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Tehran Assassination: Latest Move in Secret Israel-Iran War

While the killing of a Revolutionary Guards colonel seems less like a change of policy and more like an acceleration of hostilities, Israel appears to have shelved any attack plans against Iranian nuclear sites

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Mourners gather around the coffin of Iran's Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodai during a funeral procession at Imam Hussein square in Tehran, on Tuesday.
Mourners gather around the coffin of Iran's Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodai during a funeral procession at Imam Hussein square in Tehran, on Tuesday.Credit: ATTA KENARE / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After the assassination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards colonel in Tehran on Sunday came the threats, as usual. Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and spokesmen for the Revolutionary Guards said Monday that they would avenge the death of Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, who was shot in the street by two men on a motorcycle.

Interestingly, the Iranian statements did not blame Israel directly for the assassination, although the happiness with which the news from Tehran was reported on TV stations in Israel left little room for doubt.

The Quds Force colonel and his assassination are reminiscent of previous assassinations that were attributed to Israel, including the killing of the head of the Iranian military nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in November 2020, and other senior scientists in the program more than a decade ago.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi in a statement vowing to avenge the colonel's death, in Tehran on Monday.Credit: Iranian Presidency / AFP

In January 2020, the United States assassinated the commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, while he was in Iraq. In some media reports, it was later claimed that Israel helped with intelligence gathering before the assassination. We should also keep in mind the Biden administration's insistence, under powerful persuasion by Israel, to keep the Revolutionary Guards on America's terror blacklist. The dispute with Iran on this matter is described as one of the major failures before the signing of the new nuclear agreement.

But what happened in Tehran on Sunday is less connected to the nuclear program and more, apparently, to the secret war between Iran and Israel. For more than a decade, in the context of the civil war in Syria and the Arab Spring, the Iranians have been working to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon and other Shi’ite militias throughout the Middle East. In 2017, Tehran began establishing its own bases in Syria, where it has stationed weapons, militiamen and advisers of the Revolutionary Guards.

Israel has consistently sabotaged these efforts, especially by means of hundreds of aerial attacks on Syria and elsewhere. But Iran’s payback agenda also grew – with Soleimani’s forces attempting to attack Jewish and Israeli targets throughout the world.

These actions continued even after the Americans got Soleimani out of the way. In contrast, for example, to the deadly attacks in Argentina in the 1990s and the attack against Israel in Bulgaria in 2012, which were attributed to Hezbollah and the Iranians, this time around those efforts have been less successful.

Mutual blows are still being exchanged, almost without reference to the nuclear negotiations. There have also been reports of drone assaults on Israel all the way from Iraq. This seems less like a change of policy and more of an acceleration of hostile behavior on both sides.

Family members of Colonel Sayad Khodai, of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, weep over his body in his car after he was reportedly shot by two assailants in Tehran, Iran, on Sunday.Credit: IRGC/WANA/Handout via REUTERS

And we should not confuse the ability to field assassins on motorcycles and the second issue so close to the hearts of the Israeli media – attack plans against Iranian nuclear sites. These were reportedly taken off the shelf when the Bennett government was sworn in, and those in the know say that quite a lot of dust had gathered on them.

Around the month-long war exercise Israel has launched is a reportedly broader exercise by the Israel Air Force, simulating a large assault flyover to Iran. However, it must be remembered that first, Israel’s hands are tied because no Israeli government – neither Bennett’s nor his predecessor Netanyahu’s – is prepared to risk a real blow-up with the United States.

And second, assault capabilities on Iranian nuclear sites are almost irrelevant now. It probably wasn’t realistic at the beginning of the previous decade, when Netanyahu was discussing it energetically. And it isn’t part of the discussion now, after years of intentional neglect. What the army is doing now is filling in operational gaps in the ability to wage an assault, and that could take many years.

Frayed nerves

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, there’s been a certain lull in attempted terror attacks over the past two weeks, possibly connected to a decline in tensions over the Temple Mount. Still, the new disputes over the Mount could reignite the fire.

On Sunday, Jerusalem Day, the right-wing religious Flag March and its participants will be allowed to pass through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. A storm has already broken out over the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court decision not to define the recitation of the Shema prayer by Jews on the Temple Mount as a criminal offense, although Muslims consider it a breach of the status quo.

These two decisions are perceived by the Palestinians as proof of a great Israeli conspiracy to carry out a Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount and expel the Muslims from the site. Since the current wave of terror began in mid-March, clashes on the Temple Mount have fueled the flames in Jerusalem, the West Bank and within the Green Line. When Ramadan ended, there was some hope things would calm down as fewer Muslim worshippers came to the Mount. But nerves in Jerusalem are so frayed that a lower court ruling is enough to set things off again.

Jews visit the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, in 2021.

Even before the court ruling, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh threatened that the Flag March – which he called “Jewish Talmudic rubbish” – could result in renewed violence. Other senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad figures in the Gaza Strip made similar comments. However, these statements were made quite a while before the march, to allow Egyptian mediators to prevent escalation in the Strip.

Israeli Military Intelligence says that the tension in the West Bank could extend over Shavuot, if not for months to come. However, MI continues to believe that Hamas in Gaza has little involvement in events.

Rather, according to MI, this wave of terror rose from below, without organizational control – and the Hamas leadership continues to oppose another round of fighting with Israel at this time. The Shin Bet security service is slightly more pessimistic. They are concerned over the robust efforts by the Hamas leadership abroad to draft and fund terror cells from the West Bank, and see the current circumstances as having broader potential for escalation.

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