Yesterday, Israeli agents (or MeK gunmen freelancing for them) assassinated the deputy director of the IRG’s Kuds Force, Sayad Hassan Khodai, in the heart of Tehran. Some are writing with ill-concealed glee that yet another “enemy of the Jewish people” has been eliminated from the world. But the truth is that the killing doesn’t advance any strategic goal. In fact, it is insane according to the common definition: repeating an action which has already failed, believing it will succeed if you keep trying). For example, a gambler who has lost all his winnings, but believes that one more bet will restore his losses.
Israel has already assassinated five top Iranian nuclear scientists including, most recently, the father of the nuclear program, Moshen Fakhrizadeh. It has assassinated Iranian commanders in Syria and Lebanon. It has sabotaged Iranian centrifuges used to enrich uranium. It has caused all manner of mischief. But it has not had any substantive impact on Iran’s nuclear ambitions (to the extent the latter has any). In fact, the opposite can be said: the more Israeli connives to inhibit Iranian operations and eliminate their leadership, the more committed Iran’s leaders are to pursuing them.
The brief against Khodai was that he led Iranian efforts to attack Israeli diplomats in India and Thailand back in 2012 and led Iranian efforts to kidnap other Israeli officials. He had been tasked by IRG supreme commander, Qassem Soleimani, and was a close confidant of his. Though two botched bombings a decade ago hardly seem justification to take him out now.
Iran named his official role as guardian of Shiite holy sites in Iraq and Syria. It’s difficult to know what this means in terms of his actual position. It’s possible that he was instrumental in shipping Iranian weapons via Syria to Hezbollah in Syria. Countering it is part of a long-term Israeli interdiction effort, and any role he might have played in this would definitely have drawn Israeli attention.
Why would Israel continue pursuing a tactic (assassination) which has utterly failed in its supposed effort to decapitate Iran’s nuclear program? Because it gives the Israeli public the impression that its intelligence-military apparatus is doing something, anything to dent the “Iranian threat” that’s been inculcated for decades. And because it sends a message to the Americans and Europeans who are pursuing a diametrically opposite approach: seeking a nuclear deal that will restrain, but not wholly eliminates the possibility of a nuclear Iran: Israel will go its own way and do everything possible to sabotage the diplomatic approach.
Shemuel Meir, a sharp analyst and critic of Israeli intelligence matters concerning Iran, also maintains (Hebrew) that Israel is preserving its “freedom to act” against its perceived enemies. Though Meir points out that this is a bogus notion, since Israel has only limited options when it comes to Iran. For example, it cannot attack Iran directly due to US veto. An Israeli military attack on Iran’s military targets would jeopardize Israel’s relations with its strongest ally. Not to mention embroiling the US in a major Middle East conflagration. Presumably, American officials have made this crystal clear to every Israeli leader over the past two or more decades.
Finally, these murders reveal the utter bankruptcy of Israel’s strategic thinking. It has no long-term plan for dealing with Iran. All of these attacks are gestures of defiance. Gestures are not a policy. They arouse Iranian ire. They increase Iranian resolve. But beyond that they serve no purpose. As I’ve written repeatedly here in the past, a tactic is not a strategy. The latter offers a vision. It says where you want to go, what you want to achieve. A tactic is a means toward a strategy. But without the latter it serves no useful purpose.
At one time, Israeli military-intelligence officials mouthed platitudes like “if we punish Iran enough, they will come to their senses and abandon the nuclear program.” We have not heard such nonsense in some time. No one, especially Israe, believes if it kills enough Iranians it will stop the country from pursuing its policies. Anyone who says that or worse, believes it, is a fool.
It’s possible that Israel’s actual intent is to do what an Israeli general once called “mowing the grass.” In other words, you can’t achieve your maximal objective, so you choose to degrade the enemy via small incremental attacks. It too is a defective approach because it doesn’t seriously degrade Iran’s offensive capabilities. It only slows Iran down for the time it takes for Khodai’s replacement to step into his office and take over his duties.