Following the assassination of one of Iran’s senior military nuclear program operatives, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, security officials, in general, and the top officials among the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in particular, are increasingly critical and frustrated over the chronic weakness of the Iranian regime, government institutions, and especially heads of intelligence agencies who are supposed to safeguard senior officials and scientists, and prevent “the infiltration of enemies into Iran’s security system.”
The criticism, mainly, but not exclusively, toward President Rouhani’s government, is a part of Iran’s local political campaigns ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in June 2021. It is also a part of a broader debate ahead over the resumption of a dialogue – albeit a secret one – with U.S. President-elect Biden’s administration, expected to enter the White House in January 2021. In this regard, the characteristics of the Iranian response to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination will affect relations with the Biden administration especially after he has already announced his readiness to negotiate resumption of the nuclear deal with Iran.
Current and former officials of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other conservative officials point to the exposure and large-scale penetration by Israeli intelligence services inside Iran, with the aid of local opposition figures. They estimate that Israel will continue with this policy, covertly, under the new administration in the United States.
The normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the leader of the moderate Arab Sunni camp, intensifies fears among Iranian security and intelligence officials regarding Israeli intelligence activities in the region. They fear that Israel is expanding relations with countries around Iran, which would allow Israel a more convenient springboard for operational activity inside Iran and along its borders. After the resumption of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, many Iranian officials, including President Rouhani, warned of this possibility and even directly threatened the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.2
Following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, in January 2020, Iran still has a score to settle especially with the United States, and from time-to-time, it openly emphasizes it. The Iranian response to Suleimani’s assassination was relatively minor and focused on firing at the U.S. base Ain al-Assad in Iraq, Iran also encouraged Iraqi Shiite militias to periodically carry out sporadic attacks (mainly rocket launching) at the Green Zone in Baghdad. This controlled response was carried out anticipating a change of administration in the United States. Additionally, it was apparently done in the face of operational weakness following the assassination of Suleimani and the appointment of his successor Esmail Qaani. Iran has refrained from any high-profile activity against American targets in Iraq and in the region.
Iran’s former Minister of Defense Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Khamenei who also served as commander of the IRGC in Lebanon, said in an interview with Iranian state television on Saturday, November 28, 2020, that “infiltration” and “breaches of security” led to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and those responsible for security “must be held accountable” for it.
On the one hand, Dehghan rejected criticism regarding the weak protection of Fakhrizadeh. But on the other hand, he implicitly criticized the country’s security services in recent years, saying that despite the regime’s “intelligence expertise,” a number of “security infiltrations” took place, including the 2017 Tehran terror attacks carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) against the Iranian Parliament (Majlis).3
Hossein Alaei, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said that the assassination of scientist Brig. Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was based on “accurate information” the enemies had as a result of “weakness in the structure of Iranian security apparatuses” and that Israel’s espionage infrastructure was still active within Iran. He added, “This is the seventh assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.”
For more than ten years, Israel has been conducting various operations inside Iran, including the elimination of scientists. The operation to assassinate the head of the Ministry of Defense Research and Innovation Organization indicates that Israel’s operational infrastructure within Iran is well-equipped, very advanced, and relies on accurate information. “So far, Israel has used all its intelligence, operational, security, cyber, and diplomatic capabilities to counter Iran’s nuclear program, and it is likely that this program is likely to continue,” said Alaei.
Against this backdrop, Alaei emphasized that “regardless of Israel’s intentions to carry out such assassinations, Iran must examine the weaknesses inherent in Iran’s structure and security apparatuses, which enable the assassinations of esteemed victims like Fakhrizadeh despite an array of bodyguards for their protection.”4
Alaei, a candidate for president after Rouhani, has repeatedly expressed support for dialogue with Americans and opposed radical conservatives in the Iranian Islamic regime. Regarding Fakhrizadeh’s death, he added that “the recent assassination shows that Iran’s operational and diplomatic responses so far to the assassinations of its scientists have not been a deterrent… Hopefully, the death of Dr. Fakhrizadeh will lead to a fatal blow to Israel’s intelligence and operational infrastructure inside Iran.”
Mohsen Rezaee, who was the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and who is currently a secretary of the regime’s Expediency Discernment Council, also stated that the continued assassinations of senior Iranian scientists point to “the weakness of the country’s intelligence organizations. The attacks must be curbed with double and double efforts.”
Rezaee also addressed a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, pointing out that the president, who heads the National Security Council, should assign intelligence agencies with the task of “identifying the main sources and infiltrators into the heart of Iran’s intelligence agencies.” He suggested that “civilian assistance and advanced technology” could be used for the investigation. He also warned that if such incidents continue, it would indicate a dangerous weakness of the Iranian intelligence systems. “The Iranian people expect you [Rouhani], as the Chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, to prevent such terrorist acts and not to allow Iran’s national security, which has been secured with the blood of thousands of precious victims, to be undermined.”5
Kayhan: A Timely and Severe Retaliation Is Required
The ultra-conservative newspaper, Kayhan, reflecting the Iranian leader’s opinion, quoted in its headline on November 29, 2020, Khamenei’s remarks instructing the Iranian government to investigate the crime and severely punish its perpetrators and those who dispatched them. He further emphasized that “the martyr’s scientific and technological efforts” should be continued.6
Two days before, on November 27, 2020, Kayhan stated, “The action of the Zionist regime in the elimination of our country’s prominent scientist showed once again that this cancerous growth [Israel] continues all its efforts to halt Iran’s scientific progress, and it does not fear any dirty action.”
“What happened is one of the hundreds of terrorist acts carried out by the Zionist regime around the world over decades,” Kayhan stated. “The Zionist regime receives intelligence and operational support from the United States and of some European countries. [They eliminated] politicians and scientists, cultural figures and military personnel, as well as anyone who is an obstacle to the progress of their domineering goals. The only thing that can halt this assassination machine is a timely and real [“tooth-shattering”] retaliation. The Zionists have proved time and again that they do not understand any other language rather than the language of power. The law of an eye for an eye will put these cowardly creatures in their place. The Zionists must wait for it.”
Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative in the Kayhan newspaper and editor-in-chief, directed an editorial (November 28, 2020) at Iran’s leaders: “How can the Zionist regime, which is on the brink of decay today and surrounded by resistance forces on all sides, so easily murder our nuclear scientists?!”
He added, “Today, all the attention of the Iranian people and the Iranian regime must be focused on two targets: the first, the harsh retaliation against the criminal Zionists that will make them regret, and the second, is identifying internal elements and possible infiltrators of the enemy into Iran’s intelligence security systems.”
Shariatmadari also called for “attacking the important port city of Haifa, destroying the strategic facilities, and causing heavy human casualties” to reach a real deterrent point.” Dr. Sadollah Zarei, an Iranian scholar and political analyst, wrote in Keyhan that Iran’s reaction to suspected Israeli air strikes that killed Revolutionary Guard forces in Syria wasn’t enough to deter Israel, while “striking Haifa… will definitely lead to deterrence because the United States and Israel are not ready to participate in a war and a military confrontation.”
What Are the Limits of Iran’s Restraint?
In Iran, the dilemma grows of how and where to respond to the assassination of the Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and how far to stretch the restraint after the latest assassination that joins the long list of senior officials eliminated – in Iran and abroad. So far, Iran has not responded as it is “required” after issuing threats after the deaths of Imad Mughniyeh, Qassem Soleimani, operatives associated with the precision missile program, IRGC personnel in Syria, and important figures among the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and others.
It is possible that Iran will continue its restraint in retaliating and will choose to strike specifically against “easier” targets that are allied to the United States and Israel, such as the oil facilities and strategic infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. Such an attack took place on September 19, 2019, with precision cruise missiles hitting the Saudi refinery in Abqaiq and Khuris.
In this regard, on November 23, 2020, the Iranian Mehr news agency broadcast a video of an Aramco oil distribution site in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, being hit by Quds-2 missiles launched by the Houthis in Yemen.7, 8 Iran could be waiting for the new U.S. administration that might limit Israel’s aggressive activities while negotiations are in the offing and test Israel-American relations, which reached new heights during Trump’s presidency.
By launching long-range precision cruise missiles at Abqaiq and Khuris and periodic Houthi missile launches against strategic targets in Saudi Arabia, Iran demonstrated that it has the operational know-how, and if it chooses, to launch surprise attacks with precision stealth cruise missiles at strategic sites, including in Israel.
One way or another, Iran must conduct a thorough house-cleaning to investigate the repeated infiltrations and attacks on its security and intelligence establishments. These recurring intelligence operations have attacked Iran’s scientists, nuclear infrastructure (such as the explosion in the Natanz enrichment facility in July 2020), and sometimes its electricity and oil facilities. Like in the past, the regime will publicize in the next few weeks and in the run-up to presidential elections in June 2021 information that it arrested people involved in the attacks and espionage in Iran so that it could save a little of its honor among the Iranian people who are exposed to details of the calamities via social media, international reports, and the joyful Iranian opposition.
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1 Previously, a film with the same name was produced about the assassination of Chief Justice Mohammad Hossein Beheshti was produced. Beheshti was one of the senior leaders of the Islamic Revolution and drafters of the Islamic Constitution of Iran. Beheshti was assassinated on June 28, 1981, in a bombing carried out by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran.