With negotiations over a return to the JCPOA stalled and Iran’s nuclear program continuing to advance, tensions between Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran have drastically increased. Over the past month, a series of mysterious deaths and foiled assassination plots point to an escalating shadow war between Iran and Israel that is increasingly putting Israeli citizens at risk.
Targeted killings inside Iran, presumably by Israel, is not a new phenomenon. Since the early 2000s, individuals connected to Iran’s nuclear program have passed away violently and mysteriously. In some cases, rigged bombs blew up their parked cars; in others, limpet mines were attached to their convoys; some were shot, others asphyxiated.
Some of the cases were ambiguous and hard to connect to a sophisticated actor, such as Darioush Rezaeinejad, a researcher for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization who was shot by a motorcyclist outside an IRGC base. Others were more sophisticated. In 2020 Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s lead nuclear scientist, was assassinated after his convoy was ambushed by a remote operated turret which self-destructed shortly after the attack.
The most recent string of deaths are certainly more ambiguous. While some of the deaths were indirectly attributed to Israel, at least one was attributed to other actors. One IRGC commander, Colonel Ali Esmailzadeh, died after falling from the roof of his home. IRGC officials claimed he had committed suicide, but other sources suggest he was killed by the IRGC for intelligence leaks related to Col. Khodaei’s death a week earlier.
In late May, news broke that a senior IRGC officer, Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, was assassinated in Tehran by unknown assailants on a motorcycle. Khodaei’s exact role in the IRGC is unknown, but sources suggest he was associated with the secretive IRGC Quds Force unit 840 and responsible for multiple plots targeting Israelis abroad. No organization or state has taken responsibility for the attack, but an unnamed US intelligence official claimed Israel passed along information taking responsibility for the assassination.
Shortly afterwards, Iran publicly blamed Israel for the mysterious death of two scientists, Ayoob Entezari and Kamran Aghamolaei. Entezari was allegedly working on drone and missile development and died on May 31st from an unknown illness which developed after attending a dinner party. Kamran Aghamolaei, who some report to have worked at the Natanz nuclear facility, fell sick after visiting Tehran and passed away from rapid organ failure on June 2nd. Iran claims both men died after Israeli operatives poisoned their food.
Then, in early June, two Iranian Guard members, Ali Kamani and Mohammad Abdous, died in separate incidents. Abdous was allegedly a scientist working on Iran’s satellite and ballistic missile programs, and Kamani was associated with the IRGC’s aerospace division. While Iran claims these deaths were accidents, Iran’s Defense Ministry referred to both men as martyrs and stated they were killed on duty.
Regardless of who is responsible, as the recent series of deaths occurred in Iran, new threats to Israeli citizens around the world surfaced. In early June, Israeli intelligence officials called to directly warn over 100 Israelis in Turkey that they were currently at risk from Iranian operatives in the country and asked them to return home immediately. Shortly afterwards, multiple Israeli citizens were quickly escorted out of Istanbul. One woman was picked up by Israeli security and prevented from returning to her hotel room in Istanbul because Iranian operatives were allegedly in the hotel waiting for her.
The following week, Turkey arrested suspects involved in a plot to shoot or kidnap Israeli tourists and Israel put out a rare public warning for all Israelis to return from Turkey immediately. Last Friday saw further escalation with Israeli officials claiming Iran ordered its Turkish assets to initiate further attacks against any Israelis in the country. Israeli officials told its citizens in Turkey over the weekend to remain in their hotel rooms and lock their doors until further notice. Turkish security services arrested around 10 IRGC operatives in Istanbul that Friday who had been impersonating students, businessmen and tourists. Allegedly, one of their targets was a former Israeli ambassador and his wife who were staying in a hotel in Istanbul at the time.
Israeli officials have continued to urge Israelis to return from Turkey and warned they will not be able to prevent every attack. While Turkey seems to remain the focal point of Iranian plots, threats in other countries are still present and may increase. Around the same time as the threats in Istanbul surfaced, news broke that police in Thailand were also on the lookout for Iranian spies that may have been plotting attacks against Israeli tourists in the country.
Current threats to Israeli civilians abroad will likely continue. Israel will continue to make every attempt to erode Iran’s military capabilities and increase deterrence against the Iranian regime. It cannot afford to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons or continue its plots against Israel and its citizens.
Along the same line, Iran’s own deterrence with Israel is rapidly deteriorating, as evidenced by the increasing number of attacks attributed to Israel inside Iran. In February, a drone attack targeted a military facility inside Iran associated with Iran’s domestic drone program. In late May, a similar drone attack targeted a sensitive military research facility outside Tehran. This past weekend another drone attack launched from inside Iran targeted a key IRGC ballistic missile facility.
Iran’s ability to respond to such attacks without triggering a drastic military escalation is limited, and its attempts to target Israeli diplomats and government infrastructure abroad have failed thanks to efforts by Israeli security agencies. The current plots against Israeli civilians may represent a more blatant shift by Iran towards softer targets as an easier means to achieve its objectives. Regardless, it is clear that the current shadow war between Iran and Israel has translated into elevated risks for Israeli citizens abroad.
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