Hunt for the assassins.

As addressed the last two weeks there are major developments both in Iraq ahead of the upcoming elections and around Syria. These developments come in the context of major rearrangements in the region, as speculations go far whether the Biden administration is ready to follow its program started with Afghanistan and leave Iraq and Syria as well, or under pressure postpones these steps. 

The negotiations between Iran and the USA started in Vienna as soon as the Biden administration took office about the nuclear deal, but these led to little result so far. Since the talks have started there is a new government in Tehran, which might be on a different account in the situation, as the previous one.

Regardless the otherwise positive prospects of these talks there is a virulent covert war between Tehran and Washington, as the Iranians show that they have not forgotten the assassinations  that shook the country and hit back severely, though much less publicized. 

That puts the current American administration in a difficult position. The White House gave many indications about its intention to follow the policy it started in Afghanistan and end the long and futile wars in the region. As we saw, there are intensive talks about a possible full withdrawal from Iraq, and there are indications that the same is not far in Syria either. In the meantime, however, there is a covert war between Tehran and Washington, which makes it difficult for Washington to carry out this policy without the appearance of buckling under pressure. An appearance surely the new leadership in Tehran would welcome, but might push Biden to postpone the next step, regardless all indications.

But just how extensive this covert war is? Can Iran really hit back hard not forgetting the promises it made for revenge, or there are only speculations and statements?

The shadow of Soleymānī and Fahrīzāde

It is relatively well known that Iran has many covert operations in the region and in a number or fronts it confronts American interests either directly, or via its allies, which are called “proxies” in the West. There were occasions, however, especially under Trump, when this war spilled over and caused painful blows to Tehran. Blows that ridiculed Iranian security capabilities and prompted response. Some of these response were well advertised with disputed results, some, however, were more painful. But where the war really spilled over for Tehran?

The first major tragedy for Iran was the American assassination against General Qāsem Soleymānī in Iraq in 3 January 2020, along with Iraqi commander Abū Mahdī al-Muhandis. Soleymānī was a distinguished general in a number of wars, but gained a legendary status fighting a covert war against Western proxies in Syria and Iraq. His loss, who was a symbol of Iranian military prowess in the region was shock to Tehran and the Iranian leadership went far to vow painful revenge. On 8 January 2020 Iran hit back severely in Iraq. Operation Martyr Soleymānī was launched shelling the ‘Ayn al-Asad Base in Iraq’s al-Anbār Province and the Erbil airbase in Iraqi Kurdistan with a large number of ballistic missiles. Both bases hosted American troops and their were the main targets. The result was heavily disputed between the two sides. Iran several times claimed major losses inflicted upon the Americans, which Washington denied, but in a number of testimonies admitted that the ‘Ayn al-Asad Base was severely hit. 

Tehran considered Operation Martyr Soleymānī a major success, and indeed it has rarely ever happened that a state openly dared to carry out a military operation against American military positions. There were a number of reasons, why in the region this action was considered theatrical and fruitless. There was no American losses, at least not officially. The major architects of General Soleymānī’s assassination were not revealed, or targeted. A number of later Western accounts suggested that Iraqi Prime Minister at the time ‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī was informed by Tehran hours before the attack, which allowed the Americans to brace themselves. This version was indirectly admitted in an otherwise scandalous interview with former Iranian Foreign Minister Ẓarīf.

Iranian General Qāsem Soleymānī

Whatever was the true extent of the response, it surely did not act as a deterrent, as on 27 November 2020 another assassination happened, this time deep inside Iran, almost in the capital. In a sophisticated operation leading Iranian nuclear and missile scientist Moḥsen Fahrīzāhe was assassinated, which was huge loss to the Iranian military and security system. Regardless of the details, Iran was ridiculed and made seem weak. Tehran immediately pointed the finger on the US and Israel, which they denied, but was seeming most probable, as the Israelis on their own, or with American cooperation had carried about a number of similar assassination within Iran against Iranian nuclear scientists. Fahrīzāhe, however, was a different level. Tehran also soon revealed shocking and somewhat fictitious looking explanations that the attack was carried out after a long planning, with sophisticated long range rifles operated via live satellite cover. So it went way beyond the “conventional” covert assassination methods, and was more characteristic of a state operated warfare. At that time little attention was given to these details and was generally regarded in the mainstream press as baseless Iranian accusations, only trying to mitigate the level of a huge security blunter.

Iranian nuclear scientist Moḥsen Fahrīzāhe

Iran eventually took a more confrontative posture, especially against Tel Aviv, which led to the “ship war”. Both sides carried out covert operations against each other’s vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. This war ended up with eventual Israeli retreat, as Tel Aviv was losing this engagement.

Thought details about Fahrīzāde’s assassination were available in the press weeks after the attack, recently mainstream media was flooded with reports confirming the Iranians’ original version. The very same day former Iranian diplomat Amīr Mūsāvī, who is a regular guest in a number of Arabic language debate programs revealed that the sophisticated mechanisms used in the assassination was shipped in from in Iraq with the help of Kurds. And this in no doubt connected to a recent operation in June when a similar attempt was foiled by the Iranian security.

Despite of that, however, there was no severe punishment by Iran, at least not in a way the general public would know.

But has Iran really let these losses unpunished? Did it really restrict its response to one unconvincing military action? As we came to see more details recently, the answer it most definitely no. Two details should be pointed out. In both attacks there was strong connection to Iraq, which is a major field of confrontation between Tehran, Washington and Tel Aviv, and right from the beginning Iran hit back to Erbil airport. A base, where similar attacks kept recurring until recently, revealing the existence of a major Mossad headquarters in the base. The other thing is that all what has been revealed in the mass media was the covert war on the grand scale. But little was shared about operations against the masterminds behind the two assassinations.

The hunt for architects

Iran proved to be much more resourceful than it was previously anticipated. An intelligence war has started after the death of Soleymānī, with remarkable results. And as we shall see, this war is still not over.

The first strike came already in January 2020. It was reported that on 27 January CIA operative Micheal D’Andrea, who was the mastermind behind the Soleymānī assassination and a number of other similar attacks in Lebanon and Syria got killed, as the plane carrying him was shot down in Afghanistan. This might seem bombastic, but the plane crash was admitted by Washington nor admitting, nor denying the fact that D’Andrea was killed. Though outlets directly linked to the White House soon ridiculed the Iranian claim, marking it look like a weak attempt to show force, no mention of D’Andrea has ever surfaced after that date about him later on. Though before he was a celebrated figure by the Trump administration.

Recently, however, new details surfaced about other retaliatory operations. On 20 September 2021, so only one day after the news about Fahrīzāde’s assassination flooded the mass media confirming the original Iranian claims The Cradle, a West Asia oriented military magazine published a report saying that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC -Pāsdārān) managed to assassinate two senior commanders, an American and an Israeli responsibility for the aforementioned assassinations.

The report cites a senior official in the Axis of Resistance saying it has been confirmed that the Pāsdārān managed to assassinate in Irbīl two officers, who are directly connected to the assassinations against General Soleymānī and scientist Fahrīzāde. They are US Lieutenant Colonel James C. Willis of the Red Horse Unit, and Israeli Colonel Sharon Asman of the Nahal Brigade. The source quoted is not only anonymous, but also somewhat puzzling, as it is not stated he would be a Pāsdārān officer, or even member, nor even that he would be Iranian. The term “Axis of Resistance” could indicate Iraqi (more likely), Syrian, Yemeni, Lebanese, or even Palestinian source, though the latter ones are much less likely.

US Lt. Col. James C. Willis (Source: Air Force Times)
Israeli Col. Sharon Asman (Source: Times of Israel)

According to The Cradle both of these officers served in units giving logistical and tactical support to covert operations in the region, especially against and within Iran, and both of them had vital roles in planning the aforementioned assassinations. According to this version both of them were killed in an operation against the military base at the Irbīl airport, which indeed came under attack several times since the death of General Soleymānī. The most notable ones came first in Operation Marty Soleymānī, than again in February 2021, in April 2021, in July 2021, and last on 11 September. Meaning that it is a frequently attacked target both with missiles and explosive filled drones, and after the last attack it was pointed out by certain sources that the prime target is a Mossad operation center in the base.

It should be pointed out that both of these deaths had been confirmed by their respective leaderships. Though putting them in completely different light. Willis’ death was dated by the US Military to 26 July. The details given are different from the claim of the Cradle, stating that he died in a “noncombat-related incident” still under investigation in the al-‘Udayd Base in Qatar. However, The Cradle pointed out that Willis’ unit, the 557th Expeditionary Red Horse Squadron was not stationed in Qatar and this scenario is not matching the specifics of the unit, suggesting a coverup. According to the US Military this unit “provides civil engineering with rapid response capabilities to conduct operations in remote, high threat environments”, which is indeed inconsistent to with al-‘Udayd. The coverup is only supported by the suspicious details given in the “official version.

Israeli Colonel Sharon Asman, who was described by Prime Minister Bennett as “one of our best” was also confirmed dead on 1 July 2021 by the Israeli media only days after assuming his new position on 28 June. According to the Israeli sources Asman, who had fought both in Lebanon and in Gaza was the newly appointed commander of the 933rd Nahal Brigade, a special service unit of the Israeli infantry. By the same source Colonel Asman simply collapsed in a routine physical training and died suddenly within Israel. However, the lengthy eulogies both by the Israeli political and military leadership puts this in a rather suspicious context.

It is indeed hard to know which version is true, though both “official” explanations by their own sides are vague and suspicious. However, unlike with D’Andrea’s case, here both deaths are confirmed and strangely put very close to each other even by the “official” versions. And they both died at a time, when the Irbīl base came under frequent attacks, while they were serving commanding positions in logistical providing special service units.

An unfolding new doctrine

The report by The Cradle gives out a scenario since the death of General Soleymānī, which in many details can be independently confirmed. Though this report does not include the alleged operation against D’Andrea, claims that the current new secret war started on very different terms after the assassination of General Soleymānī. A specific retaliation operation started, where Operation Marty Soleymānī was just the official part showing force somewhat. However, the true response came soon after. The operation against D’Andrea could have been the first success.

Attacks between Iran and Israel against each other’s ships on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. In early April 2021 Mossad hit Iranian vessel Sarvīz, a civilian ship officially providing support for anti-piracy operations, but believed to be an asset helping the operations of Sanaa. It was a major hit. Iran managed to hit back severely in June against an Israeli cargo vessel close to Oman. Altogether in this “ship war” 12 Iranian and 5 Israeli vessels were attacked, while both sides managed to hit highly sensitive targets. Though the assassination against Fahrīzāde came within this context as part of the Israel operations, eventually even their own experts called for deescalation. As some 80% of the Israeli trade comes via sea, the war had the potential to spiral out to a state, where Israel would have a hard accept the losses.

In April 2021 a cyber attack happened against the Iranian nuclear facility Natanẓ, one of the most important sites of the Iranian nuclear program. That time the Iranians directly linked the attack to a Mossad operation, which was soon confirmed by the Israeli media as well. The retaliation in Irbīl – if indeed – probably as a direct answer to that.

It can be argued that the Iranian losses are higher and now the “ship war” seem to have entered into a calmer state, so Iran could not “keep up the heat”. However, several notions are remarkable. First of all, it is highly probable from these latest details that Iran could hit back very severely and not only against Israeli, but also American targets. Presuming it is true that would not only suggest determination and military prowess, but sophisticated intelligence capabilities, since these latest allegedly hits are not random targets, but directly connected to General Soleymānī. It is also noteworthy that these informations are not coming – at least not directly – from Iranian sources, but on 21 September Iranian state owned channel Press Tv reported on it, which can be attributed as a semi-official acknowledgment.

Timing here is also a telling detail. These informations, thought probably happened some time in June, or early July only came out days after a massive media campaign revealing “new details” about the assassination against Fahrīzāde. However, there were practically nothing new in these reports compared to the news a year before, suggesting a media campaign before news on the Iranian retaliation became voiced. Otherwise, why would that be important to bring up news about this after a year, and why at the same time a leading Iranian analysts would talk about Kurdish involvement in Fahrīzāde’s assassination? Erbil in Kurdistan, and probably that is not a coincidence that on 20 September 2021 Pāsdārān leveled four Kurdish military headquarters.

Given the fact that now Iran managed to deliver two oil carriers to Syria to help Lebanon, those ships were given special emphasis in the context of the tension between Israel and the Axis of Resistance and that these ships were not harmed in any way, we can say that Tehran at least managed to keep a balance. It clearly does not play an inferior role.

Tension is growing about the upcoming Iraqi elections, which will have a huge impact on the country’s future, and on the American presence both in Iraq and Syria. This covert war is highly connected to this matter, but not confined to it. And will surely have its never chapters in the context of the Iraqi elections, and the upcoming Syrian-Russian operation in Idlib.