Iran's Security Dilemma
The assassination of IRGC Colonel Khodaei has further ignited the ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel. Khodaei’s assassination also comes at an inopportune time for developing U.S.-Iran relations.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was assassinated outside of his home in the capital city of Tehran, Iran on May 22. While the exact nature of Khodaei’s career in the IRGC is unclear, Politico identified reports that Khodaei was involved in the IRGC’s Quds Force and fought against the Islamic State group in both Iraq and Syria. Iran’s Quds Force is a clandestine sect of the IRGC and is primarily tasked with operations abroad. Previously and notoriously, the Quds Force was led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, until his assassination by the United States in January 2020. Israeli state media has alleged that Khodaei was involved with, or even deputy commander of, Unit 840, a covert and transborder operational unit within the Quds Force that is tasked with both the kidnappings and assassinations of foreigners. To date, Iran has never denied nor confirmed the existence of Unit 840. Khodaei’s killing is the third high-profile assassination of an Iranian official since that of General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 and the second assassination alleged to have been carried out by Israel.
In a report published by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Khodaei was shot to death by two motorcyclists during the daytime. Several days following the assassination, The New York Times reported that, according to an intelligence official with knowledge of the situation, Israel confirmed their culpability in the killing to American officials.
The assassination of the Quds Force colonel makes it the most high-profile killing of an Iranian official since that of the leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. Fakhrizadeh was killed by an A.I. equipped “computerized sharpshooter” in a remote attack carried out by the Israeli government supposedly with the support of knowledge from U.S. intelligence officials.
The assassination of Khodaei also further ignited the ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel. In recent years, tactics utilized by the two adversarial countries have seemingly shifted to a tit-for-tat strategy, often utilizing means of unconventional warfare: a supposed Israeli cyberattack on Iranian gas stations in November 2021 followed by an alleged retaliatory attack on an Israeli medical institute’s file system days later.
The assassination of an Iranian high-ranking figure, although not nearly as high-ranked or protected as Fakhrizadeh, signals the Israeli reliance on a strategy deemed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as the “Octopus” doctrine. The thinking behind the strategy is that instead of tackling the tentacles of the octopus, or Iran vis-a-vis its extensive regional proxy network, you directly attack its head. These direct hits in the form of targeted assassinations bring the conflict out of the shadows and further into the public eye.
While Iran’s leadership vowed revenge after the assassination of Fakhrizadeh and again following Khodaei’s death, the depth of that remains to be seen. Israel has attributed several alleged failed assassination plots against prominent Israelis to Iran’s doing, but none have come to fruition. The most recent attempt at Iranian retaliation towards Israel was earlier this year; On March 13, 2022, Iran launched ballistic missiles against Erbil, Iraq, primarily hitting a private villa. While the location at first seemed arbitrary, even after the IRGC confirmed they struck an Israeli “strategic center”, it was later alleged that the villa was where Israeli officials met to discuss a partnership that would ship Kurdish gasoline to Turkey through a newly developed pipeline.
In the context of developing Iran-U.S. relations as well as the United States’ close allyship with Israel, Khodaei’s assassination comes at an inopportune time. The painstakingly revived negotiations over reinstating the nuclear deal negotiations have been stalled; primarily due to President Trump’s decision to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2019. The decision to designate was unusual - it was the first time the United States designated a legitimate part of another country’s government as an FTO. However, many experts state that the designation is largely symbolic and its removal will have no significant impact in actuality, especially given the economic sanctions currently against Iran.
Both assassinations also further fuel the adversarial relationship between Israel and Iran. As Israel continues to implement their “Octopus” doctrine and their attacks toward Iran become both bolder and more direct, Iran may strike back and up the ante with its retaliation. The continuation of direct Israeli attacks against Iranian officials may jeopardize the already hindered nuclear negotiations, as it may give Iran more ammunition to hold out on proceeding diplomatically with the United States and the rest of the P5+1.
The alleged U.S. intelligence cooperation with Israel that led to the killing of Fakhrizadeh may also be invoked as a point of pain and distrust between the Iranians and the United States. Thus, the United States may feel more inclined to give concessions, perhaps in the form of removing the IRGC as an FTO, in order to advance the nuclear talks.
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