Is a New Chapter Beginning in the Tussle Between Iran and Israel?

The last decade has seen the assassinations of several Iranians involved in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear and missile programs. Now, it seems, a series of less marked “suspicious deaths” are following them. Late on Sunday, June 12, and then the next day, Iranian state media reported that two men working in tthe aerospace industry had been killed in separate incidents. The circumstances of their deaths, however, raised more questions than answers.

 

A Strange Pattern Emerges

On Sunday, the public relations office of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Markazi province announced that an officer by the name of Ali Kamani, a member of the IRGC’s aerospace division working in Khomein, a few hundred kilometers south of Tehran, had been in a traffic accident while “on a mission”.

The announcement referred to Kamani as a “martyr”. Admittedly this might not mean much by itself, as it is usually applied to military personnel, and even some government employees, if they are killed at work.

Then early on Monday, the Defense Ministry announced that another aerospace worker named of Mohammad Abdous had also died while on a mission in Semnan, north central Iran. Semnan is the site of many operations linked to Iran’s missile program.

Some observers believe the two deaths might be connected to a new program to launch satellites into space. In March the IRGC announced it had launched a satellite called Noor-2 into orbit. There have reports of a new rocket for carrying satellites into space. In early 2019, a fire at the Iranian Space Research Center killed three scientists, around the same time as Tehran gave up on its first attempts to put satellites in space failed.

Ali Kamani was a second lieutenant and a reported 33 years old. Although he was described as an aerospace specialist, he was then young and had not served with the IRGC for a long time. If he was a victim of any kind of foul play, it would indicate a change of strategy from previous targeted attacks, that took aim at senior commanders and top scientists.

On May 25, a drone attack on the Parchin military complex near Tehran, where Iran develops missile, nuclear and drone technology, killed a young engineer called Ehsan Ghadbeigi together with a still-unnamed colleague. Iranian state media reported an “industrial accident” had occurred at the site. But American officials told the New York Times it had been hit by a drone launched from inside Iran. Later, a statement from Ministry of Defense indicated that it viewed this as an attack, not an accident.

Before this, high-level figures of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear and missile programs such as Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and Hassan Tehrani Moghadam were targeted by clear assassinations. Of late, those killed potentially in connection with the same have been younger and lower in rank. Whether or not they or their projects were targeted by Israel, as higher-level officials are thought to have been, is totally unknown.

But the deaths of these two young members of the IRGC also comes two weeks after the mysterious death of Ayoub Entezari, 35, also an aerospace engineer. His passing was first reported not by official sources but on social media. The government handed his family a certificate confirming that he was a “martyr” but then judicial authorities denied that he had been working on a government aerospace project, insisting that he was an ordinary employee of an industrial company and had died in hospital due to illness.

 

The Khomein Aerospace Base

IRGC’s announcement about the death of Ali Kamani has brought the Khomein aerospace site back into the spotlight. The announcement said he had died while “on a mission”.

On October 17, 2021, Iranian news agencies reported that a member of the IRGC named Mehdi Mokremi had been killed by armed robbers at an IRGC warehouse near Khomein. The incident, as reported by the IRGC, was difficult to believe. Why would “robbers” attack a military site? It was speculated instead that the site must be an important one and the “robbers” anything but.

Twenty days earlier, it had been reported that a fire at an IRGC “research warehouse” located west of Tehran had “martyred” two people injured a number of other employees. No details were given in the announcement.

 

A New Front in Turkey

As recent events were unfolding, the Israeli Foreign Ministry advised Israelis not to travel to Turkey and to return immediately if they were already there. On June 13, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid raised the country’s Istanbul travel advisory to the highest level because of what was said to be a threat of Iranian attempts to kill or abduct Israelis vacationing in Turkey. An Israeli security official told Reuters that Turkey had arrested several suspected “operatives” in the IRGC.

In the meantime, the Islamic Republic has promised supporters that it will avenge the death of Hassan Sayad Khodaei, an IRGC colonel who was assassinated in Tehran on May 22. The manner of this vengeance was specified as an attack on Israeli forces in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. All this is also happening while Turkey and Israel are in the process of normalizing relations. This country, then, is now also emerging as a new front in the ongoing conflict between Iran and Israel.

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