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How “Spy Games” Between Iran and Israel Could Enflame Regional Tensions

In 2020, Iran’s counter-intelligence agencies were challenged by the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the country’s top physicist and the leader of its nuclear program. Iranian officials have described the assassination as an attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear energy ambitions. It was initially thought that Fakhrizadeh had been killed in an assault on his car by gunmen using automatic firearms and explosives, but it later emerged that the Iranian scientist had been assassinated by means of a remote-controlled machine gun. Iranian authorities have traditionally blamed similar assassinations on the Forqa Group and the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, the two major anti-regime armed groups; instead, Tehran implicated the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, in Fakhrizadeh’s killing, publicly admitting to Israel’s ability to strike deep within Iran for perhaps the first time.

Mossad’s Long Reach

Iran and Israel have long been engaged in a covert war, which has recently included assassination operations on Iranian soil. Even before Iranian officials’ comments on Fakhrizadeh, Israel’s Mossad had been implicated in the killings of several high-ranking officers of the Iranian military, as well as leading nuclear scientists, and is thought to have carried out a series of deadly explosions targeting Iranian nuclear facilities and other strategic targets in recent years. The first recent major explosion occurred on June 25, 2020, and targeted the military complex of Parchin, southeast of Tehran. Within the same hour, a mysterious power outage affected half of the southern city of Shiraz. The Parchim explosion was followed by another deadly explosion in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility on July 2, 2020, where advanced centrifuges were being assembled. Following the attack, Iranian authorities admitted severe damage to its facility, while foreign experts concluded that the explosion had set back the Iranian nuclear program by one to two years.

The recent mysterious explosions and assassinations of prominent scientists have already tarnished the international image of Iran’s internal security sector. Further explosions continued to target the country in 2021 and 2022, even as Tehran seemed reluctant to blame the Israeli secret services for them. This should not come as a surprise, since admitting to acts of sabotage perpetrated by a “foreign intelligence service” inside Iranian territories would embarrass Iran’s main counter-intelligence service. Nevertheless, Tehran implicitly recognized foreign involvement in the incidents when it harshly criticized local security forces for being incapable of preventing high-level foreign penetration and detecting “traitors” within the country. Iran’s longtime intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, even indirectly implied that “the main perpetrator of assassinations was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s most elite military unit.”

Interestingly, Alavi is not the only high-ranking Iranian official who admitted to failures from Iran’s counter-intelligence services. Mohsen Rezaee, a former chief of the IRGC, admitted in one of his interviews that top-secret Iranian nuclear documents had been stolen in a raid on a Tehran warehouse by Israeli operatives in 2018, which the Iranian regime had earlier attempted to deny and cover up.

More Targets Inside Iran

However, nuclear scientists and nuclear facilities are not the only priority targets for Israeli intelligence. The recent assassinations of aerospace engineers, scientists, and high-level security officers suggest that Israel has diversified from its anti-nuclear campaign, increasingly targeting a broader range of personnel associated with Iran’s national drone and missile programs. Iran’s recent advances in developing combat drones, and their active operation by Iranian-backed proxy forces in the Middle East, has raised eyebrows in Israel and clearly resulted in a counter-reaction from Tel Aviv.

Similarly, the mysterious deaths of engineers and members of the IRGC can be seen as the logical continuation of Israel’s counter-measures. On May 22, 2022, Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, a colonel in the elite Quds Force, was shot dead in downtown Tehran by unknown assailants. Only days after this incident, on May 30, Ali Esmailzadeh, a second colonel in the Quds Force, died due to an unspecified “incident in his residence,” leading to rumors that he had also been assassinated. In June 2022, three Iranian IRGC-affiliated engineers, Ayoob Entezari, Ali Kamani, and Mohammad Abdous, also died under suspicious circumstances while on active duty. Even as Iranian authorities sought to stifle discussions of Israeli or MEK involvement in the men’s deaths, Tehran’s labeling of all of them as “martyrs” appears to suggest a belief that they were assassinated.

Iran’s counter-intelligence failures and assassination series suggested its security forces may have been infiltrated. However, Iran’s domestic security problems also stem from the lack of protective protocols for scientists, engineers, and technicians associated with its defense programs. This may be attributed to the large number of people employed in such positions, complicating efforts to keep them all safe. The lack of necessary security protocols, and the broader incapacity of the IRGC’s intelligence service, caused juncture and confusion in Tehran. Failures have periodically raised tensions within Iran’s security forces and fostered divisions, including the recent accusations  accusing IRGC spy chief Hossein Taeb of incompetence. High-ranking critics of Taeb, including General Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force, and Esmail Khatib, the minister of intelligence, have reportedly argued that Taeb’s ignorance of “elementary standards of national security and amateurish failures in counter-intelligence actions” harmed Iran’s main security entities. As a result, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced Taeb with Mohammad Kazemi, another figure in the group.

Iran Strikes Back

However, Taeb’s removal could not prevent Iran’s recent failures in conducting a “vengeance” operation in Turkey. In June 2022, Turkish and Israeli state media reported that Iran had sent agents disguised as businessmen, tourists, and students to Istanbul to assassinate Israeli citizens in retaliation for Israel’s attacks on Iran. The assassination plot was ultimately thwarted by a joint operation of Turkish and Israeli counter-intelligence, and all suspects were arrested within Turkey with a large stockpile of weapons and ammunition.

After a growing number of intelligence failures within and abroad, the Iranian authorities have increasingly spoken about the necessity of reforms and mass purges within the internal security services. Although Iran’s arch-rival Israel has not claimed responsibility for any of the recent assassinations, Tehran’s further retaliation actions could lead to consequences at the recent nuclear talks in Vienna and may escalate the situation further in the short term.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security
Country: Iran

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Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.


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