This Is the Mossad’s Bold New Iran Policy

Israel has expanded its secret war and is also targeting Iranian forces outside of Syria. But it might need to target the nuclear program – covertly and big-time – once again

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
The family members of Colonel Sayad Khodai, a member of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps cry over his coffin at his funeral ceremony, in Tehran, Iran, yesterday.
The family members of Colonel Sayad Khodai, a member of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps cry over his coffin at his funeral ceremony, in Tehran, Iran, yesterday.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The killing in Tehran this week is further evidence of the penetration into Iran by Israel’s Mossad and Military Intelligence. Experience shows that every assassination victim is quickly replaced.

The assassination of Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei in the Iranian capital in broad daylight Sunday, which has been attributed to the Mossad, seems to signal a turning point in Israel’s Iran policy, especially the Mossad’s.

Until recently, all but one of the hits attributed to the spy agency were against Iranian nuclear scientists. Sabotage operations against Iranian nuclear facilities have also been attributed to the Mossad. The exception was the assassination of Abu Mohammed al-Masri in August 2020, also in Tehran and in broad daylight. His killing was only reported about three months later.

Masri, whose real name was Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was a senior Al-Qaida operative involved in terror attacks against the United States in Somalia and in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including Americans.

In the years leading up to his assassination, Masri found shelter in Iran, where he, like a few other aides and operatives of Osama bin Laden, enjoyed the protection of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. According to The New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials said the Trump administration had sought Israel’s assistance in killing Masri, and the FBI had offered $10 million for information leading to his capture. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot into his car, killing him and his 27-year-old daughter.

Soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards waving Palestinian flags at a rally in Tehran, Iran last month.Credit: - - AFP

According to reports, this assassination method is popular with the Mossad and has been used against Iranian nuclear scientists, though the Mossad didn’t invent it. Other intelligence agencies have used motorcycles, as have criminals, including Israeli ones.

Khodaei – also spelled Khodayari – had been a senior aide to the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, whom the Americans killed at the Baghdad airport in January 2020 after he returned from Damascus; the order came from then-President Donald Trump. According to former Military Intelligence chief Tamir Hayman, Israel provided intelligence support for the U.S. drone strike.

    Khodaei fought against the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria, but presumably that wasn’t the reason he was sentenced to death. He was active in the Quds Force’s Unit 840, which is responsible for foreign operations, and since the start of Syria’s civil war in March 2011 has planted explosives near the Israeli border in the Golan Heights and planned terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in South America, Asia and Europe.

    The cell’s most recent operation was an assassination attempt on the Israeli consul in Turkey. The plot was uncovered by the Mossad, which abducted an officer-collaborator of the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran and interrogated him for hours in a secret apartment. He confessed to a plot to assassinate the consul, a French journalist and an American general. In a surprising move, after his interrogation he was released, but the Mossad made sure to release an excerpt of the recorded confession.

    A drone strike in western Iran in February that destroyed hundreds of drones has also been attributed to the Mossad. The Revolutionary Guards and its Quds Force use them in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; in recent months they tried to fly drones from Syria and Iraq into the West Bank and Israel, but the drones were downed by Israeli forces and American forces in Iraq.

    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

    The assassination operations above can be seen as proof that Israel has decided to act against the Quds Force not only in Syria, where the Israel Air Force continues to attack Quds bases and personnel, but also in Iran.

    This is a dramatic policy change that sends a clear message to Iran: Israel’s covert war is directed not only against the advanced nuclear program but also against the Quds Force, which isn’t involved in the program. The force’s main role is to serve as a spearhead for Iran’s operations throughout the Middle East: in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and to help in assassinations and attacks against Israelis and Jews around the world.

    This week’s assassination in Tehran seems to be the latest proof of the degree the Mossad and Military Intelligence have penetrated Iran, which they’ve made as leaky as a sieve. The Mossad repeatedly manages to operate on Iranian soil, especially in Tehran.

    Particularly memorable is the theft of Iran’s nuclear archive from a warehouse in Tehran’s industrial zone in early 2018, as is the assassination of the head of Iran’s military nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in November 2020, which has been attributed to the Mossad.

    These two daring operations took place when Yossi Cohen headed the agency. The assassination of Fakhrizadeh, a wanted man for many years, captured the imagination with its use of artificial intelligence and remote-controlled robotics.

    Analysts were quick to conclude that the era of flesh-and-blood assassins who show up and hit the target is over. That conclusion was disproved this week when it became clear that Khodaei, too, was killed by gunmen on a motorcycle.

    We can learn from this that the weapons in an operation are only a means. Consider the many methods used by the Mossad, according to foreign news organizations: handguns with silencers, snipers (the assassination of Syria’s Gen. Mohammad Suleiman), poison (Mahmoud al-Mabhouh and Khaled Meshal of Hamas) and even car bombs (Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s “defense minister”).

    In other words, if it’s possible to use AI and robotics and reduce the risk to Israeli personnel, that’s great, but when the intelligence and other conditions allow, the assassins go back to shooting at close range while looking their victim in the eye.

    What has changed a lot is Israeli pride. In the past, most of the Mossad’s special operations against Iran were carried out by Israelis, who risked being hanged from a crane in a city square if they got caught. So far no Israeli fighter has been captured on Iranian soil, though non-Israeli agents for the Mossad have been caught and even executed – at least if we’re to believe Tehran.

    But apparently about 15 years ago, during the Meir Dagan era and perhaps a product of experience, the Mossad concluded that it was better not to endanger Israeli fighters. In their place, as Yossi Cohen hinted on the investigative TV program “Uvda,” fighters from what can be called the Mossad’s “International Brigade” operate.

    We could also call them mercenaries. Clearly they need to know the local language, culture and customs in order to blend in. We can assume they’re well trained and know they’re acting on behalf of the Mossad. And they know the risk involved, for which they’re rewarded handsomely.

    Meanwhile, Mossad chief David Barnea has made changes in the organization’s structure. New units have been set up and others have been split to suit the new circumstances. A few dissatisfied high officials have resigned or finished their terms. That’s the nature of a dynamic organization that must adapt to the emerging reality.

    But most of the reported successes are tactical and don’t change the rules of the game. Barnea’s Mossad hasn’t taken its eye off the most important thing: the nuclear program’s slow but steady progress as Iran aims to become a nuclear threshold state. Quiet seemed to prevail in this arena, the only development being the bluster suggesting that Israel is preparing plans for a possible military attack.

    Unlike the chatter, the pause in operations is temporary. It stems in part from waiting to see whether Iran and the United States return to the nuclear deal, whose likelihood is waning. The pause also stems, I believe, from different, bolder thinking.

    Experience shows that the assassinations and sabotage are only slightly delaying Iran’s nuclear program, and that Tehran very quickly recruits new scientists and repairs and even improves the damaged installations.

    The conclusion is that if no new agreement is reached, Israel will have to act on a large scale and also against the nuclear program, but still covertly. My guess is that Barnea is preparing the Mossad and the intelligence community for this.

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