Book: The Secret War with Iran

09.22.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In 1997, acting on intelligence that a Hizballah cell was preparing to blow up the American embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay, a U.S. special forces team reportedly flew to the scene in several giant transport planes where it arrested the conspirators and prevented the attack.

If that episode happened as described (and it cannot readily be confirmed), it left no traces on the public record. It “is only one of many hidden battles” between Iran and the West, writes Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman in his new book “The Secret War with Iran” (Free Press, 2008).

The book, translated from the Hebrew and based on extensive interviews with Israeli intelligence officials and others, provides a wealth of insights, unfamiliar anecdotes, and telling observations regarding the three-decade-old confrontation with Iran. A few random examples:

Hizballah, acting as a proxy for Iran, temporarily refrained from taking American hostages between June 1985 and September 1986 in support of the secret arms sales deal between the U.S. and Iran that later became known as the Iran-contra affair.

Israel itself helped arm revolutionary Iran in a secret operation codenamed “Seashell” and described in the book. Earlier, Israel had also supplied advanced weaponry to the Shah, and “if Khomeini had not taken power as early as he did, he might have taken over a country armed with long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads… as well as a jet fighter that was supposed to be the best in the world.”

Out of a list of some 500 opposition figures targeted by Khomeini, nearly 200 of them were killed by Iranian assassins in Europe between 1980 and 1997.

Writing from an Israeli perspective, Mr. Bergman does not delve deeply into Iranian grievances or aspirations. But neither does he flatter the competence, judgment or morality of Israeli intelligence and military officials.

Categorized by the publisher as “political science,” the book is more of a work of intelligence history, with numerous strange tales of intelligence deeds and misdeeds, like the Israeli intelligence officer who was arrested for murdering his agent, and the Lebanese source who provided perfect warning of an impending attack only to be ignored in a turf battle between Israeli security agencies. The CIA is credited with “brilliantly” dismantling the Abu Nidal Organization, “sewing discord among its members by getting them to believe that they were being robbed by other operatives.”

Mr. Bergman, an investigative journalist who writes for Israel’s Yediot Aharonot, earned his doctorate under historian Christopher Andrew at Cambridge University. His dissertation explored Israeli intelligence operations in Africa.