Iran and the Policy of Targeted Killings Attributed to Israel: Between Threats and Constraints

The funeral of the five IRGC operatives killed in Syria (Fars, January 22, 2024)

The funeral of the five IRGC operatives killed in Syria (Fars, January 22, 2024)

Muhammad Ali Ataei and Panah Taghizadeh (Fars, December 5, 2023)

Muhammad Ali Ataei and Panah Taghizadeh (Fars, December 5, 2023)

Seyyed Razi Mousavi alongside Qassem Soleimani (Tasnim, December 25, 2023)

Seyyed Razi Mousavi alongside Qassem Soleimani (Tasnim, December 25, 2023)

Headline of hardline newspaper Jam-e Jam on January 4, 2024

Headline of hardline newspaper Jam-e Jam on January 4, 2024

Dr. Raz Zimmt
Highlights
  • Since early December 2023, eight IRGC officers have been killed in operations attributed to Israel in Syria: two senior officers were killed on December 2, 2023; Seyyed Razi Mousavi, head of the IRGC’s Qods Force Logistical Unit in Syria, was killed on December 24, 2023; and five IRGC operatives were killed on January 20, 2024.
  • Following the deaths of the IRGC operatives, and especially after the targeted killing of Mousavi and five IRGC officers in Damascus, senior Iranian officials threatened a harsh response against Israel. In January 2024, two Iranian attacks were reported, apparently in response to actions attributed to Israel: an attack on two Israeli-owned ships off the coasts of India and the Maldives earlier this month and a missile attack against a target referred to by Iran as the Mossad headquarters in the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq on January 16, 2024.
The funeral of the five IRGC operatives killed in Syria (Fars, January 22, 2024)
The funeral of the five IRGC operatives killed in Syria (Fars, January 22, 2024)
  • Although the possibility of a harsher response from Iran in the future cannot be ruled out, at this stage, there is a discrepancy between the intensity of the threats made by senior Iranian officials against Israel and their actual implementation. The gap reflects Iran’s dilemma vis-à-vis the targeted killing policy attributed to Israel. On the one hand, Iran strives to respond directly (and not through proxies) to the attacks on its people to maintain deterrence against its enemies, first and foremost Israel and the United States. On the other hand, Iran is not interested in a response that could lead to further escalation to the point of direct military confrontation with Israel and perhaps even with the United States. In addition, Iran faces operational and intelligence constraints that limit its ability to respond directly against Israeli targets. Therefore, it continues to focus on handling its proxies in the multi-front war that has been waged since the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, while at the same time deepening its involvement in Judea and Samaria in an attempt to increase activity from that arena against Israel.
  • Against the backdrop of continued targeted killings attributed to Israel, there are growing voices in Iran calling for a direct response against Israel and for abandoning the policy of “strategic patience,” which is intended to reduce the risk of a military confrontation with Israel and the United States amid the ongoing war in Gaza. In recent days, Iranian commentators and media have warned that the continuation of the current policy, which avoids a significant direct response against Israel, compromises Iranian deterrence, reflects weakness, and may be interpreted by Iran’s enemies as apathy and inability to respond to ongoing damage to its national security. Although at this stage, there has been no apparent change in Iran’s policy of response, the continued targeted killings attributed to Israel, along with the intensification of internal criticism in Iran in light of the gap between the belligerent statements against Israel and the relatively restrained responses, may increase the pressure on the Iranian leadership to intensify its responses against Israel, even at the cost of taking risks of further escalation.
Iranian reactions to the targeted killings attributed to Israel
  • Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, eight IRGC officers have been killed in operations attributed to Israel in Syria. All those killed were referred to in the Iranian media and IRGC statements as “military advisors:”
    • On December 2, 2023, Mohammad Ali Ataei Shoorcheh and Panah Taghizadeh were killed in an airstrike in Syria.
Muhammad Ali Ataei and Panah Taghizadeh (Fars, December 5, 2023)
Muhammad Ali Ataei and Panah Taghizadeh (Fars, December 5, 2023)
    • On December 24, 2023, Seyyed Razi Mousavi, head of the IRGC’s Qods Force Logistical Unit in Syria, was killed in Syria.
Seyyed Razi Mousavi alongside Qassem Soleimani (Tasnim, December 25, 2023)
Seyyed Razi Mousavi alongside Qassem Soleimani (Tasnim, December 25, 2023)
    • On January 20, 2024, five IRGC officers were killed in a missile strike in Syria, including Hojatollah Omidvar (Hajj Sadegh), head of the Qods Force’s Intelligence Unit in Syria. The strike in the al-Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus also killed Ali Aghazadeh, Hossein Mohammadi, Saeed Karimi, and Mohammad Amin Samadi.
The five IRGC officers killed in Syria (ISNA, January 20, 2024)
The five IRGC officers killed in Syria (ISNA, January 20, 2024)
  • Following the deaths of the IRGC operatives, and especially after the killing of Seyyed Razi Mousavi and the five IRGC officers in Damascus, senior Iranian officials threatened a harsh response against Israel:
    • On December 4, 2023, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani referred to the deaths of two IRGC officers in Syria, saying that Iran would respond to any attack against its interests in the region and that no action against Iran, its security, its interests and its “advisory forces” in Syria would remain unanswered (Fars, December 4, 2023).
    • The IRGC’s statement following the killing of Seyyed Razi Mousavi said that “there is no doubt that the Zionist regime will pay for this crime” (Fars, December 25, 2023).
    • Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi wrote in a letter of condolence following Mousavi’s death that the operation was further proof of Israel’s frustration, weakness, and helplessness and that there was no doubt that it would pay the price for its crime (Tasnim, December 25, 2023).
    • Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian referred to the killing of Mousavi on his X account (December 25, 2023), writing that “Tel Aviv is waiting for a difficult countdown.”
    • Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kanani condemned the killing of Mousavi, stressing that Iran reserved the right to respond at the appropriate time and place (ISNA, December 25, 2023).
    • Reza Talaei-Nik, spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Defense, told a press conference in Tehran that the response to Mousavi’s killing would be carried out decisively and efficiently at the appropriate time, place, and method (Fars, December 26, 2023).
    • Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, noted that “Israel’s criminal leaders” had made a strategic mistake in killing Mousavi. He said there was no doubt that their crimes would not go unanswered and that the blood of the martyrs would accelerate Israel’s elimination (Tasnim, December 26, 2023).
    • IRGC spokesman Ramazan Sharif told a press conference that Iran’s response to Mousavi’s killing would consist of direct action and action by the “resistance front.” He noted that Iran’s confrontation with Israel was an ongoing process, not a momentary, isolated clash (Entekhab, December 27, 2023).
"Terrorists in the fire of revenge" (Fars, January 16, 2024)
“Terrorists in the fire of revenge” (Fars, January 16, 2024)
    • Following the killing of five IRGC operatives in Syria, Iranian President Raisi wrote in a statement that Israel’s continued “terrorist activities” attested to its growing failure to achieve its goals and its helplessness vis-à-vis the “resistance front fighters.” He stressed that the operation would not go unanswered by Iran (IRNA, January 20, 2024).
    • Esmail Kowsari, a member of the Majles National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said Israel should expect a strong response at a time and place determined by Iran and that Iran’s hands even reached Tel Aviv and beyond (didbaniran, January 20, 2024).
    • Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kanani condemned the killing of the IRGC officers, saying Iran reserved the right to respond to the “organized terrorism of the fake Zionist regime” at the appropriate time and place (IRNA, January 20, 2024).
  • In January 2024, two Iranian actions were reported, apparently in response to actions attributed to Israel:
    • On January 17, 2024, the Hezbollah-affiliated al-Mayadeen network reported that on January 4, 2024, the IRGC attacked two Israeli-owned ships in the Indian Ocean in response to the assassination of Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, and the assassination of Seyyed Razi Mousavi. According to the report, the ship Chem Cilicon, owned by Ace, which sails under the Liberian flag, and Pacific Goll, which belongs to Eastern, had been attacked by the IRGC: one northwest of the Maldives and the other 200 miles off the coast of India.
    • On the night of January 16, 2024, the IRGC carried out a combined ballistic missile attack against targets in the Idlib region in northwestern Syria and the Erbil area in northern Iraq. According to IRGC announcements, the attacks were carried out in response to ISIS’ recent terrorist attacks in Kerman (January 4, 2024) and Rask (December 15, 2023) in Iran, as well as in response to assassinations attributed to Israel of the commanders of the IRGC and the “resistance front.” According to the announcements, among the targets attacked was the headquarters of the “Mossad of the Zionist regime in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region,” which was used to plan “espionage and terrorist activities in the region, especially against Iran” (Tasnim, January 16, 2024).
"The harsh 1,200-kilometer response swishing near the ear of the cancerous tumor [Israel]" (Tasnim, January 16, 2024)
“The harsh 1,200-kilometer response swishing near the ear of the cancerous tumor [Israel]” (Tasnim, January 16, 2024)
Iranian dilemma vis-à-vis the policy of targeted killings
  • While the possibility of a harsher response from Iran in the future cannot be ruled out, at this stage, there is a discrepancy between the intensity of the threats made by senior Iranian officials against Israel and their actual implementation. This gap stems from the Iranian dilemma vis-à-vis the policy of targeted killings attributed to Israel. On the one hand, Iran seeks to respond to the attack on IRGC personnel to maintain its deterrence against its enemies, mainly Israel and the United States. Moreover, it aims to respond directly rather than via proxies. That is because it is obligated to respond by itself to direct attacks on Iranian assets and because a proxy response amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip is liable to be swallowed up by the general noise of war. Therefore, in cases where Iran wants to respond to direct attacks on its forces or civilians, such as the killing of senior Iranian commanders in Syria or terrorist attacks in its territory, it sometimes prefers to act directly, initiating offensive actions on its own rather than relying on its proxies to wage its wars. On the other hand, a direct harsh response against Israel, for example, by launching missiles or drones at Israel by the IRGC (from Iran, Syria, or Iraq), could endanger Iran, slipping into a direct military confrontation with Israel and perhaps even with the United States.
  • According to a report published on January 4, 2024, in The New York Times, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei instructed his military commanders to adopt a policy of “strategic patience” and avoid in any way a significant escalation that would drag Iran into a direct military confrontation with Israel or the United States. In addition, Iran faces operational and intelligence constraints that limit its ability to respond directly, whether through a military attack (due to the IDF’s advanced interception capabilities) or through attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.
  • A partial possible response to the Iranian dilemma may be an ongoing deepening of Iran’s involvement in Judea and Samaria in an attempt to increase activity from that arena against Israel. Israeli security sources recently reported that Iran continued to funnel funds to Judea and Samaria to finance the establishment of terrorist networks and push for terrorist attacks against Israel (Walla, January 21, 2024). The increase in Iranian activity in Judea and Samaria since the outbreak of the war is a direct continuation of increasing Iranian efforts in the past two years to establish intelligence infrastructures in Israel and in Judea and Samaria, to establish terrorist infrastructure under the guise of civilian organizations, and to deliver explosives by UAVs.[1]
Growing voices supporting a change in Iran’s policy of response to Israel
  • Against the backdrop of the policy of targeted killings of IRGC commanders attributed to Israel, voices have recently been heard in the Iranian media calling for an intensification of Iran’s policy of response towards Israel and an end to Iran’s policy of “strategic patience” to restore its deterrence:
    • On January 17, 2024, Raja News, a news website affiliated with Iran’s hardline right-wing faction, published an extensive interview with regional and international affairs commentator Ali Abdi about the security challenges facing Iran, including the killing of Seyyed Razi Mousavi and the terrorist attack in Kerman. Abdi argued that strategic patience was a paramount strategy relevant to the conduct of the entire “axis of resistance” vis-à-vis the enemy and should not be adopted in the context of a direct blow to Iran’s national security, which required a response to deter the enemy. He distinguished between the terrorist attack in Kerman, which he said was a “terrorist-security operation” against Iran’s national security on its sovereign territory, and the killing of Mousavi, which was a “military operation” outside Iran’s borders as part of the military confrontation between Israel and the “resistance front.” He stressed that it did not mean that Mousavi’s death should not be avenged, but that such action required a different response. He added that Iran was waging two types of campaigns against Israel: a military campaign in collaboration with the “resistance front” and a direct security-intelligence campaign. He said each case had to be examined individually and responded accordingly. Thus, for example, although the killing of Qassem Soleimani did not take place on Iranian territory, a direct response to his assassination could not have been avoided due to the grave significance of the operation.
    • Abdi stressed the need to maintain deterrence and create a security equation with the enemy and warned that if Iran’s enemies were allowed to strike at it, maintaining national security would not be possible. He warned of the shortcomings inherent in the policy of strategic patience and argued that caution should be exercised in relation to this policy because it could easily become an excuse for inaction and apathy.
Commentator Ali Abdi (Raja News, January 17, 2024)
Commentator Ali Abdi (Raja News, January 17, 2024)
    • A commentary article on the Tabnak website (January 21, 2024) said the time had come to change the response policy towards Israel. According to the article, Israel’s recent actions reflect an unprecedented increase in the “brazenness of the Zionists.” At the same time, Israel refrains from taking responsibility for these actions to leave room for plausible deniability and reduce the risk of retaliation by the countries targeted by it. The website warned that the policy of killing commanders in the “resistance front” had spread in recent weeks, reached an unprecedented scale, and was liable to spread even more. Therefore, any display of appeasement in response to Israeli attacks could send the wrong message to Israel and its Western allies that the countries whose citizens had been targeted were in a weak position. This could lead to a situation in which there would be no other choice but a direct all-out confrontation with Israel and, as a result, with the United States and its allies. In order not to reach such a situation, it is the duty of every country under attack by Israel to send a clear message that will make it understand that strategic patience does not stem from weakness. The retaliatory attacks should be directed at sensitive areas in Tel Aviv, such as the Kirya (the military compound in Tel Aviv), to convey a message that could change Israel’s considerations.
Headline of hardline newspaper Jam-e Jam on January 4, 2024
Headline of hardline newspaper Jam-e Jam on January 4, 2024
    • A commentary article on the hardline website Alef (January 21, 2024) said that the term “strategic patience” had been misinterpreted in Iran, translating into apathy and lack of response. It instilled in the enemy’s mind the perception that Iran was incapable of responding and led to Israel’s serial targeted killings. Even the IRGC’s attack on Mossad headquarters in Erbil was not enough to deter the enemy from continuing its “crimes,” because Iran preferred to adopt strategic patience. Even if some of Israel’s actions were carried out in response to the blockade of its borders and the blows it suffered from the “resistance groups,” it does not negate the need for a change in a strategy that could lead to undesirable results. The article also said that strategic patience, which means rational conduct and taking decisive action at the appropriate time, should not be confused with passivity, which challenges Iran’s security and strength. Strategic patience should not lead to inaction or prevent the erosion of red lines in the face of the enemy. Care must be taken not to make Iran’s strategic patience predictable. Strategic patience aims to improve Iran’s deterrence and strength and weaken the security challenges it faces, and it must avoid becoming a cause of more crises. Therefore, Iran must reexamine its security strategy and bring about a fundamental change in the considerations of Western countries, especially Israel. The killing of Iranian “military advisors” in Syria indicates the need for a more decisive response to crush Israel’s assessments. The continuation of the current policy will cause senior commanders to continue to be exposed to threats and Iranian deterrence to collapse.
"Time for a direct response against Israel" Headline of hardline newspaper Siyasat Rooz, January 21, 2024
“Time for a direct response against Israel”
Headline of hardline newspaper Siyasat Rooz, January 21, 2024
    • A commentary article published on January 23, 2024, in the hardline daily Vatan Emrooz argued that despite the ongoing targeted killings of Iranian commanders, Iran had so far refrained from directly entering a war against Israel. According to the daily, this is a perfectly logical position on the part of the Islamic Republic, but at the same time, Iran should not neglect public opinion’s demand for revenge and a harsh response against the Zionists. The choice is not between silence and going to war. Iran can continue its wise policy of avoiding war, but at the same time, respond clearly and appropriately to Israel’s ongoing attacks. In any case, public opinion must be considered, the state’s prestige must be protected, and above all, its deterrence power must be preserved. Israel is trying to drag Iran into war by assassinating Iranian commanders, and it should be avoided, but the lack of an appropriate response will undermine deterrence in the face of future threats.
    • In response to the growing calls in Iran to change its policy of retaliation against Israel, the reformist daily Hammihan (January 18, 2024) published a commentary article titled “The End of Strategic Patience?” expressing reservations about the calls made by hardline circles in Iran for direct intervention in the campaign against Israel. The article said that following the targeted killing of Seyyed Razi Mousavi in Syria and the terrorist attack in Kerman, the faction that advocates such intervention renewed its demand to end the policy of strategic patience and was striving to mobilize public opinion in Iran to support direct revenge against Israel. According to the article, this approach contradicts Iran’s defense doctrine and the principle that Iran does not initiate offensive military moves except in the event of direct aggression against it or occupation of its territory. In accordance with this perception, even after the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s aerospace arm, stressed that the assassination of the Qods Force commander did not justify entering an all-out war against the United States, which could exact a heavy toll on Iran. The newspaper presented experts’ opinions that Iran did not have the military and economic means necessary to wage a broad and prolonged war, including against Israel. Therefore, Iran’s strategic decision is not to intervene directly in the war because its naval and air forces are not capable of accurately and significantly hitting Israel. At the same time, the missile and UAVs at its disposal are part of the strategic reserves maintained to defend against a possible attack. Under these conditions, any Iranian offensive operation beyond the country’s borders entails significant risks.

[1] See the ITIC's Information Bulletin from February 13, 2023, “Declarations of Senior Iranian Officials Concerning the West Bank Point to Intensifying Iranian Effort to Expand Its Influence in this Arena” ↑