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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The shadow intelligence war between Israel and Iran

Israel and Iran have been engaged in a largely clandestine war for many years, keeping their operations brief and limited, albeit not completely secretive, at least undeniably, in an effort to prevent a direct, large-scale war that neither side wants.

For many years, the war of spies between Israel and Iran did not come out into the open, but in recent months, both Israel and Iran admitted that they carried out operations against each other, so the confrontation moved from the “hidden” war or the “shadow” war to the hot one, and even expanded, to include cyberwar. 

During the past months, Iran’s armed forces and military research centers have witnessed an alarming number of assassinations or mysterious deaths. In early June 2022, after remaining silent for a long time, Tehran admitted to the death of two Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, one of whom had the rank of colonel, who was assassinated on May 22 by gunmen on motorcycles, and another by a mysterious “suicide.”

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Iran praised the “martyrdom” of an engineer at the Parchin military site, which is developing missiles and drones, and who is accused of carrying out military nuclear research. The engineer was the victim of a small drone attack in late May 2022. Finally, local media reported the killing of two scientists on June 4, 2022, one of whom was poisoned in the city of Yazd. 

Series of assassinations

This series of assassinations appears to be unprecedented in many ways, first of all, the nature of the targets: The two Revolutionary Guards officers had absolutely nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program and its possible military dimension, which has long been targeted by Israeli intelligence services. Above all, these assassinations led to multiple statements to the press by “regional” or explicitly Israeli security sources, indicating that they are responsible for some of these operations.  

An Iranian aviation engineer was returning home from dinner with a colleague on the evening of May 31, 2022 in the central Iranian city of Yazd, when he suddenly fell ill and lost consciousness. Opposition reports stated that the cause of death was an assassination by poison. 

The Israeli “espionage drama” continues, yet it is plausible that the Israeli Mossad was behind the killing of Intisari. In recent weeks, the Israeli spy agency resumed its campaign of carrying out assassinations targeting Iranians. The intelligence war between Israel and Iran has become open: on land, sea, air, cyberspace and through proxies since 1982.  

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Iranian cell plots to attack Israelis in Turkey 

Iranian cell planning attack on Israelis in Turkey: Turkish media reported on June 23, 2022, that eight suspects, including Iranian nationals, who were planning attacks on Israeli citizens in Turkey, were arrested in a joint operation of the police and the National Intelligence Service. The (IHA) news agency reported that “cells” working for the Iranian intelligence were arrested in an operation in Istanbul earlier in the terrorist attack. 

In this context, the Turkish security forces raided three residences across the city and a hotel in the Beyoglu neighborhood of the city and arrested the suspects and seized weapons earlier in June 2022. Subsequently, Israel urged its citizens to avoid traveling to Istanbul.  

Dr. Eli Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichsmann University in Herzliya in central Israel, says that Turkey has a long history as a springboard for hostile activity against Israeli targets. For example, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mansour Rasouli, allegedly plotted to assassinate an Israeli diplomat at the consulate in Istanbul in April 2022 but was thwarted by Mossad intelligence.

This was not the first Iranian attempt to attack Israeli targets on Turkish soil. As Carmon recalls, “We know that the Iranians have tried in the past to assassinate our consul in Istanbul. In the 1990s, and more recently, they tried to assassinate one of the richest Jewish businessmen, who is also an Israeli citizen. 

In an exclusive interview with Al-Majalla magazine, Hazem Saeed, a researcher at the European Center for Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, said that Israel is determined to thwart Iran’s efforts to reach nuclear weapons, and at any cost, the Israeli pressures were clear on the American administration as well, and this means that Iran, in any case, it would be better if it reached an agreement on the nuclear file or not, then it will not be able to obtain nuclear weapons. In parallel, Israel will escalate its intelligence operations inside Iran by carrying out assassinations against the leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iranian energy scientists. 

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Israel increases pressure on Iran

This is Israel’s stated policy, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett saying that Israel will go after the Iranian “octopus” head, rather than just fight tentacles. However, Israel is still fighting the claws.

And recently, air raids were launched on Damascus International Airport, which the Syrian media blamed on Israel. But is this a successful strategy? Was the last strike on Damascus airport a “losing blow”? The Syrian regime has already repaired damaged airport runways. This means that Syria is ready to return to normal, but at the same time, this means, in essence, that Syria remains an area open to Israeli strikes. 

Iran’s security concept: keeping its enemies away from its borders

The basic Iranian security concept is to keep its opponents as far away from its borders as possible. Indeed, Iran’s use of the “proxy model”, under which it relies on extremist groups, and non-Iranian militias as part of its “forward defense” strategy. Accordingly, Tehran is making great efforts to keep Israel and the United States from being able to directly threaten its borders. One of its most important efforts in this regard is to build a “ring of fire” that surrounds Israel, through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas and the “Islamic Jihad” in Gaza. Practically.  

During the month of March 2022, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at Iraq, which it claimed was an Israeli target. Now, officials say, the attack was in response to a previously secret Israeli airstrike on an Iranian drone factory. The mutual strikes represent a worrying escalation in the long shadow war between Israel and Iran, with both sides pushing the boundaries of a conflict that has also confused the United States and now Iraq. 

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The attack on Iran’s drone facility is part of Israel’s new approach to countering Iran’s growing drone program, a tacit admission that it is easier to destroy a drone preemptively than to intercept it en route. Iranian drones have been deployed in several attacks against Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and last October, on a US base in Syria, according to intelligence officials. 

The missile strike In Erbil, Iraq, reflects a more aggressive policy to respond to Israeli attacks and a more overt one: Unlike most previous attacks attributed to Iran, Iran, and not one of its proxies, immediately claimed responsibility for this, a sign of confidence that he could do It with impunity. Iran’s use of ballistic missiles rather than missiles or drones has also been a dangerous escalation. 

“We are applying the octopus principle,” says Naftali Bennett, prime minister of Israel. “We no longer target tentacles, with Iranian proxies: we have created a new equation by targeting the head.” Speaking to The Economist after nearly a year in office, he explains how Israel and its secret services are raising the stakes in the shadow war they fought with Iran nearly four decades ago. In the past, Israel directed its attacks on Iran almost exclusively for its nuclear program and associated scientists. When Israel struck other Iranian targets, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force, it tended to do so in third countries, such as Syria. 

The expansion of the electronic war between Israel and Iran

Mutual cyberattacks, so far, can be described as having limited impact, especially those targeting the infrastructures of both countries. However, both parties have the ability and willingness, especially Israel, to inflict more serious damage and economic damage with increasing Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. 

It became known that Israel and Iran were targeting each other on a number of fronts, including Israeli attacks on Iranian proxies in Syria and attacks on shipping in the Gulf, along with the use of electronic warfare. The covert nature of cyber warfare makes it impossible to determine who is responsible for particular attacks. Neither government publicly acknowledges its role, attacks are often carried out by proxy groups that may or may not be affiliated with the government, and third parties are often believed to be responsible for at least some of the attacks. However, there has been a marked an increase in cyber-attacks targeting civilians in recent months. 

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This was part of what the Israeli government called the “octopus doctrine,” a new and risky expansion of its campaign against Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities. For nearly a decade, Israel has made no secret of its campaign of air strikes, primarily inside Syria, against Iranian-allied militias and arms shipments. But now, Israeli officials are explicitly describing a “new defensive strategy,” as one called it, targeting the “head” of the octopus in Iran, not just its claws across the region in places like Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq. 


Israel and Iran have been engaged in a largely clandestine war for many years, keeping their operations brief and limited, albeit not completely secretive, at least undeniably, in an effort to prevent a direct, large-scale war that neither side wants. But as the latest blows show, each side is willing to test those limits. 

Iran has managed to build strategic capabilities near Israel’s borders, but it seems that these Iranian endeavors have eroded significantly in recent times. From Tehran’s point of view, a series of events in recent years, and more so in the past year 2021, have allowed Israel to significantly expand its foothold near Iran’s borders, a development that has caused great concern to the Iranian leadership. 

It appears that the shadow war that Israel and Iran have fought at varying levels for the number of years has expanded into a new arena as the two countries seem to be increasingly pursuing cyber attacks on civilian targets. 

The ongoing war between Israel and Iran across the Middle East has come out of the shadows. But now, against the backdrop of several suspected Israeli attacks inside Iran itself, the deadly conflict threatens to escalate — possibly outside the region. 

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It is expected that the espionage and intelligence wars between Israel and Iran will witness an expansion, and it is likely that Iran will maintain its strategy, by moving the confrontation outside its territory. Here we are talking about militias in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and other regions, not to mention that Turkey and Azerbaijan are among the arenas likely to witness more activities of Iranian intelligence. 


The writer is a graduate of military science and is based in the Kurdistan region. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.