The following script is from "The Spymaster Speaks" which aired on March 11, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Shachar Bar-On, producer.
When President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this past week, the subject was how, when and if to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, Netanyahu saying Israel can't afford to wait much longer; Mr. Obama arguing there's still time to let sanctions and diplomacy do the job. And he said some top intelligence officials in Israel side with him.
Actually, you'll hear from one of them tonight: Meir Dagan, former chief of the Mossad, Israel's equivalent of the CIA. It's unheard of for someone who held such a high-classified position to speak out publicly, but he told us he felt compelled to talk, because he is so opposed to a preemptive Israeli strike against Iran anytime soon.
Dagan headed the Mossad for nearly a decade until last year. His primary, if not his only mission was to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. And he says there is time to wait, perhaps as long as three years.
Lesley Stahl: You have said publicly that bombing Iran now is the stupidest idea you've ever heard. That's a direct quote.
Dagan: An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way how to do it.
Stahl: The dispute seems to come down, though, to whether you are at the end of everything that you can try or whether you have a lot of time left to try other things, which seems to be your position.
Dagan: I never said it's a lot of time but I think that-
Stahl: Well, more time.
Dagan: More time.
For nearly a decade buying more time was his job. The Iranians say Dagan dispatched assassins, faulty equipment and computer viruses to sabotage their nuclear program. All the while, he was poring over the most secret dossiers about the Iranian regime, gaining insights and a surprising appreciation.
Dagan: The regime in Iran is a very rational regime.
Stahl: Do you think Ahmadinejad is rational?
Dagan: The answer is yes. Not exactly our rationale, but I think that he is rational.
Stahl: Do you think they're rational enough that they are capable of backing down from this?
Dagan: No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western-thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.
Stahl: Other people think they're not going to really stop until they have this capability.
Dagan: They will have to pay dearly and all the consequences for it. And I think the Iranians, in this point in time, are going very careful in the project. They are not running in it.
Stahl: If they're that rational as you suggest and that logical, then why can't you, Israel, and the world live with a nuclear Iran?
Dagan: In the Israeli case, they have said they want to destroy Israel.
He says one sign of Iran's logical thinking is how they cunningly stall through diplomacy.
Dagan: I think that the Iranians are masters at negotiation. They invented of what I call the "bazaar culture" of how we are negotiating.
Stahl: So if there are negotiations, how concerned would you be that the Europeans, for example, would say, "Ah. We're talking. Let's weaken the sanctions"?
Dagan: I have to admit that's a concern. Yes.
Stahl: People are going to want to lessen the tension so that the oil prices will go back down.
Dagan: Do you think that Iran armed with a nuclear capability is going to create stability in the region? They have an interest, a basic interest to raise the prices of oil, cause this is the most important source of income for Iran. If Iran will be armed with a nuclear capability, their ability to create instability in the region, and by this indirectly to increase the price of oil, that'd be much worse than it is now.
Dagan says the best solution is to push the mullahs out by supporting Iranian students and minorities. According to a leaked State Department cable, he told his American counterparts as early as 2007, more should be done to foment regime change.
Dagan: It's our duty to help anyone who likes to present an open opposition against their regime in Iran.
Stahl: Has Israel done anything to encourage, help, support the youth opposition groups that have been marching against the regime?
Dagan: Let's ignore the question.
Dagan argues that a preemptive Israeli strike this year would be reckless and irresponsible. The Obama administration agrees that there's time to wait.
[Obama: Already there's too much loose talk of war.]
Dagan: I heard very carefully what President Obama said. And he said openly that the military option is on the table, and he is not going to let Iran become a nuclear state.
Stahl: So let me try to sum up what I think you're now saying. And you're saying, "Why should we do it? If we wait and they get the bomb, the Americans will do it."
Dagan: The issue of Iran armed with a nuclear capability is not an Israeli problem; it's an international problem.
Stahl: So wait and let us do it.
Dagan: If I prefer that somebody will do it, I always prefer that Americans will do it.
In his memoir, former Vice President Dick Cheney says that in 2007 Dagan came to Washington with intel to make the case for bombing the Syrian nuclear reactor that Israel later took out in a surprise attack. Syria did not retaliate. This time, Dagan thinks it'll be different. He worries about a rain of missiles which some estimate could be as many as 50,000.
Dagan: We are going to ignite, at least from my point of view, a regional war. And wars, you know how they start. You never know how you are ending it.
We went outside and looked out from his balcony at the bright lights of the very prosperous, modern city of Tel Aviv.
Stahl: If Israel does strike Iran, the retaliation would probably take place right here. Hezbollah could come from the north; Hamas could fire from the south.
Dagan: It will be a devastating impact on our ability to continue with our daily life. I think that Israel will be in a very serious situation for quite a time.
Dagan's other concern is that a bombing attack would not be effective. It's been widely reported that there are four main, heavily fortified, nuclear facilities dispersed across Iran. He says it's more complicated than that.
Dagan: There are dozens of sites.
Stahl: Not four?
Dagan: Not four.
Stahl: So if Israel were to go and have their strike, they'd have to have a dozen hits?
Dagan: You'll have to deal with a large number of targets.
Stahl: Here's something that I saw that you said. You said, "There's no military attack that can halt the Iranian nuclear project. It could only delay it."
Dagan: Yes, I agree.
It's ironic that the man arguing that Israel show restraint, built his reputation on brute force. Dagan is legendary in Israel with a 44-year resume as an effective killing machine. Before Mossad, he ran undercover hit squads, executing PLO operatives in Gaza, then Shiite militias in southern Lebanon. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used to say Dagan's expertise was, quote, "separating an Arab from his head."
Dagan: I never ever killed nobody or we were engaged in killing somebody who was unarmed.
Stahl: Here are some of the things that have been said and written about you. "Hard charging." "Stop at nothing." Somebody who, quote, "eats Arabs for breakfast."
Dagan: I am not responsible for what you are describing.
Stahl: But have you killed a lot of people?
Dagan: Unfortunately, I was involved in some engagement that people were killed.
Stahl: Any with your bare hands?
Dagan: Never. I know the stories. It's simply not true. Look, there is no pleasure in killing. There's no joy in killing people.
Sitting in his apartment, we were surprised that the walls were covered with pictures that he himself had painted.
Stahl: I see a lot of humanity in your paintings and I see paintings of Arabs.
Dagan: I know it would sound anti-Semitic if I said some of my best friends are Arabs, but I truly, really admire some of the qualities of Arabs.
His portrait is complex: he led a life of violence, but is a vegetarian. And in the background lies a haunting memory. This is a photograph of his grandfather moments before he was executed by the Nazis. Dagan would show it to his Mossad operatives before sending them off on missions.
Stahl: It's a very sad picture. And that's propelled you?
Dagan: I think that should propel everyone in this country.
Stahl: When the Iranians, when Ahmadinejad talks about wiping Israel away, this is what you're thinking?
Dagan: No doubt that I have to take into consideration a scenario that a majority of Israelis are going to be killed if they're going to use a nuclear capability against Israel.
He came to Mossad with the Holocaust motto of "never again" on his mind. Soon after, Iranian cargo planes started falling from the sky, nuclear labs were catching fire, centrifuges were malfunctioning. And then, one by one, Iranian nuclear scientists started disappearing and getting killed, blown up by shadowy men on motorcycles. But no matter how hard we tried, whenever we asked about any of this, he stonewalled.
Dagan: I'm not going to discuss anything about this issue.
Stahl: Okay, but that's pretty well known.
Dagan: Nice try.
Stahl: Nice try! That must kill you not to take credit for it. I mean, even in the Arab world, do you know what they call you? They call you Superman!
Dagan: I don't have my costume.
In Superman's time, Mossad was credited with a string of daring, exquisitely executed, covert missions and assassinations from Damascus to Sudan.
But glory turned to scorn at a Dubai hotel in 2010 during an operation to kill a top arms courier for Hamas.
What the 27 Mossad agents didn't know was that the hotel was full of security cameras and while they succeeded in the assassination, the whole world got to watch their comings and goings including the two agents who conspicuously hung around the elevator in their tennis shorts. Pictures of the "secret agents" were on front pages around the world.
Stahl: This is considered kind of a disaster for the Mossad.
Dagan: I never heard that any Israeli was arrested.
Stahl: No, but the chief of police in Dubai called for your arrest. He challenged you to, quote, "be a man and take responsibility."
Dagan: What do they want? That I really would take seriously what the chief of police of Dubai is saying?
Stahl: I wonder if it is the reason that you are no longer at the Mossad. That it was seen as such a botched operation, that that basically ended your career.
Dagan: First of all, not true. I was requesting the prime minister to leave my office. After more then eight years, I believed it's enough.
Dagan says he retired, but it's widely believed in Israel that Netanyahu refused to renew his term and that's one reason Dagan has broken the Mossad code of silence to criticize the prime minister's stand on Iran.
Stahl: This is payback.
Dagan: Payback? It's not even serious that I will reply. I have really the great admiration for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak. I'm not sharing their point of view. But it's not a payback. I don't see it as a personal issue.
Stahl: I've heard of talk that people want to put you on trial. They think what you're doing is treasonous.
Dagan: Let them put me on trial. I'll be very happy to go on trial. It'll be fun.
But we wondered if he had any regrets about not completing his mission at the Mossad.
Stahl: So you were dealing with the possibility of Iran getting a bomb for eight years.
Dagan: More than eight years.
Stahl: More than eight years. Did you fail?
Dagan: I could say one thing that when I ended my role in Mossad, they still didn't have a bomb.
So now the spymaster who spent his entire career in the shadows is out in the open as a public figure and a businessman.
Stahl: So you travel? You travel all the time?
Dagan: A lot, yes.
Stahl: Do you travel freely? Do you use your own passport with your name on it?
Stahl: Do you ever look over your shoulder?
Stahl: You don't think there's a target on you? Do you think you're recognized?
Dagan: I'm assuming theoretically that there are a few groups of people around this world who will be happy to see me perish. But I'm not going to provide them the pleasure of doing so.