Is Israel widening its shadow war against Iran?
On 22 May, in broad daylight, a colonel in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was killed near his home in Tehran. Hassan Sayyad Khodai was attacked by two men on a motorcycle. He was shot five times. His killers were not apprehended.
Colonel Khodai’s killing was well-planned and audacious. Initially, details were scant, and the IRGC did not release much. They only vowed revenge on whoever had killed him, whom they also did not name.
Iranian officials blamed ‘global arrogance’ – a common appellation, usually meaning the United States or Israel – for his death.
Very quickly, among analysts, a debate began over who could have performed this operation. Naturally, the suspicion fell first on Israel, whose special forces and air force have carried out attacks on Iranian targets in Syria for many years.
"Analysts wonder whether the new Israeli government, a broad coalition led by the far-right politician Naftali Bennett, has widened the scope of its undeclared war against Iran"
Its intelligence agency has also masterminded a campaign of assassination and sabotage against the Iranian nuclear programme which has resulted in the deaths of scientists, the destruction of research and refinement facilities, and the general terrorising of the official and military classes connected with Iran’s nuclear programme.
Israel, it was assumed, had the capacity, the will, and the opportunity to carry out this operation. But it was strangely different – distinct from Israel’s usual method. Khodai was not a scientist. He was not associated with Iran’s nuclear programme.
As negotiations designed to replace the defunct Iranian nuclear deal grind on, a target connected with Iranian enrichment, or perhaps its ballistic missile programme, would have been more obvious.
“It clearly has the hallmarks of a Mossad operation about it, similar to the ones that targeted nuclear scientists in the past,” said Jonathan Spyer, a journalist and middle east analyst who directs the Middle East Centre for Reporting and Analysis.
But the use of the same toolkit did not mean the two kinds of attacks were linked in intent.
“I don’t think it would be related directly to the nuclear talks, but rather to the fact that Colonel Khodai was thought to have been involved in efforts to attack Israelis abroad,” Spyer said. A recent report indicated that the colonel may have been involved in an attack on an Israeli diplomat working in India.
“It's notable indeed that this person had nothing to do as far as we know with the nuclear program.”
No link was drawn by state TV and other sources.
Within the week, American officials were leaking to US newspapers that Israeli officials had claimed the killing. Israel claims that Khodai was part of a special detachment of the IRGC Quds Force specifically tasked with killing and abducting Israelis around the world.
The Iranian state does not acknowledge that such a programme exists, but there is extensive evidence for it. Iranian dissidents abroad have claimed that they have been targeted for kidnap and return to Iran as far afield as New York. Ruhollah Zam, a critical journalist, was abducted in 2019 and executed the next year.
Iranian media called Khodai a 'defender of the shrines' – code for those Iranians who fought in Syria, officially against the Islamic State, but in practice against all challengers, rebel and Islamist, to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
"Across the Middle East, especially in Syria, Israel has attacked Iranian backed militias, their supply networks, and their command and control"
Analysts speculate that Khodai was a senior figure in the IRGC Quds Force, its foreign operations wing, and that he was involved in sensitive operations connected to Iranian military activity and subversion in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Some suggest that he was a go-between linking Iran and Hezbollah, one of the major forces fighting on the regime side in Syria, and against whom Israel is at war.
“He seems to be more of an operations guy,” said Phillip Smyth, author of 'The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects' and creator of the Shia Militia Mapping Project.
“Reportedly, he had deployed to Iraq and Syria. His role may have been more on the side of working with Iranian-backed militia groups, dealing with smuggling (this could include guidance or rocket systems), or working with a variety of other programs the Iranians could have been developing,” he added.
“Most of what the analytical community knows was released by the Iranians themselves and operationally, he wasn't mentioned in a ton of open-source material,” Smyth said.
“Regardless, his rank within the IRGC, claimed roles, and his designation as a ‘Sacred Defender’ says that he spent some time in Syria and/or Iraq. It's doubtful he was involved in the more direct tactical matters. Thus, a little deductive reasoning based on his rank, background, Iranian/Iranian-controlled targets that have been hit by various states point a bit more toward his potential role in the other aforementioned areas.”
Iran and Israel have fought a growing ‘shadow war’ for years.
Within Iran itself, fighting has focussed on nuclear sites and personnel. But more broadly, across the Middle East, especially in Syria, Israel has attacked Iranian backed militias, their supply networks, and their command and control.
Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes within Syria in its bid to degrade regime-allied militias and to prevent their development and deployment capacity to attack Israel across the occupied Golan Heights with drones and ballistic missiles.
Analysts wonder if this attack is the definitive signal that operations against these forces within Syria will be extended into Iran itself, and whether the new Israeli government, a broad coalition led by the far-right politician Naftali Bennett, has widened the scope of the undeclared war.
“Taken together with the recent attack on the UAV facility in Iran, it may be an indication of a broadening of targets by the Bennett government to include those involved in Iran's campaign for regional domination, and not only those involved in the nuclear program,” Spyer said, noting that this could be the result of a change of government.
“My sense is that the Bennett government takes a slightly broader view of concerns regarding Iran, seeing the nuclear issue as part of a broader push for regional dominance with many facets, whereas its predecessor maintained a narrower focus on the nuclear issue as dwarfing all other elements,” Spyer added.
“This slight difference in conception may be influencing the choice of targets. I don’t think it necessarily means an escalation. There does not appear to be an increase in the number of attacks from the Israeli side. The Iranians, meanwhile, have always taken a broad view in terms of their own efforts to strike at Israelis, including as targets civilians, diplomats and so on.”
"It may be an indication of a broadening of targets by the Bennett government to include those involved in Iran's campaign for regional domination, and not only those involved in the nuclear program"
Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, has vowed revenge. This is not an entirely idle threat, but it cannot be expected to presage great escalation in the conflict between Iran and Israel. When Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, was killed by the United States in January 2020, Iran promised extensive revenge that did not transpire.
Similarly, after the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a major Iranian nuclear scientist who was apparently the head of the Iranian nuclear programme, in late 2020, Iran promised an intensification of its confrontation with Israel, which did not come about.
Iran has claimed within the past week that its security state has arrested three Israeli agents operating within Iran. Whether this is true, let alone whether it is related to Khodai’s death, is yet undetermined.
Although an attack like this could be a ratcheting up of tension as nuclear negotiations reach a critical point, it is also possible that Khodai’s death satisfied another Israeli strategy entirely: deterring and punishing Iran’s expeditionary foreign policy, which has defended Assad, taken over much of the Iraqi state, and brought armed militia groups to the threshold of Israel’s borders.
Many Israeli policymakers have long said that, in an era of nuclear treaties, the greatest threat to Israel is Iran's capacity to develop militia groups into capable and aggressive proxy groups, armed with drones and missiles, which have carried out warfare from Lebanon to Yemen.
The old Iran deal, Israeli hawks say, did nothing to address this regional picture of Iranian backed militias, as capable of offensive action as Hezbollah, appearing in every country neighbouring Iran – all of them with the intention of attacking Israel.
Whether this assassination represents a continuation of Israel’s campaign against Iran’s nuclear programme now seems unlikely, and it is probable that Israel is putting into practice its tactics for slowing Iranian nuclearisation in order to hold back Iran’s broader regional expansionism.
James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.
Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell