Cutting The Head Off The Quds Force Snake: A Warning To Iran’s Terror Master
Outgoing IDF chief of staff suggests Qasem Soleimani could be targeted for assassination
Gadi Eizenkot summed up his four-year tenure as chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces in media interviews, revealing that under his command the army struck “thousands” of Iranian targets in Syria and reiterating that the Islamic Republic remains Jerusalem’s most acute strategic threat. Asked whether Tehran has been deterred by Israel, Eizenkot responded that while the mullahs remain “a long way from achieving [their] goal” of destroying the Jewish state, they have not given up this ambition even as they “scale back” regional operations.
Perhaps most notably, the IDF chief, who steps down on Tuesday, issued a not-so-veiled threat to Qasem Soleimani, saying of the infamous commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force—which directs Tehran’s proxy wars across the Middle East—that, “he who acts against us puts himself in danger.” When queried point-blank why the Iranian terror master has not been assassinated, Eizenkot simply replied, “that’s a question.”
Any number of answers undoubtedly have been deliberated by Israel’s security brass, especially when considering the Mossad spy agency’s long history of conducting targeted killings. Nor is this a secret, with Israel’s Supreme Court in 2006 having declared the policy a legal form of self-defense.
The best-known of these instances likely is the assassination in 2008 in Damascus, attributed to both Israel and the United States, of Imad Mughniyeh, a founding member and then-second-in-command of Tehran’s Lebanon-based proxy Hizbullah. His son, Jihad, who later assumed control of the terror group’s activities in the Syrian Golan Heights, was killed in 2015 along with several Iranian commanders by Israeli air strikes near Quneitra.
Equally notable is the botched 1997 assassination attempt of Khaled Mashaal in Jordan, during which two Israeli agents were detained and Jerusalem ended up forking over the antidote to the poison administered to the future Hamas boss amid the ensuing diplomatic crisis with Amman.
According to a recent Saudi media report, incoming Israeli army chief-of-staff Aviv Kochavi previously advocated for toppling the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—by assassination if necessary—but was overruled by the security cabinet. Between 2010 and 2012, Israeli intelligence agents were implicated in Hollywood-like assassinations of at least four nuclear scientists on Iranian soil.
Nevertheless, former Mossad chief Danny Yatom believes that Eizenkot was merely speaking “in generalized terms equivalent to what other [Israeli officials] have said in the past—that no terrorist enjoys immunity. This is not a new policy and I don’t think Eizenkot meant that Soleimani needs to be cautious because he has been [marked].
“One can easily determine that Israel has different means, such as air attacks, by which to go after terrorists,” he explained to The Media Line. “It is part of [the defense doctrine] and happens from time to time. While Iran is the most threatening element that Israel has to take into consideration, Suleimani is one of many enemies and maybe not the most dangerous. But Israel still must closely follow his steps.”
Analysts have highlighted various methods that Jerusalem might employ in order to maintain plausible deniability in the event it carries out an assassination. In Suleimani’s case, this could include, for example, working with non-state actors such as the Iranian dissident MEK group, with which the Jewish state allegedly maintains close contacts.
“Theoretically speaking, if something were undertaken there would have to be absolutely no [Israeli] fingerprints for obvious reasons,” Giora Eiland, former head of the Israeli National Security Council, told The Media Line. “Even so, I am not sure that it would be a wise move as there is a distinction between terrorist organizations and countries.
“When fighting the former, targeted assassinations may be the only way to cause damage to and reduce the influence of these groups, which are often built around individuals with unique abilities. But when confronting a relatively strong state such as Iran,” he qualified, “there are usually others [in line] to replace a person in every role. [Soleimani’s demise] is therefore unlikely to dramatically limit the Iranians’ overall capacities.”
Indeed, Tehran constitutes a significant foe, a reality that observers say has factored heavily into Israel’s cost-benefit analysis of whether to “cut off the head of the snake.” If a prominent and integral figure such as Soleimani was to meet this fate, the Iranian regime would be liable to lash out in response.
“Taking someone out of the game has two [competing] dimensions, the first being the consequences,” Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, told The Media Line. “When Hizbullah secretary general Abbas al-Musawi was assassinated [in February 1992], the Iranians reacted by blowing up the Israeli embassy in [Buenos Aires], Argentina and then [two years later] the [AMIA] Jewish community center.
“The second element,” he continued, “is the degree to which the move is expected to alter the [strategic] reality. With respect to Soleimani, targeting him has probably been considered more than once and the general feeling was ‘not yet.’ For now, monitoring his actions gives Israel intelligence as well as more options later on.”
Most agree that the future will be marred by an uptick in Israel-Iran tensions—possibly leading to a full-blown conflict—given the latter’s ongoing attempt to transform Syria into a militarized forward-operating base; arm Hizbullah with advanced weaponry such as precision-guided missiles; and boost its nuclear and associated ballistic missile programs.
As the playing field changes, so too will the calculus of both sides, perhaps reaching a point at which the mantra “all options are on the table” spells trouble for the man spearheading Iran’s “war between wars” against the Jewish state.