Hassan Sayyad Khodayari was a colonel in the Quds Force, the Guard’s foreign arm, with accusations leveled at Israeli and American intelligence.
Gunmen riding on motorcycles opened fire on a senior officer of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) outside his home, killing him in his car in the capital, Tehran.
Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was killed by five gunshots as he returned home near Mojahedin-e-Islam Street at about 4pm (11:30 GMT), reported the state news agency IRNA on Sunday.
The news agency published images showing a man slumped over in the driver’s seat of a vehicle, with blood around the collar of his blue shirt and on his upper right arm. The IRGC, the ideological arm of Iran’s military, identified Khodaei as a colonel.
It described him as a “defender of the sanctuary” – a term used to describe anyone who works on behalf of Iran in Syria or Iraq.
Khodaei was a member of the Quds Force, which is responsible for the IRGC’s foreign operations, and he reportedly served in Syria in past years.
Iran blamed the assassination on “elements linked to the global arrogance” – its term for the United States and its allies including Israel. The IRGC said it launched an investigation to identify the “aggressors”.
It was the most high profile killing inside Iran since the November 2020 murder of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020.
‘Enemies of the revolution’
Iran will avenge the killing, President Ebrahim Raisi warned on Monday.
“I insist on the serious pursuit [of the killers] by security officials, and I have no doubt that the blood of this great martyr will be avenged,” said Raisi. “There is no doubt that the hand of global arrogance can be seen in this crime.”
Iran has been a key military backer of the Syrian regime. It has sent thousands of fighters to Syria and Iraq to fight against the ISIL (ISIS) group under the Quds Force that oversees foreign operations.
Speaking from Tehran, Abas Aslani, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Middle East Strategic Studies, said “the removal of an influential IRGC figure is aimed at creating psychological operation in the country”.
“I think the timing is also very important, the government is making economic reforms that can be a potential for some protests in the country,” Aslani told Al Jazeera.
At least six Iranian scientists and academics have been killed or attacked since 2010, several by assailants riding motorcycles, in incidents believed to have targeted Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West says is aimed at producing a bomb.
Iran denies this saying its nuclear programme has peaceful purposes, and has denounced the killings of its scientists as acts of “terrorism” carried out by Western intelligence agencies and the Israeli Mossad. Israel has declined to comment on such accusations.
“This is not the first time that assassination has taken place in Tehran. There have been examples in the past. And most of the time the Israelis and Americans have been at fault,” Aslani from the Centre for Middle East Strategic Studies, said.
The killing comes at a time of uncertainty over the revival of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers after months of stalled talks.
Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, said Khodai’s assassination was meant to unsettle Tehran as tensions escalate with its arch-enemy Israel over Iran’s nuclear programme.
“Should Israel be responsible for the attack, it is a reminder of Israel’s growing reach and destabilising capacity inside Iran,” said Vakil.
In a separate development, Iran’s state TV earlier announced that members of an Israeli intelligence network had been found and arrested by the IRGC.
“Under the guidance of the Zionist regime’s intelligence service, the network attempted to steal and destroy personal and public property, kidnapping and obtaining fabricated confessions through a network of thugs,” the IRGC public relations service said in a statement.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, which oversees the national intelligence agency Mossad, declined comment on the events in Tehran.
In April, Iran’s intelligence ministry said it arrested three Mossad spies, according to a statement published by the semi-official Fars news agency.
In January 2020, General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force and architect of its regional security apparatus, was killed following a United States air raid at Baghdad’s international airport.
The White House and the Pentagon confirmed the killing of Soleimani in Iraq, saying the attack was carried out at the direction of then US President Donald Trump and was aimed at deterring future attacks allegedly being planned by Iran.