader, Ahmadenijad may have a trump card, and a powerful one at that. "He has a strong grip on the Revolutionary Guards," Mizrahi said.
Why is that so important? The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is the true power broker in Iran. The Guards are a fearsome military force with ground, air and naval capabilities and are involved in everything from domestic spying to international terrorism. They even run a multi-billion dollar business empire and have a hand in Iran's economy. I conducted an exclusive interview recently with a former Guards member (watch here) who described their activities in detail.
Mizrahi says the IRGC is split into two camps. One is a group that are basically fat and happy, rich, and satisfied with their powerful position in the Iranian power structure. The other faction are the true believers, extreme radicals who fought in the Iran/Iraq War during the 1980s.
"There are those who are ready to go to the end, and those who aren't." Mizrahi explained. He described the latter group as "tough, with a narrow view of the world. They are overestimating Iran's power. They think 'we can challenge the U.S.'"
Washington policy makers who still doubt that Iran is a threat, not only to Israel and the greater Middle East but to the United States as well, should take heed of that last observation by Mizrahi, not to mention this one: "The Revolutionary Guards may decide who replaces Khamenei when he dies" That may not be far off, if reports out of Iran over the past few years are accurate. And there is little doubt that the Guards would select someone even more extreme than the very extreme Khamenei.
"There is a difference between [the most radical wing] of the Revolutionary Guards and Khamenei." Mizrahi said. "Khamenei hates America, but he also fears America. The Guards despise America, and are ready to challenge America."
Mizrahi explained that some Iranian clerics resent the Guards' growing power, but realize that they need the IRGC's skull-cracking tactics if they are going to preserve a dictatorship that is loathed by a large percentage of the Iranian people. Despite its unpopularity at home, the Iranian regime continues to spread its tentacles abroad. Mizrahi pointed to Ahmadenijad's recent visit to Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah as a deliberate projection of Iranian power.
"This sent a strategic message and challenge, to Israel, the United States and Europe,'" MIzrahi said. "'They are saying: 'We Iranians, when we are on the shores of the Mediterranean, we can target anyone.'" With Iran's virtual ownership of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, on Israel's very doorstep, it's hard to argue that the Iranians have not accomplished exactly that.
My conversation with Mizrahi on Iran came full circle as we readdressed the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons program. "The moment they get [the bomb] there would be grave consequences," he stated. "Arab states will say 'if you can't beat them, join them.' They will 'go where the butter is.'" Meaning they will align themselves with the new "Strong Horse" in the region: a nuclear-armed Iran. This movement could eventually strike a fatal blow to Israel's peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.
Given Russia's recent--and past--aggressive moves in the Middle East, particularly its assistance in bolstering Iran's nuclear weapons program, I was curious to get Mizrahi's take on the Iran/Russia relationship.
"There are some issues where they conflict, and there are some where they are on the same page," he said. The Russians, Mizrahi explained, do not want Iran meddling in the Muslim areas of the fomer Soviet Union, and are also concerned that Iran is trying to dominate the Caspian Sea.
On the other hand, Iran is located in a strategically important place with, obviously, tremendous energy resources and Russia wants to be a player there. But at the end of the day, Mizrahi said Russia is like China (think North Korea) in that "whoever scratches the eyes of the U.S., we like it." And the Iranian regime has spent the last 32 years, needless to say, with its claws out.
Part 2 Tomorrow: Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and Turkey.