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U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation: Intelligence Collaboration

One of the most significant contributions Israel has made to U.S. security has been shared intelligence. The truth is the United States has little alternative but to depend on Israel for much of its Middle Eastern human intelligence because the CIA's capability has diminished. In post-revolutionary Iran, the CIA no longer had a presence and the CIA's Lebanon station was virtually wiped out in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. The United States relies on the Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies for information about terrorism, radical Islamic movements, weapons proliferation and other Middle East-related events.

For many years, Israel played a key role in assisting U.S. intelligence through the capture and transfer of Soviet weapons systems. For example, Israel supplied the United States with valuable intelligence about Soviet fighters and their avionics. This occurred as recently as 1989 after a Syrian pilot defected in an advanced model of a MIG-23 and American officials were allowed to examine the plane.

A Russian passenger plane travelling from the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg, Russia, crashed in the Sinai Peninsula on October 31, 2015, killing all 224 passengers. After weeks of investigations it was determined that a bomb brought down the plane. U.S. and British intelligence services used information gathered from Israeli security sources during the investigation of the crash. Communications from terror groups in the area were intercepted by Israeli security and later given to U.S. and British investigators.

Stuxnet Slows Iranian Enrichment

In 2010, Iran announced that uranium enrichment at Natanz had stopped several times because of a series of technical problems. News reports suggested that as many as 1,000 centrifuges used to enrich uranium were damaged. It was subsequently reported that the destruction was likely caused by sabotage. In June, anti-virus experts discovered a sophisticated computer worm dubbed “Stuxnet,” which spreads via Microsoft Windows and targets Siemens industrial software and equipment used by Iran to control centrifuges used to enrich uranium at its Natanz plant. The New York Times subsequently reported that Stuxnet is part of a U.S. and Israeli intelligence operation called "Operation Olympic Games," initiated by President George W. Bush and expanded under President Barack Obama (New York Times, June 1, 2012).

At the time the worm was reportedly infecting the Iranian machines, IAEA cameras installed in Natanz recorded the sudden dismantling and removal of approximately 900–1000 centrifuges. These were quickly replaced, however, and Iran resumed uranium enrichment (Washington Post, February 16, 2011).

Although Stuxnet was discovered, it is believed that the United States, Israel and others continue to use cyberwarfare in an effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.

Infiltrating ISIS

U.S. diplomats reported in 2014 that Israel has been assisting in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) by providing the United States with intelligence information, including lists of Westerners who have joined ISIS. Israel has also provided vital intelligence in the form of drones flying over ISIS territory.  This information is then used to carry out air strikes and plan coordinated attacks. 

In 2017, it was disclosed that Israeli cyberoperators penetrated a cell of bombmakers in Syria. Israel passed on information indicating ISIS had learned to make explosives resembling laptop computer batteries, which can evade detection by airport X-ray machines and other screening devices. The information prompted the United States to ban large electronic devices in carry-on luggage on flights from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries to the United States and Britain. President Trump is believed to have revealed the intelligence to Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and the ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak during during a meeting the Oval Office in May 2017 (David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Cyberweapons, Used Against Iran and North Korea, Are a Disappointment Against ISIS,” New York Times, (June 12, 2017).

U.S. Killing of Soleimani

On January 2, 2020, the United States launched a drone strike on the entourage of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, killing him and nine other people, including a commander of Shia forces in Iraq.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad summarized Soleimani’s role:

Soleimani was the personification of the Islamic Republic’s revered and loathed regional policies, and served as a de facto leader in carrying it out. In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, he was the main architect behind the expansion of Iranian regional influence and power, working to fill the vacuum created by the war. As Iran was deprived of conventional military capability as a result of sanctions, Soleimani built and emboldened Iran’s asymmetric power built on a regional network of proxies and allies — known to Tehran and its allies as the “Axis of Resistance.” He was thus revered by his friends and foes alike, even among senior American and Israeli military strategists. As a result of his strategy centered on the idea that offense is the best defense, Iran emerged as the region’s indispensable power. In Syria, it was Soleimani who helped the embattled Bashar al-Assad survive his own Arab Spring, through a reckless and bloody campaign against regime opponents (Ali Fathollah-Nejad, “Analysis: What the killing of Qassem Soleimani could mean,” PBS News Hour, (January 3, 2020).

More than a year after his assassination, it was learned that Israel shared with U.S. intelligence three cell phone numbers used by Soleimani in the hours before American drones unleashed Hellfire missiles on the Iranian general. “In Tel Aviv, U.S. Joint Special Operations Command liaisons worked with their Israeli counterparts to help track Soleimani’s cellphone patterns. The Israelis, who had access to Soleimani’s numbers, passed them off to the Americans, who traced Soleimani and his current phone to Baghdad” (Paul Best, Israel shared Iranian General Soleimani's cell phones with US intelligence before drone strike: report,” Yahoo News, May 8, 2021).

In October 2021, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against Iranian companies and their executives linked to the development of armed drones for attacks on U.S. forces and allies used by terror groups supported by Iran, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Houthis in Yemen. According to Haaretz, Israel passed intelligence on the Iranian drone program to the United States, including those sanctioned (Jonathan Lis, “Israel Passed on Iran Drone Intel to U.S. Before It Imposed New Sanctions,” Haaretz, October 30, 2021).

On October 20, 2021, a U.S. base in southern Syria was attacked by five Iranian suicide drones. Most American troops were evacuated beforehand after receiving a warning from Israeli intelligence. The attack was reportedly retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria (New York Times, November 18, 2021). Israel reportedly also tipped off the United States about an attack on a base in Iraq on January 7, 2020, which likely also saved hundreds of lives (Arutz Sheva, December 3, 2021).