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An unexplained fire, disappearing scientists and attacks on prominent Iranian nuclear experts: The Israeli secret service Mossad seems to be waging a shadowy war on Tehran's nuclear program. Will it be enough to stop Iran's alleged drive to develop atomic weapons?
The young man in the spotlight appeared earnest and friendly, wearing a blue sweater and a freshly ironed shirt, his hair carefully combed. He seemed to want to project an air of credibility.
He sat in a brown leather swivel chair and steepled his fingertips in a manner often favored by politicians, before starting to speak. "My name is Majid Jamali Fash," he introduced himself to viewers of Iran's state-run television last Monday. "My first contact with the Israeli intelligence agency was in Istanbul three years ago. A man named Radfur approached me and suggested I visit the Israeli consulate."
These words opened the most spectacular confession ever shown on Iranian TV. Such self-incriminations, whether uttered by arrested members of the opposition or by foreign journalists, are far from a rare occurrence here. But Jamali's statements are unique in that this is the first time an Iranian has publically admitted to committing murder in the country's capital on orders from Iran's archenemy, Israel.
Jamali says he killed nuclear physicist Massoud Ali Mohammadi using a remote-controlled bomb on Jan. 12 last year, following precise planning and intensive training by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad.
Some aspects of this confession may be mere propaganda. But it nonetheless indicates that those who may have blackmailed or fabricated Jamali's statements felt compelled to admit that Iran's enemies have the capability of setting off bombs right in the heart of the country. The alleged perpetrator's dubious confession is simultaneously an admission on the part of the regime that a shadowy war over its nuclear program has begun.
Strategists at international security policy think tanks are debating with increasing intensity when the time might come that Israel, with or without American help, will launch a military strike against Iran's suspected nuclear weapon production facilities. But the real question is now a different one: Has political pressure from the international community combined with clandestine activities on the part of Israel and the US managed to delay such a strike? Have Mossad's attacks damaged the theocracy's nuclear program to such a degree that it would now be impossible for Iran to build a nuclear bomb earlier than 2015?
For Israel, the question of whether Iran possesses nuclear weapons is a matter of existential significance. Such a bomb would constitute a threat to the Jewish state -- as well as to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. One wonders if Israel's shadow war should be celebrated for reducing the chances of such an Armageddon.
Israel certainly has extensive experience in the world of covert war. Mossad, the country's foreign intelligence agency, abides by a line from the Talmud: "If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first."
Meir Dagan, the much-honored former head of Mossad, retired late last year after eight years in office. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon named Dagan Israel's highest commander in the covert war against Iran's nuclear ambitions and Dagan concentrated his attention on precisely this mission.
The effectiveness of his covert operations can be seen in the accidents and setbacks that have repeatedly stalled Iran's nuclear program since then. Important scientists have disappeared without a trace, an unexplained fire broke out in a laboratory and an airplane belonging to the nuclear program crashed. In recent months, a computer worm called Stuxnet wreaked havoc on central control systems for the centrifuges at Iran's uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. The full scope of the damage from the worm is not yet known.
A Spotlight on the Shadows
Before leaving his post, Dagan spoke privately about his view of the situation. Unlike other Israelis, he doesn't believe Iran will be able to build a nuclear bomb before 2015 -- and it could even be later than that. Dagan's message is clear -- he opposes war with Iran, which he fears could escalate into all-out conflagration consuming the entire Middle East. He recommends continued covert operations instead, with which he implies Mossad could continue to delay Iran's creation of a bomb indefinitely.
Mossad's attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists right in the center of Tehran has cast a spotlight on Israel's shadowy war. Majid Jamali's confession -- assuming it isn't fabricated -- is a particular indication that the assassinations were the result of long-term planning and careful preparation.
Jamali is said to have received his first instructions at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. "I talked to men there, who sat behind darkened windows. They questioned me and wanted me to obtain information on certain parts of Tehran for them," he says. Jamali says he returned to Iran before delivering 30 handwritten pages full of details on his second visit to Turkey. "My contacts were very pleased with my work," he adds.
Then, he says, his real training began. After various meetings in Europe and Thailand, he allegedly received the first installment of his payment for the assassination -- $30,000 (€22,500). A further sum of $20,000 was to be paid after the attack.
A Motorcycle at the Ready
Jamali says he received the crucial parts of his training in Israel, where Israeli agents simulated the Iranian physicist's house and street in a military camp near the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Mossad also provided a Honda 125 motorcycle, a small and easily maneuverable vehicle common in Tehran. The plan was for Jamali to later outfit a motorcycle of the same model with a bomb, to be detonated in front of Mohammadi's house.
According to his confession, Jamali also received shooting lessons and a makeup artist taught him how to disguise himself with clothes and makeup. In the last phase of training, they did three run-throughs of his mission.
Back in Tehran, he says, other Mossad collaborators provided the necessary equipment. The motorcycle was standing ready, as was the bomb, and he received gloves and motorcycle clothing in two cardboard boxes. His equipment also included two satellite phones -- on one of those phones he received orders on the early morning of Jan. 12 to carry out the attack.
Jamali placed the motorcycle, outfitted with the bomb, on the driver's side of the physicist's driveway and detonated it as Mohammadi left his home that morning. The force of the blast was so powerful that it caused heavy flagstones to fall from the front of a four-story apartment building across the way and all the windows to burst. Mohammadi's car was completely destroyed and he died instantly.
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