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He led IDF intel gathering on Iran, was ignored and fears Israel is now paying price

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WASHINGTON — Several months after the 2013 election of former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, Aviv Kohavi submitted a position paper to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he pointed to a significant, strategic shift underway in the Islamic Republic.

Kohavi, who currently serves as IDF chief of staff, was the head of the Military Intelligence unit at the time, and he relayed his assessment that Iran was becoming more moderate and willing to negotiate an agreement with world powers that would enshrine restrictions on its nuclear program. Advertisement

Days after receiving the report, Netanyahu went to New York for his annual speech before the UN General Assembly.

There, he appeared to dismiss Kohavi’s stance, declaring that “when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: [Rouhani’s hardline predecessor Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing and Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”

Danny Citrinowicz was part of the team that supplied Kohavi with the intelligence that led him to stake a position on Iran that went against the grain of longstanding policy in Jerusalem.

As head of the Iran branch in the Military Intelligence’s Research and Analysis Division, Citrinowicz was charged with analyzing the strategic intents of the regime in Tehran. This was from 2013 to 2016 during the leadup and the immediate aftermath of the signing of the multilateral nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Citrinowicz was subsequently dispatched to Washington, where he served as the Military Intelligence deputy attaché to the US, coordinating intel sharing with American counterparts for three years during which Netanyahu pushed then-US president Donald Trump to vacate the JCPOA.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Citrinowicz characterized Jerusalem’s policy on Iran as a “failure,” and lamented his government’s decision to ignore the shift taking place in the Islamic Republic that he and his colleagues had identified. By encouraging the Trump administration to withdraw from the deal and to impose “maximum pressure” sanctions against Tehran, Israel helped dramatically weaken a more moderate force and blunt the impact of that shift, the retired major argued.

Now, Citrinowicz fears that Israel and Iran are on a “collision course,” with Tehran as emboldened and aggressive as ever. Unlike Rouhani, Iran’s newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi does not prioritize a return to the nuclear deal and believes Tehran can withstand US sanctions thanks to growing alliances with Russia and China, the ex-senior intelligence analyst argued.

As world powers returned to Vienna this week for a seventh round of talks aimed at reviving the JCPOA, Citrinowicz maintained that the only way the sides will succeed is if the US is willing to compromise significantly.

And while Israel’s leaders continue to warn negotiating powers that it is not party to whatever agreement they reach and that it reserves the right to act on its own if necessary, Citrinowicz said that Jerusalem’s ability to influence the talks in Vienna is negligible.

“Iran will only change its strategy if it feels like the regime is in real jeopardy,” Citrinowicz said. “And they believe that the only country capable of really threatening them is the US, not Israel.”

He was dismissive of previous attacks attributed to Israel on Iran’s nuclear program, arguing that they at best delayed Tehran’s efforts and at worst led the regime to double down in its effort, craftily evading inspections in the process.

The former head of research at the Military Intelligence Directorate also warned that a more significant strike from either Israel or the US would lead to a regional war, which would include retaliation on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah.

Having peeled off his IDF uniform, Citrinowicz now works as a senior researcher at Reichmann University in Herzliya. No longer gagged by military protocol, Citrinowicz is using his new platform to inject a different perspective into Israel’s discourse on Iran.

“We need a realistic approach,” Citrinowicz said flatly. “I understand the importance of sounding tough and constantly saying ‘Iran is bad, Iran is bad,’ but when you are constantly shouting unrealistic demands then you won’t be considered to be someone that can really contribute to the international debate.”

“Israel is still thinking in terms of zero enrichment [of uranium] in Iran,” he continued. “That’s like talking of achieving a COVID infection rate of zero. It’s no longer relevant.”

Citrinowicz spoke about the frustrations of regularly being overruled by the political echelon, which from Netanyahu to his successor Naftali Bennett has “projected our own way of thinking onto the enemy.”

“One of our biggest problems is that we do not understand Iran,” he said. “What’s worse, we make incorrect working assumptions about Iranian goals and strategy based on very shaky knowledge that rests primarily on our understanding of Iran’s activities in the region.”

Citrinowicz explained that there is no single body that directs Tehran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria and the regime’s goals domestically are not the same as its goals abroad.

“Iran can be active in the region while being passive with its nuclear program at home and visa versa,” he maintained.

“This miscalculation is likely what will lead to a conflict between the two countries,” Citrinowicz warned.

The following is a transcript of the interview, which was conducted in English and Hebrew. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Times of Israel: What was your job as head of the Iran branch in the Military Intelligence Directorate?

Danny Citrinowicz: I was in charge of analyzing Iran’s strategic intents, from nuclear to regional activities. I was writing reports and making recommendations. But essentially, I was trying to assess the actions of the “red side” — whether Iran wanted to acquire a nuclear bomb and what it planned to do in Syria. This was from 2013 to 2016 during the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA. We were asking ourselves whether there was going to be an agreement and what kind of agreement would be reached. What were Iran’s red lines?

Then in Washington, I was the liaison officer for the [Military] Intelligence [Directorate] and was responsible for enhancing cooperation between Israeli and American intelligence officials.

What was the Israeli position at the time?

It goes without saying that the position was no discussion with Iran whatsoever. No acceptance of the JCPOA. But there were people within the Israeli system that really challenged the position from the military side. IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said that while JCPOA is not the ultimate agreement, and that it has its flaws, at the end of the day it also has advantages — the biggest one being that it enabled the IDF to focus more on the immediate threats of Hezbollah and Hamas.

The agreement — with all of its flaws — rolled back the Iran nuclear program significantly, more than any other clandestine activity that was aimed at doing the same. Those clandestine activities may have suspended or delayed the program a little bit, but nothing at the level of the JCPOA.

Was this your feeling at the time as well?

Yes, it was. When you’re in the army though, you can make your voice heard but at the end of the day it’s a political decision, and the political decision was no JCPOA, no acceptance of the agreement. You can challenge that, you can write memos about it, but at the end of the day, this was the policy under Netanyahu.

You mentioned Eisenkot. Were you senior enough to also voice reservations?

In the army, people understood the importance of the agreement, so for me, it was easy to present that opinion. But that wasn’t the issue. Even Lt. Gen. Eisenkot thought this way, and the policy didn’t change. Because for Netanyahu, Iran is something deeper than just a threat. For him, it’s like fighting the new Nazis. So you can raise your reservations, but it won’t help.

Eisenkot wasn’t raising those reservations publicly though, right?

Not publicly, but at the end of the day, people knew. It was leaked. Years earlier, as the JCPOA negotiations were ongoing, Kohavi as head of the [Military] Intelligence wrote a position paper to the policymakers highlighting a shift taking place in Iran with the election of Rouhani. Iran was becoming more moderate and more willing to negotiate a nuclear deal. It was becoming more moderate in terms of its nuclear ambitions.

The JCPOA was a unique event, and the changes in Iran were important in helping achieve this agreement. What Kohavi wrote actually came true. There was a change in Iran — a change that led to the JCPOA — but Netanyahu adopted a policy — one that both in hindsight and at the time I thought was the wrong policy — that pushed the US to get out of the agreement without any alternative strategy. I don’t know what Netanyahu expected, but the Iranians pushed through all of the obstacles, and all the problems that they had and now they are pushing forward in the enrichment, going further in violating restrictions than I could have ever imagined that they would.

Couldn’t one argue that the “alternative strategy” was the maximum pressure campaign?

Yes, but it was a catastrophe. It was very naive to think that they could force the regime to choose between its survival and its........

© The Times of Israel

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