Early this week, there were two developments in Israel’s shadow war with Iran. On Sunday, October 3, reports came out that an armed Azerbaijani hit man was sent to kill Israeli businessmen in Cyprus. Israeli politicians point the finger at Iran. The next day, at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett revealed that the Mossad had recently carried out an extensive, daring operation in an attempt to obtain information on the whereabouts of Israeli aviator Ron Aradi, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in October 1986 and reportedly turned over to Iran. Despite the passage of time and the unlikely prospects that Arad is still alive, Israel continues its efforts to find out what happened to him.
The link between these two events is clear: The game Israel and Iran have played since the 1979 Islamic revolution is one of the strangest and most complex in the history of the great rivalry in the Middle East. What used to be indirect and clandestine is gradually becoming come into the public eye, becomes daring and provocative.
Iran’s reported attempt to assassinate Israeli businessmen in Cyprus marks another milestone in this game’s decline and causes alarm. Is Iran’s policy changing? Is Tehran under new president Ebrahim Raisi abandoning its signature caution and avoidance of direct military involvement?
Cyprus has been a hub for Israeli businessmen for years, living and working on the island just a short flight from home. Several deals have been made there between Israel and countries with which it does not maintain diplomatic relations to bypass diplomatic hurdles and arms export controls. Over the weekend, a small group of Israelis took off from Cyprus in Israeli Cypriot billionaire Teddy Sagi’s private jet. It appears that the mercenary had entered Cyprus from the Turkish-controlled part of the island with a Russian passport.
A foreign intelligence agency, possibly Mossad, is said to have warned Cypriot police of the impending attack. A few weeks ago, a similar incident took place in the Colombian capital, Bogota, in which two Israeli businessmen were forced to flee their homes after local authorities received a warning from intelligence agencies about plans to harm them.
According to Israeli assessments, Iran is stepping up its efforts to retaliate for several operations it has attributed to Israel, such as the November 2020 assassination of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. “On the other hand,” a leading Israeli intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “these efforts are still very amateurish and reflect the absence of any real Iranian operational infrastructure in the region. Let’s hope it stays that way.”
Iran’s operational capabilities are still low, but have policy guidelines changed? Blue and White Knesset member Ram Ben-Barak, chairman of the Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee, a former deputy Mossad director and veteran of Israeli operations against Iran’s nuclear program, told Al-Monitor that the Iranians are just as sensitive to human losses as the Israelis and therefore often use proxies to conduct their operations. Nevertheless, Ben-Barak added, Iran has become increasingly daring, the apparent work of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Raisi. Although he was a member of Bennett’s coalition government, Ben-Barak was somewhat critical of the prime minister’s decision to expose a clandestine operation on the Knesset stage. “Unlike previous prime ministers, he has not revealed any secrets or done any operational damage,” Ben-Barak stressed, “but my opinion on these matters is well known: Mossad activities must remain secret and anonymous.”
Regardless, Israel is following Iran’s evolution with increasing concern. The July 2021 drone attack on Israel-operated Mercerstraat tanker that killed two crew members, the major Iranian military exercise on the Azerbaijani border this week, the IRGC’s public and violent attacks on Kurdish militants in Iraq and the general rhetoric of top Iranian officials raise concerns that the Iranians’ well-known distaste for a public clash with Israel or other rivals is fading.
Israel sees greater chances of an open clash with Iran, though the risk is still categorized as low. But Iran’s desire to respond to reported Israeli operations appears to be growing as its own aggressive activities around the world come to light. According to former senior military intelligence officer Danny Citrinowicz, a recent guest on Al-Monitor’s “On Israel” podcast, “Iran is still arguing with Israel. Raisi’s election and strengthening the Revolutionary Guards in the decision-making process in Iran will only encourage the continuation of these attacks.” Citrinowicz added that the presidency and the IRGC are facing the situation now that former President Hassan Rouhani has left office.
This consensus likely fueled dramatic military tensions on the Iran-Azerbaijan border. Tehran is following reports of the increasing narrow tyres between Israel and Azerbaijan, which serves as a kind of peephole into developments in Iran. Israel has reportedly provided significant military aid to the Azeris in their 2020 conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijanis, for their part, were not too happy about the discovery of Iranian terror cells on their territory that apparently targeted Israeli interests there. When Azerbaijan recently announced a major joint military exercise with Turkish and Pakistani forces, Iran launched a major build-up along the border, further exacerbating tensions.
Israel does not expect the Iran-Azeri crisis to degenerate into open hostilities, but the many Iran-related fronts, frayed nerves and the replacement of Rouhani with the much more radical “executioner of Tehran”, as Bennett called him, is raising concerns in the West that Iran is becoming more determined and less fearful, which is not good news for anyone.