In less than nine months, a motorcycle killer fatally shot an al-Qaida commander who had taken refuge in Tehran, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist was engineered on a country road, and two separate mysterious explosions rocked a key nuclear facility in Iran in the desert, hitting the heart of the country’s efforts to enrich uranium.
The constant drum beat of the attacks, which intelligence officials said was being carried out by Israel, highlighted how easy it was for Israeli intelligence to reach deep inside Iranian borders and repeatedly hit its most protected targets. , often with the help of turncoat Iranians.
The attacks, the latest wave in more than two decades of sabotage and assassinations, have exposed embarrassing security failures and left Iranian leaders looking over their shoulders as they pursue negotiations with the Biden administration aimed at restoring a nuclear deal 2015.
The allegations have been caustic.
The head of the parliamentary strategic center said Iran had become a “haven for spies.” The former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard called for an overhaul of the country’s security and intelligence equipment. Legislators have demanded the resignation of top security and intelligence officials.
The most alarming to Iran, Iranian officials and analysts say, was that the attacks revealed that Israel had an effective network of collaborators inside Iran and that Iranian intelligence services had failed to locate them.
“The fact that the Israelis can effectively hit Iran inside in such a brass way is very embarrassing and shows a weakness I think is playing badly inside Iran,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.
The attacks have also cast a cloud of paranoia over a country that now sees foreign plots in all mischief.
Over the weekend, Iranian provincial television flashed a photo of a man alleged to be Reza Karimi, 43, and accused of being a “sabotage perpetrator” in an explosion at Natanz nuclear enrichment plant last week. But it was unclear who he was, who had acted alone and if that was even his real name. In any event, he had fled the country before the blast, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence said.
On Monday, after news media of the province of Iran reported that Brig. The Gen. Mohammad Hosseinzadeh Hejazi, deputy commander of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards, died of heart disease, there were immediate suspicions of foul play.
Hejazi had long been a target of Israeli espionage, and the son of another prominent Quds Force commander insisted on Twitter that Hejazi’s death was “not cardiac-related.”
A spokesman for the Revolutionary Guard failed to clear the air with a statement saying the general had died of the combined effects of “extremely difficult assignments,” a recent COVID-19 infection and exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
The general would be the third high-ranking Iranian military officer to be assassinated in the last 15 months. The United States killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force leader, in January 2020. Israel murdered Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist and brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guard, in November.
Even if Hejazi died of natural causes, the cumulative loss of three top generals was a significant blow.
The attacks represent a major escalation in a long-standing campaign by Israeli and US intelligence services to reverse what they consider to be Iran’s threatening activities.
Chief among them is a nuclear program that Iran insists is peaceful, Iran’s investment in proxy militia across the Arab world, and its development of in-depth guided missiles for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant movement .
An Israeli military intelligence document in 2019 said Hejazi was a leading figure in the last two, as the Lebanese corps commander of the Quds Force and leader of the guided missile project. Revolutionary Guard spokesman Ramezan Sharif said Israel wanted to assassinate Hejazi.
Israel has been working to expel Iran’s nuclear program, which it considers a deadly threat, since it began. Israel is believed to have started murdering key figures in the program in 2007, when a nuclear scientist died at a uranium factory in Isfahan in a mysterious gas leak.
In the years since, six other scientists and military officers who are said to be vital to Iran’s nuclear efforts have been assassinated. A seventh was wounded.
Another QQ Force chief, Rostam Ghasemi, recently said he narrowly escaped attempted murder in Israel during a visit to Lebanon in March.
But murder is just one tool in a campaign that operates on many levels and fronts.
In 2018, Israel conducted a bold nighttime raid to steal half a ton of secret archives of the Iranian nuclear program from a warehouse in Tehran.
Israel has also arrived worldwide, tracking down equipment in other countries sure to destroy Iran, hiding transponders in its packaging or installing explosive devices for firing after the gear has been installed into Iran, according to a former high-ranking US intelligence officer.
The former Israeli intelligence executive said that in order to compromise such equipment, she and another officer would drive near the factory and stage an emergency, such as a car accident or a heart attack, and that the woman would appeal to the guards for help. That would give her enough access to the facility to identify her security system so another team could break in and disable it, she said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss covert operations.
In an interview on Iranian state television last week, Iran’s former nuclear boss revealed the origin of an explosion at the Natanz nuclear plant in July. The explosives had been sealed inside a heavy desk that had been installed at the plant months earlier, said Fereidoun Abbasi, former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Institute.
The explosion ripped through a factory producing a new generation of centrifuges, setting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program back for months, officials said.
The explosion at the Natanz factory last week, Abbasi said, was the result of a “highly sophisticated” operation where the culprits managed to cut power to the centrifuges of the main electrical grid and backup batteries at the same time. The sudden power outage sent the centrifuges spiraling out of control, destroying thousands of them.
Alireza Zakani, head of the parliament’s research center, said on Tuesday that nuclear-powered engines had been sent overseas for repair and returned to Iran with 300 lbs of explosives packed inside.
In addition to setting back Iran’s uranium enrichment program, the attacks are likely to weaken Iran’s hand in indirect negotiations with the United States over the restoration of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, where Iran received limits on its nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions, in 2018. President Joe Biden has made his recovery one of his main foreign policy objectives.
Israel objected to the treaty and suggested the timing of its latest attack, while the nuclear talks were taking place in Vienna, that Israel is seeking if the negotiations should not be deregulated, to at least reduce Iranian leverage.
The US said it was not involved in the attack but has not publicly criticized it either.
It would have been difficult for Israel to carry out these operations without internal aid from Iranians, and that may be Iran’s highest rating.
Security officials in Iran have prosecuted several Iranian citizens over the past decade, accusing them of complicity in Israeli sabotage and murder operations. The punishment is to act.
But the infiltrations have also secured the reputation of the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guard, which is responsible for protecting nuclear sites and scientists.
The former commander of the Guard insisted on “cleaning up” the intelligence service, and Iran’s vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said the unit responsible for security in Natanz “should be held accountable for its failures.”
The deputy head of parliament, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, told Iranian news media on Monday that it was no longer enough to blame Israel and the United States for such attacks. Iran needed to clean its own house.
As a Guard-related publication, Mashregh News, announced last week: “Why is the security of the nuclear facility operating so irresponsibly that it is hit twice from the same hole?”
But the Revolutionary Guard’s answer is only to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and so far there has been no sign of a top-down reorganization.
After each attack, Iran has struggled to respond, sometimes claiming to have identified those responsible only after they left the country or said they had remained in general. Iranian officials also insist they have wiped out other attacks.
Calls for revenge grow louder after each attack. The Conservatives have accused President Hassan Rouhani’s government of weakening or subjecting the country’s security to the nuclear talks in the hope that they will lead to relief from US sanctions.
Indeed, Iranian officials moved into what they called “strategic patience” in the final year of the Trump administration, calculating that Israel had tried to get them into open conflict that would eliminate the possibility of negotiations with a new Democratic administration.
Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have said they would not allow the attacks to dislodge the talks because lifting sanctions was the priority.
In Vienna on Tuesday, senior diplomats said that progress was being made in negotiations, no matter how slow. It was agreed to set up a working group to study how to give the United States a return to the deal by raising all penalties as “inconsistent” with the treaty, and returning Iran to the enrichment limits set in the agreement.
It is also possible that Iran’s response to Israeli attacks has been tempered less by patience than by failure.
Iran was blamed for a bomb that exploded near the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi in January, and 15 Iranian-affiliated militants were arrested last month in Ethiopia for conspiring to attack Israeli, American and Emirati targets.
But any overt revenge risks Israel’s cowardly response.
“They’re not in a hurry to start a war,” said Talal Atrissi, a political science professor at the University of Lebanon in Beirut. “Revenge means war.”
And if Israel’s repeated attacks had the effect of falsifying national paranoia, an intelligence official says, that was a benefit to Israel. The extra steps Iran has taken to scan buildings for surveillance devices and plumb the backgrounds of workers to remove potential spies have slowed the enrichment, the official said.
The conventional wisdom is that neither side wants full-scale war and counts on the other not to get worse. But at the same time, the covert, regional shadow war between Israel and Iran has intensified with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia in Syria and titillating for neat attacks on ships.
But as Iran faces a struggling economy, COVID-19 rampant infections and other problems of poor governance, the pressure is on to soon reach a new agreement to remove economic sanctions, said Vakil of Chatham House.
“These low-level gray zone attacks reveal that the Islamic Republic urgently needs to get the JCPOA back in a box” to free up resources to tackle its other problems, he said, referring to the nuclear deal, formally known as the Comprehensive Joint Plan. Action.