I finished reading Target Tehran, an excellent new book on the Mossad’s shadow war to keep Iran from going nuclear, over Shabbat on October 7. I had missed synagogue services that Saturday morning and hadn’t heard the news of Hamas’s invasion. Instead, I spent the day offline in a dream world—the one we had all lived in—where Israeli intelligence services knew everything and could do anything. The one in which Israel was pressing forward diplomatically, forging a new Middle East. My wife and I arrived at a Simchat Torah party that night with smiles on our faces. We were the only ones.
The book is as good as one would expect from its co-authors, the Jerusalem Post’s Yonah Jeremy Bob, now an indispensable English-language analyst of the war, and Ilan Evyatar, the former editor of the Jerusalem Report. In astonishing detail, the fruit of access to every relevant former Mossad chief and a great many other players in Israel and America, Bob and Evyatar tell the inside story of how Israel outfoxes Iran. Each chapter tells of a new success—the heist of the nuclear archive, the Stuxnet virus, supply-chain sabotage, targeted assassinations, spymaster diplomacy—that demands its own Daniel Silva thriller. Did Gabriel Allon ever get tired of winning?
Bob and Evyatar are well aware of Iran’s parallel advances and fanatical perseverance, but they conclude that “the overall situation in the Middle East is now very different from what it was when the Mossad’s war against Iran began nearly three decades ago, and those differences are largely to Israel’s advantage.” They point out that “over twenty years had passed since experts predicted that Iran was just a few years away from breakout.” The Mossad, plus the Israeli leaders who dared to unleash it, deserves substantial credit for this delay. Now, when Iran finds itself not a few years away but right on the nuclear threshold, it “faces the most powerful opposition that has ever existed to its messianic ambitions to destroy Israel and spread radical Shiite Islam and terrorism throughout its region.”
This mostly means the new alliance with Gulf Arab states, which Bob and Evyatar consider a testament to “Israel’s skill in advancing its interests simultaneously on two separate but related fronts: forging a historic peace with former enemies and waging a bitter, gritty, risky shadow war with Iran.” The great strength of Target Tehran is its reporting, but a close second must be its subtle analysis of the Abraham Accords and Israel’s subsequent diplomatic breakthroughs, which they treat as an intelligence coup.
Mossad Director Yossi Cohen played a highly unusual role in the negotiations, a reflection of how much his agency’s work on the Iran file impressed Israel’s Arab partners. The ability to hit the Iranians where it counts meant more to these Arab statesmen than did any Israeli gesture of goodwill toward the Palestinians. It’s worth remembering that as Israel faces down Iran’s proxies today.
Mossad has bought Israel time—and perhaps partners, too. But the war forces us to ask: Has Iran used that time even more effectively? The Iranians built a proxy network that spans the entire region, constructing a “ring of fire” around Israel on at least five fronts. The result is that Israel finds itself heavily constrained in exercising its celebrated right to defend itself. Attacked from the south, the Israelis had to hesitate to respond, lest they open themselves up to an even heavier punch from the north.
Just as important, the proxy network’s ability to turn any one fight into a larger regional explosion means that Iran can count on the U.S. to restrain Israel as it fights back. America, with bigger fish to fry in China and Russia, mostly wants calm in the Middle East—even the mirage that existed on October 6. Witness the Biden administration’s early effort to forestall Israeli escalation in the north against Hezbollah and to delay an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. That was an accomplishment of Iranian policy, even if it can’t hold back the tide forever.
We don’t know how the regional picture will look when the fighting stops. But Iran has hit Israel hard by proxy and followed up with direct threats. The parsing of Iran’s precise involvement in the October 7 attacks was always silly: The invasion of Israel and murder of its Jews are what Iran gives Hamas funds, weapons, and training to do. That the Iranian regime celebrated the slaughter after the fact, and brought its power to bear in defense of the slaughterers, should be a reminder of why Israel can’t live with a nuclear Iran.
It is here that Bob and Evyatar’s Mossad reporting is most instructive. First, Israel’s Shin Bet and Mossad have already formed a joint unit to hunt down the perpetrators of October 7. The evidence in this book suggests that no part of Iran will be safe. Here’s how it describes the summer of 2020, when Israel sought to step up its covert attacks on Iran: “It was almost as if the entire country was suddenly surrounded by volcanoes and all the Islamic Republic could do was wait in futility until the next eruption . . . one after another nuclear or IRGC installation burst into flames.”
Second, since Iran is close enough to sprint to a nuclear breakout at the time of its choosing, including under the cover of this crisis, Israel will need to discover it quickly if it wants to be able to act effectively. Again, Mossad’s penetration of Iran is a huge asset: Israelis expect to have a heads-up. I hope the Hamas experience has chastened their intelligence optimism. But unlike in Gaza, here they’re paying attention.
On October 10, in an interview for the Wall Street Journal, I asked Yonah Jeremy Bob what the U.S. could do that would most help Israel in the emerging war. His answer began as follows: “Give Israel bunker-buster bombs.” Those are the dream weapons for a strike on Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel’s possession of them would alter the balance of power in every sphere of the fight. So far, however, American policymakers have had the opposite instinct. Should they finally realize that their Iran policy is untenable—overtaken by events, to say the least—and reevaluate, Mossad may be the least of the Ayatollah’s problems.
Photo: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
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