Yossi Cohen, the ex-Mossad chief who retired last week, has given an extensive interview to Israel's Channel 12 in which he detailed an abundance of information about his and the agency's input in the country's operations and even diplomatic victories over the five years that he ran Mossad.
He shared details about an alleged Israeli operation in 2018 that resulted, as Tel Aviv claims, in the obtaining of Iranian documents purportedly proving that Iran sought to develop nuclear weapons. Cohen said that Mossad operatives, none of whom were Israeli, had been planning and preparing the operation for two years. The preparations included extensive rehearsals at a replica of the site Mossad was planning to raid.
According to Cohen, in January 2018, Mossad operatives infiltrated the facility and opened 32 safes allegedly containing secret Iranian documents about Tehran's nuclear programme that were later presented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April as proof of the nation's purported plans to build nukes. The agents had seven hours to open the safes because each of them took "more than [mere] minutes" to crack, Cohen said.
The former Mossad chief did not reveal how the agents got out of Iran with 50,000 documents and 163 discs despite being chased by the Iranians soon after leaving the warehouse they had raided. He noted, however, that all of them made it out alive.
On Death of Iran's Scientists and Alleged Role in Natanz Blast
Despite revealing a lot of details about the 2018 raid for Iran's nuclear documents, Cohen was cagey when asked about more recent events in Iran ascribed to Israel's activities. He did not directly confirm Tel Aviv's role in the April 2021 blast at the Natanz nuclear plant that devastated a part of the facility. Instead, he noted that "it doesn't look like it used to look", regardless of whether Tehran had fixed the damage or not.
Indeed, according to Iran, Natanz has changed a lot since the blast. Namely, the old centrifuges, used in enriching uranium and presumably destroyed in the blast, were replaced with newer, more effective models.
Commenting on the Natanz explosion, Cohen further stressed that Tel Aviv had sent a clear message to Tehran: "We won't let you get nuclear weapons. What don't you understand?"
The ex-Mossad chief was also cautious on the subject of the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. While Cohen confirmed that Fakhrizadeh, whose killing Iran condemned as a hideous crime, had long been in the Israeli spy agency's crosshairs, he stopped short of confirming that Mossad had pulled the trigger.
"[Fakhrizadeh] most troubled us from the point of view of the science, the knowledge, the scientists of the Iranian military nuclear programme. He was a target for [intelligence] gathering for many years", Cohen said.
The former Israeli spymaster went on to elaborate that Tel Aviv is ready to eliminate individuals if they "constitute a capability that endangers the citizens of Israel". He noted, however, that these persons can always avert the danger of encountering Mossad assassins one day by changing their line of work so that it no longer endangers Israel.
The Spy, the Diplomat, the Future Prime Minister?
Cohen's work at Mossad sometimes went beyond just espionage – he and his agency also engaged in Tel Aviv's diplomatic efforts that culminated in a series of peace deals with several Arab countries in 2020. Namely, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
The ex-spymaster shared that Mossad was deeply involved in negotiations with the UAE, trying to dissolve a major obstacle in the negotiations – the 2010 scandal when its agents killed Hamas arms importer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. The operation had been exposed and it took a lot of effort by Israel to "defuse the obstacle" that the scandal posed for peace efforts, according to Cohen.
Responding to a journalist's question about whether it was appropriate for Mossad to be engaged in spheres beyond espionage, such as diplomacy, Cohen noted that in his view the agency "has to be everywhere" in 2021.
The former head of Mossad admitted that, despite numerous successes, he too faced failures in his five years at the helm of the nation's spy agency. Cohen considers his backing of Qatar's funding of Gaza to be one of the gravest mistakes he made. The ex-spy explained that he had hoped the financial aid would improve the living conditions of people in the strip and prevent further Israeli-Palestinian violence. Instead, the money was used to arm Hamas and build tunnels for its operations, Cohen claimed, admitting that he "was wrong" to expect another outcome.
Despite his tenure with Mossad having come to an end, Cohen does not rule out serving Israel in another capacity. In fact, he's considering becoming Israeli prime minister one day, but is not mulling over running for office at the moment.