(CBS News) Meir Dagan has been described as "hard-charging" and "stops at nothing." For more than eight years, Dagan made full use of those qualities as chief of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, where he focused on keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. When that job ended, Dagan did something unheard of for an ex-Mossad chief: he spoke out publicly, voicing opposition to Israel launching preemptive airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities anytime soon. Dagan believes the Iranian regime is a rational one and even its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who has called for Israel to be annihilated -- acts in a somewhat rational way when it comes to Iran's nuclear ambitions. Lesley Stahl reports.
The following script is from "The Spymaster Speaks" which aired on March 11, 2012, and was rebroadcast Sept. 16, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Shachar Bar-On, producer.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thrust himself into the U.S. presidential campaign this past week by sharply attacking President Obama over his go-slow policy of diplomacy and sanctions against Iran. Netanyahu essentially called on the president to issue Iran a firm ultimatum, with specific deadlines, and he reasserted Israel's moral right to launch a preemptive strike.
But, in recent months, a chorus of Israeli intelligence and military officials has been taking the unheard of step of publicly criticizing the prime minister for not showing more restraint. It started with Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Mossad, Israel's equivalent of the CIA.
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. As he told us in March, he thinks a strike now would be a grave mistake -- that Israel could wait 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.