A review of Target Tehran: How Israel Is Using Sabotage, Cyberwarfare, Assassination—and Secret Diplomacy—to Stop a Nuclear Iran and Create a New Middle East by Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar, 432 pages, Simon and Schuster (September 2023)
In early November 1914, as the First World War threatened to engulf the Near East, the American consul general in Beirut sent an urgent message to the US Secretary of State. “Sir,” W. Stanley Hollis wrote, “I have the honor to report that conditions are going from bad to worse here.” Today, conditions in the Levant are once again going from bad to worse, this time as the result of Hamas’s murderous rampage into southern Israel on October 7th. That pogrom—the most lethal since the Holocaust—was perpetrated by Iranian-backed jihadists who embrace the Islamic Republic’s founding commitment to annihilate what Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called “the Zionist entity.”
Since its revolution in 1979, Iran has been Israel’s most powerful and dangerous foe, and the leading revisionist power in the Middle East. In the 1980s, Iran launched a proxy campaign against the Jewish state, deploying terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to wage asymmetric wars. By the 1990s, when Iran began a concerted effort to develop nuclear weapons, Jerusalem had come to regard the Iranian threat as not merely strategic but existential. Israeli governments have since undertaken an unsleeping campaign to thwart Iran’s bid for regional hegemony and its march to the bomb.
This is the story told in Target Tehran, a succinct and gripping account of Israel’s years-long shadow war against the Islamic Republic. Its authors, journalists Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar, reveal how the Jewish state deals with a strategic dilemma faced by only a small number of other countries on the international stage: the determination of a much larger neighbor to destroy it. Israel has employed a range of measures—sabotage operations against Iran’s nuclear installations, assassinations of its scientists, and the spectacular theft of its nuclear archive—to stymie Iran’s disruptive power and its ardent ambition to acquire apocalyptic weaponry.
The book painstakingly documents how Israel’s formidable military and intelligence power has been decisive in shaping the balance of power in the Middle East. Although it has seldom grabbed headlines, Israel’s project to contain Iran’s Islamist imperium has been a principal reason why the emerging “Shia crescent” from the Persian heartland to the Mediterranean Sea has failed to fully materialize. Iran’s bevy of foreign surrogates and proxy groups—from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza to Iraq’s Shi’ite militias and even the Assad dynasty in Syria—have all had to contend with the wrath of Israeli power.
It is said that elite spy agencies’ achievements remain unknown while their failures do not. But the pages of Target Tehran lift the curtain on some of the most daring feats and crowning achievements of the Mossad, Israel’s enigmatic intelligence agency. By virtue of the Mossad’s clandestine activities, Israel has proved beyond doubt that Iran’s theocracy has repeatedly violated the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement and lied to the world about its active nuclear-weapons program. In the process, Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar summon forth the conclusion that Israeli espionage has been indispensable to the cause of non-proliferation.
Target Tehran opens with Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to order the seizure of Iran’s nuclear archives in 2018—“perhaps the largest physical heist of intelligence materials from an enemy capital in the history of espionage,” the authors speculate. After two years of surveillance and planning, Israeli operatives infiltrated a secret warehouse outside of Tehran and spirited out sensitive documents detailing the advanced state of Iran’s nuclear program. It must rank as among the most audacious operations carried out since the Mossad first came into being in 1949 as the Central Institute for Coordination.
A review of the stolen material categorically demonstrated that Iran was in breach of its international commitments and had lied for years to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based UN group charged with inspecting and reporting on Iran’s nuclear program. It put paid to Tehran’s longstanding claim that its nuclear activities were for strictly civilian purposes. This seizure of some of the most closely guarded secrets of the Iranian regime provided a rationale for then-president Donald Trump to withdraw from the nuclear accords with Iran signed by the Obama administration.
The authors also shed light on more gruesome elements of Israel’s mission to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, such as the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. In 2020, the “Robert Oppenheimer of Iran” was killed in Absard, 40 miles east of Tehran, by a “remote-controlled, satellite-linked machine” that identified him using facial recognition technology, fired 13 bullets, and then self-destructed. Although Fakhrizadeh’s work will outlive him due to a “network of scientists” he had created, this kind of operation has seriously delayed an Iranian breakout.
In addition to laying out the intimate details behind the Mossad’s hybrid operations, Target Tehran places the shadow war against Iran in its proper historical context. For a country beset by enemies, Israel has been especially attuned to nuclear threats. On June 7th, 1981, two quartets of Israeli F-16A fighter-bombers departed the Etzion Air Base in the Sinai Peninsula (then occupied by Israel) to strike and destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister who ordered that operation, pledged that it would serve as a template for future leaders confronting similar threats. The Begin Doctrine, as it became known, was tested once more in 2007, when Israeli jets laid waste to a North Korean-built, Iranian-financed nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor, Syria.
Israel’s determined efforts to foil the nuclear programs of Ba’athist Iraq and Syria established a precedent for its sustained campaign against Iran’s nuclear program. But the Iranian case, which the authors correctly depict as the Mossad’s “most important preoccupation,” is fraught with huge present and future difficulties that did not obtain in other previous “shadow strikes.” For starters, it’s unclear whether Jerusalem has the capacity to preemptively strike Iran and destroy its nuclear program. Geographical distance poses special risks for any kind of air raid, especially since Iran is a large country with advanced air defenses. Moreover, its nuclear facilities, while not immune to attack, are dispersed around the country and buried deep underground. Increasingly proficient centrifuges have also allowed the Iranians to build and conceal smaller facilities that can rapidly process low-enriched uranium into bomb-grade material.
Although the authors’ narrative is free of partisan point-scoring, their assessment of the gray-zone war between Israel and Iran subtly demonstrates the folly of US diplomacy that has long sought, in President Obama’s phrase, to extend a hand to the mullahs despite the fact that they never had any intention of unclenching their fist. Instead of working in concert with Israel and Arab regimes to roll back Iran’s malign influence, American presidents have generally shied away from directly confronting the Shia theocracy, unwilling to test the temperature of Iran’s clerical caste. This persistent passivity has gravely reduced US credibility in the Middle East, where it is expected that a great power will punish its foes and protect its friends. Instead, there is a pervasive sense that the US no longer has the will to protect its own interests, let alone the capacity to maintain a durable liberal order.
In this respect, the US drone strike outside the Baghdad airport in 2020, which dispatched the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, was an exception to the rule. The story of the targeted killing of the “shadow commander” is well wrought by the authors, who explain that Israel and America had long had Soleimani in their sights, but that he repeatedly escaped harm because of his adversaries’ reticence. In 2007, the US military balked after the Iranian commander crossed into Iraq by land. General Stanley McChrystal, then head of US Joint Special Operations Command, decided that targeting an Iranian government official would expose top US government personnel to retaliation. Of course, the diminishing American presence in Iraq provoked Iranian aggression anyway, bringing untold destruction to the region.
For the past few years, the “campaign between wars,” as the suppressed conflict between Israel and Iran is known in the IDF, spilled over into Iran itself, where Israel has launched direct assaults on the regime’s military and nuclear assets. Though anathema to critics of Israel, there’s something to be said for the claim that Israel’s competence in using sabotage, cyberwarfare, and assassination has checked the forces of menace in the Levant.
It also paved the way for a new diplomatic arrangement in the Middle East, culminating in the Abraham Accords of 2020. The retrenchment of American power in the Obama years forced the long-hidden relationship between Israel and much of the Arab world out into the open. Although this political achievement has been dealt a severe blow by the current hostilities between Israel and Hamas, it has nonetheless consolidated a hardy anti-Iranian alliance among Israel and its Arab neighbors that will not soon be undone.
Target Tehran provides essential insight into Iran’s strategy to surround Israel with a “ring of fire”—a concept that has assumed horrible resonance since the savagery unleashed by its surrogates on and since October 7th. Although Iran’s quest for the bomb has been impeded by adroit Israeli espionage, Hamas’s brazen assault against Israeli civilians has laid bare a deeper strategic failure. During the long phase when Israel became “addicted to quiet” with the Palestinians, Iran’s “axis of resistance” was busy preparing its most grotesque onslaught yet. Israel now has no choice but to confront its most determined enemy out of the shadows.