No Israel is Not Behind Raisi’s Death

Ebrahim Raisi's crash: Neither Israel's political leaders nor agencies like the Mossad would dare consider assassinating a foreign leader, not even of an enemy state like Iran

4 mins read
Raisi [Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP]

by Yossi Melman

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash Sunday excited Israeli conspiracy theorists. Self-proclaimed pundits lacking the slightest clue, as well as lawmakers such as Likud firebrand Tally Gotliv, strove for hours to involve Israel in the accident, dropping hints as if they were insiders privy to state secrets.

But anyone who engages in or studies Iranian-Israeli relations and regional strategic issues knew that this was almost certainly an accident; Israel wasn’t involved, let alone did it have agents sabotage the helicopter. After all, the Western sanctions on Iran, especially the arms embargo that also makes it difficult to obtain spare parts, have left the maintenance level of Iran’s aircraft in an atrocious state. So Iran suffers a lot of aviation accidents.

Neither the Israeli government nor defense officials would consider assassinating a national leader, not even the leader of an enemy state like Iran. Raisi had just wound up a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijan is an Israeli strategic ally, though that hasn’t stopped it from maintaining reasonable relations with the Islamic Republic.

Israel is a major supplier of arms to Azerbaijan. Aliyev himself admitted at a press conference in 2017, after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Baku, that his country had bought $5 billion worth of arms from Israel. Since then, defense-related trade between Israel and Azerbaijan has almost doubled.

According to several reports in the past, Azerbaijan serves as a base for the Mossad to operate in Iran and collect information there. According to previous Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, Mossad agents – not necessarily Israelis – operate on Iranian soil. In one mission, Iran’s nuclear archive was stolen from Tehran and transported to Israel through Azerbaijan.

It’s clear to everyone that if Raisi had fallen victim to an assassination, the main suspect would be Israel, which would embarrass Aliyev and badly hurt Israel’s relations with its ally in the Caucasus.

Fantasies of vengeance

Also, Israeli intelligence agencies are not of the habit of proposing the assassination of national leaders. The Mossad and the wider security establishment have no clear doctrine for when, how and under what circumstances an enemy may be assassinated. That was also the conclusion of a report by a security cabinet subcommittee that discussed the botched attempt to kill Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Amman, Jordan, in 1997.

Defense officials also know that even if the temptation is great, the desire for vengeance is strong, the intelligence exists and the mission is feasible, the assassination of a national leader could boomerang. Other countries’ spy agencies, unlike terror organizations that have planned to murder Israeli leaders such as Prime Minister Golda Meir, could retaliate and go after Israel’s leaders today.

But there are exceptions. Late in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, voices arose in Israeli intelligence, led by senior intelligence officer Avraham Dar, to set off a truck bomb near a stage to deter Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was considered a dangerous enemy of Israel. Nothing came of the notion.

In 1991 there was a similar plan to assassinate Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The idea was to send elite Sayeret Matkal commandos to the inauguration of a bridge over the Tigris River; the troops would kill the dictator with a missile. But during training for the mission at the Tze’elim base in southern Israel, tragedy struck when five commandos were killed by friendly fire, a missile intended to simulate the assassination.

The purpose back then was revenge after Saddam had threatened to attack Israel with missiles carrying chemical warheads. Ultimately during the Gulf War early that year, Iraq fired “only” 40 conventional Scud missiles; three Israelis were killed by missile strikes and 74 died after suffering heart attacks.

Dozens of buildings were damaged in the Tel Aviv area and Haifa. One missile with a concrete warhead, apparently targeting the Dimona nuclear plant, fell on open ground near the city of Arad nearby.

It was the first time since 1948 that the Israeli home front had suffered attacks by the enemy, and the desire to punish Saddam – with the idea to revitalize Israeli deterrence – was immense. But even if the training exercise had come off, it’s far from certain that Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would have approved this dangerous mission.

Indeed, from time to time, somebody in military or intelligence circles toys with the idea of harming another nation’s leader. But any such notions are blocked even before they approach the discussion stage.

The successor

The death of Raisi, aka “the Butcher of Tehran” because of his role in executing tens of thousands of political prisoners and regime opponents, is no loss to humanity. It’s doubtful whether anybody in the West is mourning the death of the president who spearheaded such an extremist line against the United States and the wider West, especially Israel.

But any Iran expert in academia, the Mossad or other Israeli intelligence agencies knows that the Iranian president’s powers are limited mainly to economic and domestic affairs. His influence over foreign policy and defense are curtailed.

The place where the rial stops on all matters, especially issues of strategic importance, is the desk of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, aided by his advisers and the Revolutionary Guards‘ commanders. Khamenei has already stated that Iranian policy won’t be changing after Raisi’s demise. Israeli officials also realize that the regime, which has been trying to surround Israel with a ring of fire on all fronts, won’t be changing policy.

The only upside for Israel and the wider West is that Raisi was a leading candidate to succeed Khamenei, whose poor health has been the subject of rumors for many years. The second candidate is Mojtaba Khamenei, 55, the supreme leader’s son. He’s among the leaders of the Basij militia under the Revolutionary Guards, with the role of maintaining law and order and violently suppressing opponents and public protests.

Khamenei and his aides are deliberating whether to let the son succeed his father, which would turn Iran into a single family’s fief. That would return Iran to what it was before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a hereditary monarchy where the scepter passes from father to son. That would make the public hate the regime all the more.

This analysis was originally published in Israeli’s daily Haaretz

SLG Syndication

SLG Syndication is committed to aggregating excerpts from news published by international news agencies and key insights on contemporary issues published by think tanks. Our aim is to facilitate the expansion of its reach while giving due credit to the original source.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog