In the early morning hours of January 31, 2018, a sigh of relief broke the tension in the situation room at Mossad headquarters in Glilot, north of Tel Aviv. Present in the room were Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, as well various Mossad department heads and communication experts.
Dozens of Mossad operatives had just sent over the code word, which meant: We left Iran and are safe with the treasure. It was one of the most daring operations ever executed by Israeli spies. They had snatched the central archive of Iran’s secret nuclear military program from a warehouse in a Tehran suburb. Exactly three months later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the news in a dramatic press conference in Tel Aviv. The brazen coup, which humiliated Iranian leaders, military chiefs and its top nuclear scientists captured the world’s imagination. Because most operational details were not revealed, speculation has grown about how it occurred. In reality, the operation was more imaginative than the best suspense thrillers and crime films.
Since Netanyahu’s announcement, Hollywood producers and Israeli and European screenwriters have approached the Mossad, asking for its cooperation to write and produce a film, which will be “based on a true story.” Obviously, Cohen liked the flattery but turned down the offers. Israel is a country that likes to keep its secrets.
Cohen, who was raised in a religious family from Jerusalem, is an old hand in the Israeli intelligence community. In 1984, at the age of 22, he was recruited by the Mossad and rose through its ranks as a case officer running Arab and Iranian agents.
When Cohen was appointed by Netanyahu in January 2016 to lead the agency, it was a few months after the six world powers signed the nuclear deal (known as JCPOA) with Iran. JCPOA restrained and limited Iran’s efforts and capabilities to produce nuclear weapons. Most of the international community, and even many in the Israeli security establishment, believed that Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be sidelined for the 10-year duration of the agreement.
Cohen thought differently. He ordered his staff to increase their efforts to focus on Iran, believing that it was continuing its secret nuclear military program. Cohen said he had a gut feeling. For most of his colleagues in the intelligence community, Cohen was perceived as obsessive, similarly to his boss Netanyahu, who has defined his career by labeling Iran as the most evil regime on earth.
A few weeks after Cohen entered his office, Mossad learned that Iran was creating a central archive which would store all documents, drawings, computer simulations and analytical research papers related to its nuclear military program. Before that, all the materials had been dispersed and stored in dozens of sites, offices and laboratories, including civilian institutions such as physics and chemistry departments of universities associated with the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is in charge of the nuclear military program.
The decision to create the central archive was part of a large Iranian deception plan to hide the materials from future inspection of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was authorized to monitor the JCPOA. Iran feared that if the IAEA inspectors found out that Iran was involved in a military nuclear program, the U.S. and maybe other major powers would change their minds and void the nuclear deal.
According to the JCPOA, Iran has committed to provide all the information, data and documents and disks related to its past military activities defined by IAEA. Additionally, it is obliged by the deal to turn over or at least to show to IAEA all the equipment having to do with the military program. Iran not only didn’t do it (and thus violated the deal) but also claimed time and again that it was never involved in any nuclear military activity and that its nuclear work was for peaceful purposes: to generate electricity and for use in medicine, agriculture, industry and research.
A senior Israeli intelligence officer involved in the operation told me that Iran wanted to achieve three goals by gathering all the documents in one place: to conceal it from IAEA and the international community, to hide it from its own public and to turn it into a storage, which would conserve and keep the accumulated know how for a future use. The circle of those privy to the secret of the archive’s existence were very few, probably no more than a few dozen—including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Many wonder why the IRGC, who was responsible for information security, didn’t hide the archive in an underground bunker in a military base, which would be off limits to IAEA inspection. Intelligence officials who learned the Iranian way of thinking provided me with a few explanations.
First, it has been a typical pattern of the managers of Iran’s nuclear program to conceal components of it in workshops for civilian purposes and locate them in industrial zones. For example, the place where Iran manufactured its first centrifuges in the early 21st century was disguised as a workshop for electrical clocks called Kalaya Electrical Company, in a suburb of Tehran. The other explanation given was that Iran’s security chiefs who suspect that the Mossad has penetrated many layers of their military and nuclear communities feared that if the archive was stored in a military base, too many people who weren’t privy to the secret would notice something suspicious, including Mossad agents.
From the moment the initial information about the new central archive was gathered, Cohen decided to launch an operation. First he went to ask for confirmation from Netanyahu, who is legally in charge of the Mossad. The prime minster approved and allocated a special budget for it. “We didn’t know where that archive was housed and what its exact content was,” I was told by another intelligence officer, “but we believed it was an important and worthy task to try to find it.”
Cohen consulted with experts from the military intelligence and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) and set the first outlines of the operation. It is a standard procedure in the Mossad to appoint one of its heads of departments as a “project manager” for sensitive operations. But in a rare decision, Cohen decided to be his own “project manager.”
The Mossad and military intelligence began the search for the location of the archive but, from the outset, it seemed like mission impossible. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” explained a former Mossad operative. As a top priority operation, the Mossad began to utilize all the means available to them including bugging phones, infiltrating computers, hacking emails and monitoring social media. (In the last years, the Mossad increased its campaign to recruit Farsi-speaking experts, and now it employs hundreds in a variety of positions, including research analysts, communication specialists and field operatives.) All involved in the operation were asked to be alert to even to the simplest and seemingly insignificant details. In some past Mossad operations, the best tips and information arrived from an unexpected source.
After months of intensive searching, the intelligence spots were focused on several suspected sites. Until that moment, the task was mostly conducted at headquarters level by the Mossad’s intelligence department and a unit known as NABAK (a Hebrew acronym for unconventional weapons). Representatives of Mossad’s best operational departments were asked to join the brainstorming and deliberations. They included Caesarea, Kidon (bayonet) and Keshet (bow). The operatives in these units are called “combatants.”
Caesarea is in charge of running agents under deep cover in enemy countries and terror organizations known in Mossad jargon as “target” countries. Kidon is a small special operations unit whose combatants are trained in the most delicate and dangerous missions, including assassinations, sabotage and the planting of bugging devices in enemy lands. Keshet is in charge of surveillance. All of these units have their own in-house communication experts and locksmiths, which can, within seconds, break in or unlock any door or decipher any coded safe.
The Israeli censor has tightened its grip on the flow of information regarding the most sensitive details of the operation so one can only base his or her reportage and description on the past known modes of operations. After further searching, and nearly a year after the operation was launched, the exact location of the archive was found. The place looked from the outside rickety, deliberately. It looked simple and did not draw attention.
At this point began the process of how to get to the warehouse, how to break into the archive and what to do with the materials there. The hope was to find documents, which would incriminate Iran by proving that, even after signing the JCPOA, the country secretly continued its nuclear military program.
The first decision was to put the warehouse under watch to find out the daily routine of the neighborhood. Is the place guarded? And by who? How often? How frequently is the place visited? Who has access to it? Who are the neighbors within the vicinity? What is the traffic like? To find answers to these questions, Mossad dispatched agents with deep cover with borrowed identities or Farsi-speaking individuals with knowledge of Iranian culture and customs.
Iran is not an unknown land for Mossad combatants. In the last two decades Mossad conducted many risky and dangerous operations there, mainly to gather information on Iran’s nuclear program. They included the implant of viruses (stuxnet and others) inside the computers which were running the centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Mossad combatants sabotaged equipment which was sent to Iran in various parts of the world. Between 2010 and 2012 Mossad combatants penetrated Iran and killed four top nuclear Iranian scientists and wounded another one by small but powerful bombs attached to their cars by motorcyclists. All of these scientists worked on “weaponization,” the final and most crucial stage of assembling a bomb.
The planning of how to break into the archive took almost a year. The most crucial dilemmas the planners faced were not how to get there but how to get out and whether to copy the materials inside the parameter or to steal the originals.
Being a vast country with long land borders with seven countries and maritime borders with others, also having air links, all options (air, sea and land) were weighed. Among Iran’s neighbors is Azerbaijan, which is a strategic ally of Israel. Previous reports years ago suggested that the country helped Israel in its intelligence operations against Iran. After Netanyahu’s revelations, Azerbaijani officials rushed to deny it had any hand in the Mossad operation.
All the options evolved around the most important consideration: how to bring the combatants home safe. All of the planners and participants knew that if something went wrong or if the Iranians were lucky and clever and caught the combatants, one fate was awaiting them: torture and eventually hanging from a crane at Tehran central squares, as the customary death penalty in the Islamic Republic is exercised.
What determined the final decision was the fact that, at that late stage, the Mossad already knew that in the archive were not only materials associated with the military program but also a lot belonging to the civilian nuclear program. This is the most amazing part of the operation. The Mossad knew in advance what documents, files and disks it wanted to steal and what was not important for the mission. Thus, there was no need to take the entire archive—just part of it. So the decision was made not to “soak” the materials or copy them, but to steal the original materials of the military program and take them out of Iran.
A team of dozens of combatants was picked for the operation. Before that, a lot of logistics had to be dealt with to prepare cars, safe houses, communication gear and other vital equipment. As is also a standard procedure in the Mossad, all participants practiced many times how to best execute such a complicated mission. A structure similar in size to the warehouse in Iran was built and the combatants practiced on it.
Cohen, who personally observed the rehearsals, had to give the green light. But his confirmation was not sufficient. The prime minister is the ultimate authority on such situations. Netanyahu consulted with defense minister Avigdor Liberman and, despite having a reputation of being hesitant and reluctant to take risks, he approved it.
The combatants arrived in Iran and on the night of January 31 broke into the warehouse after making sure that it wasn’t guarded and the area was safe. They stayed for approximately a few hours and unlocked and emptied the relevant safes where the exact materials they needed were stored and left by cars with their treasure—half a ton materials. Despite the danger and tension surrounding them, everything went according to plan.
Their destination is the most well-kept secret. It is assumed that they escaped to one of Iran’s neighbors where they would feel most safe. After a few hours the security personnel at IRGC discovered what had happened under their nose. The Iranians privy to the secret, including the Supreme Leader, were in shock.
The materials are in Farsi and English. Once the materials arrived, an army of dozens of Israeli Farsi experts read and scanned the documents, disks, drawings and simulations. The material proved to be a gem, but the jewel in the crown was missing. There wasn’t a single document which can indicate or hint that Iran continued its military activities after it signed JCPOA. Also, the Israeli intelligence didn’t know if Iran had a backup with copies of the originals. Olli Heinonen, who was deputy director general of IAEA a few years ago and is now a scholar at a think tank in Washington, told me that, knowing the Iranians, he believed they do have copies. “It’s not their habit to put all their eggs in one basket,” he said.
Nevertheless, the documents had their impact. Cohen personally took a copy of them and in early March flew to Washington and showed it to his counterpart, CIA Director Mike Pompeo (now Secretary of State). The CIA experts reviewed the material and reached the conclusion that it was authentic.
At the same time, Netanyahu met Donald Trump and shared with him the main findings. For the U.S. president, the documents helped to cement his decision to pull out of JCPOA.
After Netanyahu’s press conference in May, experts from the French (DGSE) German (BND) and British (MI6) intelligence communities arrived in Israel and were also shown the materials. They expressed their admiration for the Mossad operation. But aside from the psychological blow Israel inflicted on Iran, and the fact that Iran lied even under the terms of the JCPOA, in diplomatic terms, the effect remained minor. The U.S. left the deal, but all the other five signatory members decided to honor it, though they hope Iran will agree to modify it.
This piece has been adapted into English from a previously published Maariv article.
Yossi Melman is an Israel writer who specializes in security an intelligence affairs and co-author (with Dan Raviv) of Spies Against Armageddon.