Hopes for a nuclear deal between Tehran and the West have waned amid anger and mistrust since Iran buried a top Revolutionary Guards officer killed in broad daylight outside his Tehran home this week.
The Iranian authorities did not officially accuse Israel of being behind the attack, but the local media pointed to the responsibility of “the forces of global arrogance and tyranny”, meaning America and Israel. They also reported the arrest of “Zionist agents”, without providing any further information.
The targeted killings of influential Iranian military officers and nuclear scientists are the most common methods in the indirect confrontation between Iran and Israel. This shadow conflict has resulted in up to a dozen Iranian officials being killed in recent years, many by gunmen on motorbikes using weapons fitted with silencers. Tit-for-tat attacks have taken place on the high seas, where dozens of merchant ships linked to both countries have been attacked with mines or drones.
While Iran had previously been reluctant to acknowledge any attack by Israel, in recent times it has promised to respond to any attack on its forces outside Iran or assassination attempts inside the country. This year, for example, the Revolutionary Guards claimed responsibility for the March 13 missile attack on what it said was an Israeli intelligence centre in northern Iraq. That followed an alleged Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital Damascus that killed two guards commanders in the same month .
Earlier this year Iran also fired ballistic missiles at a manor near the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, which it claimed had housed Israelis who had used it to launch deadly drone attacks inside Iran. Given these military responses to what Iran considers to be Israeli attacks, the “shadow war” between the two countries is expected to intensify in the coming months.
The assassination of Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, a member of the Quds Force, which is the overseas arm of the Revolutionary Guards, will probably force Tehran to harden its position in the nuclear negotiations, refusing to make any concessions or compromises.
The nuclear negotiations, which have stalled since last March, are facing an impediment that may lead to a complete collapse because of the differences between Washington and Tehran over the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force, both of which are on the US list of terrorist organisations.
Washington rejects any link between reaching a nuclear deal with Iran and removing the Revolutionary Guards from its list of terrorist organisations, while Tehran is adamant that there can be no nuclear deal without removing the Revolutionary Guards from that list.
The killing of Colonel Khodaei on Sunday, at about 4pm local time outside his house in downtown Tehran, at the hand of at least two assailants on motorbikes who fired five bullets at him, will only complicate this further.
An Iranian diplomat who previously served in London told Al-Ahram Weekly that this week’s assassination was not only an attack against a prominent Iranian military official, but also an attack against the organisations of the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force: “This will not be tolerated. In recent years, the Revolutionary Guards have been subjected to several attacks, prominent leaders of the guards were assassinated. Continuing this aggressive approach, and Washington’s insistence on keeping the Revolutionary Guards on its list of terrorist organisations will ultimately lead to the collapse of negotiations. No Iranian official will accept a nuclear agreement on these terms. Iran’s vital interests are not a nuclear deal at any price.”
The Iranian diplomat reiterated his country’s position that Tehran will continue to support its militia allies across the Middle East.
Khodaei was a prominent member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, an elite unit tasked with conducting operations outside Iranian territory to enhance Iran’s regional influence and protect its vital interests, and the interests of its regional allies. He had played a central role in military activities in Iraq and Syria, in which Iran has consolidated its presence over the last decade and developed formidable political influence. He was also a close associate of general Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian security tsar assassinated in Baghdad by a US airstrike in January 2020. Suleimani’s death sparked a barrage of Iranian ballistic missiles on then US airbases in Iraq.
Senior Iranian officials, including Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, vowed to avenge the killing of Khodaei. On Monday President Raisi called for the attackers to be caught. “I insist on the serious pursuit of the murderers by security officials, and I have no doubt that the blood of this great martyr will be avenged,” he said ahead of a visit to Oman. “Without any doubt, this crime can be traced to the hand global tyranny.”
While Iranian officials claimed to have arrested “Zionist agents”, Israeli officials offered no official comment on the latest assassination. However, the news was carried widely by the Israeli press, which linked Khodaei to an alleged plot to kidnap Israeli diplomats abroad.
Iranian authorities have not confirmed what position Khodaei held in the Quds Force. But reports in domestic media suggested he had recently returned from Syria, where Iranian forces have helped shore up the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Khodaei is reported to have led operations against Israel, which has carried out airstrikes against Iranian forces in Syria.
Iran says it holds an advisery role in Syria and Iraq to help local, voluntary forces defend the holy shrines of Muslims. “Those who are defeated by the forces who defend the holy shrines are showing their frustration in these ways,” Raisi added.
It is too early to know all the implications of the assassination on the course of the nuclear negotiations. But negotiations were already faltering amid growing pessimism about the possibility of a breakthrough.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.