How Mossad passed on killing Khomeini in 1979
London - Twenty-three years after he left Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence arm, one memory sometimes wakes Yossi Alpher at 4 in the morning: What if Mossad had agreed to a request in early 1979 to kill Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini?
“It’s impossible to answer,” Alpher told The Arab Weekly. “But there is a case to be made for the centrality of very charismatic leaders and so for the consequences of their disappearance.”
Alpher relates the incident in his recent book Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies. He was summoned, along with Mossad’s Tehran representative Eliezar Shafrir, by Mossad director Yitzhak Hofi and told of a plea to assassinate Khomeini from Shapour Bakhtiar, appointed caretaker prime minister by the shah to head off revolution.
Shafrir’s reply was negative: If Khomeini, in exile in Paris, returned to Iran, he’d be dealt with by the army and the shah’s security police, Savak. Alpher took a deep breath and suggested, “We simply don’t know enough about what Khomeini stands for and what his chances are to justify the risk.”
Underestimating Khomeini was a failure not just of Mossad but of the United States, Britain and Savak itself.
Knowing what he knows now, what advice would Alpher have offered?
“If the conversation had been a few months later, I’d have said it’s worth the risk,” Alpher said. “I’m not saying the head of Mossad would have decided differently had I offered a different opinion but it’s an incident that stays with me.”
In power, the revolutionaries quickly revealed their intentions. “We saw how they dealt with the rest of the opposition, all the executions, and we got an appreciation of their determination,” said Alpher. “They made no bones about their plans to export revolution … Bakhtiar had apparently understood all this but we didn’t know Bakhtiar and we certainly didn’t know the clergy. We just didn’t get it.”
Alpher’s book surveys a “periphery doctrine” developed in 1957-58 in the office of prime minister David Ben-Gurion through which Israel found regional allies against the hostile “Arab core” of states led by Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Mossad operatives like Alpher courted both countries and ethnic or religious minorities within them. These included Ethiopia, Sudan, Morocco and Greece as well as Lebanese Maronites, Iraq’s Kurds, the south Sudanese and Berbers.
But the “flagship” was Trident, an intelligence alliance with Turkey and Iran from the late 1950s. With Iran, this lasted until the 1979 revolution, and with Turkey until Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister and now president, split with Israel in 2009.
The periphery doctrine waned in the 1980s with progress in peace talks with core Arab states and apparently the Palestinians, before re-emerging after 2010 in a different guise as Israel confronted not hostile Arab states but strains of militant Islamism.
“Today if you want to define a hostile ring, it’s more amorphous: first and foremost non-state actors, Hezbollah, Hamas; and now potentially Daesh [Islamic State] and Jabhat al-Nusra,” Alpher said. “There’s a fluid, revolutionary situation all around us that requires us to be on our toes, to look at the area as a mosaic and be ready to jump from one square to another to exploit our interests.
“Further afield we find Iran and Turkey — Iran definitely as a supporter of Hezbollah, while Turkey’s more difficult to define as part of a hostile ring.” Facing the ring, Israel has built links with Azerbaijan, Romania, Greece and Cyprus and has expanded trade with Russia, China and India.
This reflects Israel’s strength compared to the 1950s when the periphery doctrine evolved, said Alpher: “We have more options. We no longer have our backs to the wall.”
Alpher is downbeat about Iran. His book has a chapter on what he calls “periphery nostalgia”, the belief in Israel that better relations could return either by the authorities in Tehran changing or being removed. This has faded since the 1980s when Israel sent arms during the war with Iraq, although Alpher detects an “equivalent” today within the Obama administration.
“They’re saying do this nuclear deal … and it will empower them to moderate Iranian political life to the benefit of everyone, Iranians and non-Iranians,” Alpher said.
“I hope they succeed. I don’t object to having ten years without having to worry about an Iranian nuclear weapon. But what bothers me is that they tend to translate this into a tolerance on the ground for Iran’s drive for regional hegemony, in Iraq, in Syria and perhaps in Yemen.”
Perhaps it could all have been different. Shafrir, Mossad’s former man in Tehran, and Alpher live near each other in Tel Aviv. “We meet at the swimming pool,” said Alpher. “And, yes, we chat.”