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Assassination of Iranian Colonel: A New Israeli Strategy

The killing reflects an Israeli attempt to establish a new balance of power vis-à-vis Iran

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People walk past a banner showing Iran's Revolutionary Guard Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei who was killed on Sunday, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday.
People walk past a banner showing Iran's Revolutionary Guard Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei who was killed on Sunday, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday.Credit: Vahid Salemi /AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Here’s a small professional confession: neither I nor my journalist colleagues had heard of Hassan Sayyad Khodaei before he was assassinated on the streets of Tehran on Sunday. The confidence with which the name of the Revolutionary Guards officer was declaimed on newscasts in Israel proves nothing. Khodaei was known only to intelligence personnel as a key player at the tactical level in the Quds Force, whose main occupation lay in attempts (mostly failed) to attack Jewish and Israeli targets abroad.

His assassination can’t be compared to previous operations, such as the pair of assassinations around two years ago of the commander of the Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani (for which the United States claimed responsibility) and of the head of Iran’s military nuclear program, the scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (which Tehran attributes to Israel). Those two figures – one of whom (Soleimani) was killed in Baghdad in January 2020, and the other in November of that year near Tehran – were key players in the nuclear arena and in the subversion and arms smuggling that Iran carries out across the Middle East.

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The latest assassination, if it was indeed carried out by Israel, augurs a change and perhaps an expansion of the earlier policy. Washington’s response is also interesting. Intelligence sources in the administration leaked to the New York Times that Israel told them it was responsible for the assassination. In other words: our – American – hands are clean, we did not shed this blood.

The main innovation this time would appear to be in the occupation of the person chosen as the target: terrorism. Four years ago, Bennett described what he termed Iran’s “octopus strategy”: the remote activation of proxies, which allows Tehran ambiguity, deniability, and above all -immunity from an Israeli response. Bennett called for the head of the octopus, Iran itself, to be targeted, and not to make do only with striking at its tentacles, namely Shi’ite militias in Syria and in some cases Hezbollah.

The recent activity reflects an attempt to establish a new balance of forces against Iran: a systematic attack based on a policy of response. If Iran takes action or attempts to take action against Israeli targets, and is warned but continues with its actions, then an immediate price will be exacted, without any connection to the nuclear project. The Tehran assassination needs to be connected to the destruction of the large drone base in western Iran in February, which occurred a short time after American planes intercepted two offensive drones in Iraq skies. The drones were on a westward course, toward Israel; the launch directive came from Iran.

The Iranians, in Jerusalem’s view, are for the most part judicious, cautious and rational in their activity. Repeated signals are understood clearly in Tehran. Iran itself, as has been seen in recent years, is relatively penetrable and vulnerable to intelligence activity and sabotage. If the message is sent enough times, it will be received.

These exchanges of messages are related only indirectly to the nuclear project. However, there too, a clarification is occurring. The publicizing by the Biden administration of its decision not to remove the Revolutionary Guards from the U.S. list of organizations on which sanctions are imposed reflects a shift in the American assessment of the chances of success in negotiations with Tehran. Until not long ago, Washington was eager to sign a new nuclear agreement. The probability of this appears to have been reduced, owing to domestic considerations on both sides. The leadership in Iran is not hurrying to sign. One reason the administration’s enthusiasm has ebbed is the midterm Congressional elections in November, where the polls don’t look good for the Democrats.

Contrary to the oft-repeated cliché, the Iranians are not galloping toward nuclear capability but are progressing toward a bomb cautiously. Continuous enrichment of uranium to high levels over the past two years has advanced them toward their goal. But the activity in recent months has been more lateral (more sites, more centrifuges) and vertical (better subterranean protection) than forward. The red lines Israel posited in regard to uranium enrichment were crossed long ago. However, Iran, for now, is being careful not to cross the last red line laid down by the West: the accumulation of enough enriched uranium at the highest level to manufacture one bomb.

Nor is there evidence of progress to the stage after that: the ability to install that bomb on a ballistic missile as a nuclear warhead. On Thursday, the Iranian Defense Ministry reported that an accident had occurred at the Parchin facility, which in the past was identified as part of the project to produce warheads. One engineer was killed and another injured. The background to the event is not yet clear.

The Israeli government’s opposition to a new nuclear deal (Bennett makes no secret of his delight that the sanctions issue will make it harder to strike such a deal) is related in part to the regional situation. The thinking is that the signing of a deal will lead to the removal of most of the sanctions on Iran, thereby improving its economic situation immeasurably. Add to this the soaring oil prices since the start of the war in Ukraine, and Iran could expect an economic bonanza, the effects of which would also trickle down to the organizations and militias that Tehran operates throughout the region. According to assessments in Israel, Iran’s annual support for Hezbollah and other organizations has fallen by almost half, because of the economic difficulties in the past two years. A new agreement would change that.

Yet many experts take the contrary view. That approach was given voice this week by former director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (res.) Tamir Heyman. In an interview with the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom, Heyman, the new director general of the Institute for National Security Studies, said that in his view a new nuclear agreement is the preferred possibility in the present circumstances. These are voices that generally remain in back rooms, but clearly, in Netanyahu’s absence, they are insistently finding their way out.

In any event, Heyman’s remarks only underscore what the IDF has been telling the country’s government for a long time: Israel is engaged in a long-term strategic competition against Iran, which is not confined solely to the nuclear project. Accordingly, the policy needs to be far more coherent and comprehensive, and also take the long view.

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