Much like its Israeli nemesis, Iran relied on assassinations to get its way
Much has been said about Iran’s reliance on proxy wars as a foreign policy tool. Less reported on is Tehran’s use of assassination campaigns to crack down on political rivals and used, in recent weeks, to fend off Iranian Kurdish nationalists in Iraq.
Early in March, Salah Rahmani, a veteran peshmerga commander with the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), was injured in a bomb blast in Binaslawa in Iraqi Kurdistan, Al-Monitor reported. Rahmani was known for his years of struggle against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Still, Al-Monitor said, on March 7 an offshoot of the KDPI announced that one of its senior commanders, Qader Qaderi, was killed in the Iraqi Sulaimaniyah province.
Journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg said Tehran’s targeting of Kurdish Iranians in Iraq falls within a tit-for-tat covert war.
Iraq is not alone on the scene of sanctioned killings. Last August, Tajik state television showed a documentary produced by the Ministry of Interior that accused Iran of assassinating high-profile public figures on Tajik soil during and after the civil war of the 1990s. In November, Ahmad Mola Nissi, leader of a faction of Ahwazi Arab separatists, was killed outside his home in The Hague.
The Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre said that, since 1979, high-level officials in Iran have been linked to at least 162 extrajudicial killings of the regime’s political opponents around the globe, a number not independently confirmed.
The figure could be higher. Fouad Khaki Beygi, a KDPI member, told Al-Monitor that 289 members and cadres of various opposition groups, including 153 from the KDPI, were assassinated by Iran in the 1980s and 1990s.
Tehran’s assassination campaign has been used by its proxies elsewhere. In Lebanon, Hezbollah members have been implicated in the 2005 killing of former
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Five members of the militant group are on trial at the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon for that bomb attack.
Hariri’s assassination was followed by nearly a dozen killings and attempted assassinations, including head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) intelligence branch Wissam Hassan, journalist Samir Kassir, MP Gebran Tueni and ISF officer Wissam Eid, who is believed to have uncovered a Hezbollah network during his investigation into Hariri’s death.
Iran’s reliance on sanctioned killings seems to have been pulled out of the playbook of none other than its Israeli nemesis. The Hoover Institution cites the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics as an example. Israeli special services tracked down and killed each of the Palestinians who took part in it.
More recently, Israel targeted Palestinian leaders and Hezbollah figures, including the notorious commander Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in Damascus in 2008. Ronen Bergman, who wrote “Rise and Kill First,” the most authoritative history of Israel’s targeted killings, estimates that Israel and its pre-state paramilitary organisations have assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world, conducting some 2,300 targeted killing operations.
The effectiveness of sanctioned assassinations by Iran is ultimately linked to objectives it wants to achieve, ranging from tactical goals, depletion of talent in enemy ranks or provoking large-scale political and diplomatic changes in a given country. Iran appears to have succeeded on all the three levels.
Killing KDPI figures allows Iran to push back against the organisation’s covert struggle against Tehran. “The KDPI is increasing armed activity in Iran, which is responding by assassination of Iranian Kurdish leaders,” said van Wilgenburg. The assassinations of Lebanese Kassir and Tueni, prominent figures of the March 14 movement hostile to Hezbollah and its ally Syria, resulted in the fragmentation of the movement, nipping in the bud any opposition to Iran’s agenda. The latter killings deprived Iran’s and Syria’s enemy of the talents of uniquely skilled charismatic individuals who were capable of mobilising large popular bases.
The assassination of Hariri yielded much more significant results. The killing led to Iranian hegemony over the country, consolidated Hezbollah’s hold over the system and triggered a change in the balance of power that basically provided the movement with free reign over defence and foreign policy dossiers.
The Lebanese example has shown that assassination campaigns spread fear and force political rivals into coercion and paralysis. Undoubtedly, this foreign policy tool has been astutely used by Iran. Thanks to assassinations, Tehran has single-handedly promoted its regional interests without resorting to military intervention and wide-scale violence, too costly and destabilising to countries it considers as its direct backyard.