Brazen killings expose Iran’s vulnerabilities as it struggles to respond

By David D. Kirkpatrick, Ronen Bergman and Farnaz Fassihi

The raid alone was brazen enough. A team of Israeli commandos with high-powered torches blasted their way into a vault of a heavily guarded warehouse deep in Iran and made off before dawn with 5,000 pages of top secret papers on the country’s nuclear program.

Then in a television broadcast a few weeks later, in April 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the contents of the pilfered documents and coyly hinted at equally bold operations that were already being planned.

“Remember that name,” he said as he singled out scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as the captain of Iran’s covert attempts to assemble a nuclear weapon.

Now Fakhrizadeh has become the latest casualty in an escalating campaign of audacious covert attacks seemingly designed to torment Iranian leaders with reminders of their weakness. The operations are confronting Tehran with an agonizing choice between embracing the demands of hard-liners for swift retaliation, or attempting to make a fresh start with the less implacably hostile administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Driving a carefully circuitous route to the home of his in-laws in a city outside Tehran, Fakhrizadeh’s car was stopped Friday by a car bomb in a Nissan so laden with explosives that it knocked out a power line, according to Iranian news media and witness accounts. A squad of gunmen then leapt from a black SUV, overpowered his bodyguards and unleashed a barrage of gunfire before speeding away as Fakhrizadeh lay dying in the street.

Fakhrizadeh’s killing was the latest in a decadelong pattern of mysterious poisoning, car bombings, shootings, thefts and sabotage that has afflicted the Islamic Republic. Most have hit largely anonymous scientists or secretive facilities believed to be linked to its nuclear program, and almost all have been attributed by both U.S. and Iranian officials to Tehran’s great nemesis, Israel, whose officials have all but openly gloated over the repeated success of their espionage without formally acknowledging that Israeli agents were behind it.

Never, however, has the Islamic Republic endured a spate of covert attacks quite like in 2020. In January, an American drone strike killed the revered Gen. Qasem Soleimani as he was in a car leaving the Baghdad airport (an attack facilitated by Israel’s intelligence, officials say). And Iran was humiliated in August by an Israeli hit team’s fatal shooting of a senior al-Qaida leader on the streets of Tehran (this time at the behest of the United States, its officials have said).

Seldom has any country demonstrated a similar ability to strike with apparent impunity inside the territory of its fiercest enemy, said Bruce Reidel, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a former official of the Central Intelligence Agency with experience in Israel.

“It’s unprecedented,” he said. “And it shows no sign of being effectively countered by the Iranians.”

With the killing Friday of their top nuclear scientist as well, Iranians are now grappling with a new sense of vulnerability, demands to purge suspected collaborators and an agonizing debate over how to respond at a delicate moment.

Iran has endured four years of devastating economic sanctions under a campaign of “maximum pressure” from President Donald Trump, and many Iranian leaders are desperately hoping for some measure of relief from a Biden administration. The president-elect has pledged to seek to revive a lapsed agreement that lifted sanctions against Iran in exchange for a halt to nuclear research that might produce a weapon.

To pragmatic Iranians, that desire for a fresh start means Trump’s last months in office are no time for the country to lash back and risk a renewed cycle of hostilities.

But at the same time, some Iranians are openly acknowledging that their enemies in the United States and Israel may take advantage of the current moment to attack Tehran further, squeezing its leaders between domestic demands for revenge and a pragmatic desire for better relations.

“From today until Trump leaves the White House is the most dangerous period for Iran,” Mohammad-Hossein Khoshvaght, a former official at the Ministry of Culture and Guidance, wrote in a message on Twitter.

Retaliation against Israel or Netanyahu’s main ally, the United States, would play into the hands of Iran’s enemies in the region, who are seeking “to create a difficult situation,” so Biden cannot revive that nuclear agreement, Khoshvaght added.

Iran first accused Israel of killing one of its scientists when he dropped dead in his laboratory after a poisoning in 2007, and a series of more violent attacks on Iranian scientists between 2010 and 2012 have been widely attributed to Israel as well.

In one, a bomb in a parked motorcycle blew up a particle physicist as he was lowering a garage door at his home in Tehran. In three others, motorcyclists speeding past the moving cars of three other scientists slapped magnetic bombs to their car doors, killing two and wounding a third. And in a fifth attack, gunmen on motorcycles sprayed a scientist with bullets while his car was stopped at a traffic light with his wife sitting beside him.

Israel has developed a singularly successful track record against Iran in part by concentrating the considerable resources of its spy agencies mainly on its greatest nemesis, said Riedel of the Brookings Institution.

Israel, he said, has also carefully cultivated ties within countries neighboring Iran as “platforms” for surveillance and recruitment — most notably in Baku, Azerbaijan. Its recent conflict with Armenia has called attention to drones and other weaponry that Israel has furnished to Azerbaijan as part of that relationship

Israel has made a practice of recruiting native Farsi speakers from among Iranian immigrants to Israel to make contacts or analyze intercepted communications, he added, and Israel has managed to enlist an array of Iranian collaborators as well.

Now, Riedel argued, the attack on Fakhrizadeh may be an indication that Israel intends to exploit that network again for similar missions. After an eight-year “hiatus” since the wave of killing from 2010 to 2012, he said, “I think it is a signal that the game is afoot, or coming.”

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