Although Israel’s Mossad spy agency did not announce its responsibility for the assassination of Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, a colonel in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the killing received a lot of coverage in the Israeli media. This gave the clear impression that it was indeed an Israeli operation, but without Israel taking direct responsibility. Such an approach has long been common with the Israeli security services on many fronts.
If reports from Iran are accurate, it is clear that Mossad is operating not only against the IRGC and its Quds Force in Syria, but also in broad daylight in the heart of Iran. Khodaei’s assassination came a few months after the destruction of a drone manufacturing base in Kermanshah province, in eastern Iran. It appears that Israel has settled its score with Khodaei, who apparently planned a series of attacks against Israeli targets, including the Israeli Consulate in Turkey.
The list of Mossad allegations against Khodaei is long. His planned attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets were thwarted at the last minute in Cyprus, Colombia, Kenya and Turkey, as were attempts to lure senior Israelis into compromising situations.
The assassination of Khodaei follows the killing of the commander of the Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, at Baghdad Airport, and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed in the heart of the Iranian capital while he was in his car. Although US President Joe Biden’s administration has made it clear to Israel that it will not accept such killings while talks with Iran are underway over a new nuclear deal, it is clear that Israel is going ahead with its plans regardless.
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If it turns out that Israel was indeed responsible for killing Khodaei, it would mean that it is changing its strategy towards Iran. This way, Israel is targeting key individuals rather than Iran’s regional proxies; this increases the intensity of the shadowy war between Tel Aviv and Tehran. The nature of assassinations of this kind necessitates a lot of attention being paid to the details to ensure that those carrying them out are safe, and to reduce the possibility of them being linked to the party who tasked them with the operations.
This latest killing required precise intelligence within Iran. Khodaei’s file would have included his personal details, regular habits, places of residence and work, and the extent of his participation in hostile actions. Assassinations require permission from within Mossad and the Israeli security system, all the way to the top of the political leadership. Timing is very important, and take into account the prevailing political circumstances.
Khodaei was not linked to the Iranian nuclear programme. He was with the Quds Force, which is responsible for Iran’s military activity in the region. It is likely that he participated in smuggling weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian militias in Syria, and in attempts to establish an Iranian presence there on the border with Israel. His killing may be an immediate operational blow to the Quds Force, and place direct pressure on the leadership of the IRGC.
Even though Mossad did not announce its responsibility for killing Khodaei, the so-called Israel Defence Forces went on high alert in preparation for the possibility of an Iranian response on an as yet unknown front. A number of flashpoints around Israel could explode at any moment. Iran has to consider whether or not to respond to the assassination, perhaps with a pre-emptive strike to thwart any premeditated Israeli aggression. Israelis believe that Khodaei’s assassination will reduce Iran’s operational capabilities, but know that there is still a possibility of revenge against the occupation state which could expose Israel’s intelligence and military weaknesses. Nevertheless, Iran may find it difficult to replace Khodaei’s extensive knowledge, experience and connections.
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This, of course, is why Israel carries out such operations. It wants to push Iran into a corner with a security and intelligence gap that is difficult to bridge. This gap increases with attacks in the heart of Tehran. This does not mean that Iran will stop working against Israel, but it has to ask itself how much effort will be needed to retaliate, and whether it can take more risks. It will be important for Israel to confront Iran’s efforts in order to find out its own security weaknesses.
Those in Israel’s security and military circles believe that Iran will respond to the assassinations of Khodaei and Fakhrizadeh with attacks outside the occupation state. Iran has done this in the past, but paid a dear price, because no country is willing to allow such attacks to take place within its own territory. Tehran will probably retaliate with an attack that is not launched directly from Iran. In the meantime, very tight security measures will be in place around potential targets, especially lower ranking officers, because they no longer feel safer in Iran than in Syria.
This will require Iran to commit time and resources to internal security which could best be used elsewhere. By being threatened within its own borders, Tehran is being embarrassed in front of its citizens. Moreover, at the end of the day, the assassination of Khodaei makes an Israel-Iran confrontation more likely.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.