Israeli spymaster talks Iran, Syria, Russia and populism in Ottawa meetings


OTTAWA — A top Israeli intelligence official is in Ottawa seeking support for his country’s new allegations that Iran concealed a nuclear weapons program before signing its deal with world powers three years ago.

Chagai Tzuriel, the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, is also briefing the government on how Israel views the wider threats posed by Iran in Syria, relations with Russia and the growing problem of how to curtail the fallout from populism.

Tzuriel was to meet officials from Global Affairs Canada and the Privy Council office on Tuesday after a Monday meeting with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Some of his assessment may strike Canadian officials as anathema: he sees co-operation with Russia as essential, and says U.S. President Donald Trump’s hard-nosed foreign policy could curb Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“So far his heavy-hand approach — we could call it the Heavy-Hand Doctrine — is yielding right now, more than before,” Tzuriel said in a wide-ranging interview.

The visit to Ottawa was originally intended as a way to learn more about the federal government’s efforts to track and predict emerging trends such as the current populist wave — something Tzuriel said is reshaping intelligence work across the globe.

But the visit has proven especially timely, considering Monday’s televised multimedia presentation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu was trumpeting Iranian documents obtained by Israeli’s intelligence agency, Mossad, that he said show Iran lied about pursuing nuclear weapons before signing the 2015 deal.

While there was no direct evidence in Netanyahu’s presentation that Iran violated the deal after signing it, it may have given Trump more reason to pull the U.S. of out of the pact as a May 12 deadline approaches.

“I’m certainly hoping that I can convince anyone in the international community — especially the West, especially Canada, which we view as a friend — to support wherever it can, possibly support us on this issue,” Tzuriel said.

Canada is not part of the so-called P5 plus one club — the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany — that negotiated the agreement with Iran to curtail and monitor its nuclear program.

That said, Tzuriel said it is in Israel’s interest to get support from Western countries for either cancelling or strengthening a deal that his government views as flawed and ultimately ineffective in stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Canada supports the deal and last fall gave $1.5 million the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to support its work in verifying Iran’s compliance, and that support remains unchanged after Netanyahu’s latest pitch.

Tzuriel said Iran’s “malign” influence goes beyond the nuclear issue. Iran has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to support Syrian President Bashar Assad, a military presence Israel views as a threat that must be stopped.

A Sunday night missile strike killed Iranian fighters in Syria, and while there has been no official confirmation, Israel is widely assumed by many to have carried it out.

Tzuriel wouldn’t confirm the attack either, but he stressed “we will not accept Iran basing itself militarily in Syria” because it crosses a “red line” for Israel.

He described Syria as “a microcosm like no other in the world, where so many international, regional and local relationships and power balances converge.” That includes tensions Russia and the U.S., and between Israel, Iran and Turkey, the presence of various terrorist groups and the fallout that has given rise to disruptive populist forces.

“The export of terror and the export of refugee immigrants changed the socio-economic situation,” he said. “It influenced the outcomes of elections in the United States, in Germany, in Italy, in Hungary, in Poland.”

Canada has a good reputation for being able to recognize and adapt to the disruptive influence of populism, said Tzuriel, and he wants to learn more about that this week.

Tzuriel said the ongoing instability “requires a huge change” in how intelligence agencies such as his need to operate.

“There is an abundance — a huge amount of information — and the focus has moved from collecting to processing the information. From getting it to, ‘What do you do with it now?'”

Tzuriel said Israel has no issues with Russia’s widely criticized disinformation campaign, which was a focus for Canada and its G7 allies last week. He said there has been no foreign interference in Israel’s elections.

Co-operation with Russia, which is propping up Assad, is essential to resolving the long-running civil war, he added.

Israel and Russia are “frenemies” who share a common interest in stabilizing Syria one day. Despite the political turmoil in the U.S. over possible Russian election interference there, Tzuriel said it is inevitable that both those countries will have to co-operate on resolving Syria.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


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