What are Iran’s options after the IRGC assassination? – analysis

Written by on May 24, 2022

In the wake of the broad daylight killing of key Iranian IRGC operative Colonel Hassan Sayad Khodayari, the Iranian regime has been very public about the killing, blasting out photos of the scene and vowing some kind of retaliation. The question this raises is this: how will Iran actually retaliate and will it be to a greater extent than its usual antics?

Iran’s problem

The problem for the regime is the more of these high-profile assassinations it endures, the more it admits it is losing, the harder it becomes to ever properly respond and, in its view “even the playing field.” 

The reports of the assassination point to the removal of a key individual from the field who may have been behind threats to Israelis and Jews abroad and made connections to reports in foreign media in recent months about threats to Israelis in Turkey and Cyprus.

The drone war

Family members of Colonel Sayad Khodai, a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, weep over his body in his car after he was reportedly shot by two assailants in Tehran, Iran, May 22, 2022. (credit: IRGC/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS)

Khodayari may have even been linked to threats that are increasing from Iran’s drone program.

Since 2018, Iran has expanded its drone threat to Israel and to other countries in the region, including, recently two drones launched by Iran in February 2022, in February 2018, in March and May of 2021, among others. Iran has been trying to use drones to strike Israel. 

Iran has vowed to find out who was responsible for the killing of the IRGC colonel. The IRGC has vowed to “take revenge.” These vows for vengeance mean that Iran will find some way to operate its ongoing shadow war against Israel. It knows that it must at least pretend to have retaliated in some fashion because otherwise, it appears completely vulnerable.  

But why drones?

Drones are Iran’s weapon of choice today because they are unmanned and Iran doesn’t have to sacrifice military personnel.

However, this doesn’t always work. In August of 2018, Iran encouraged Hezbollah to move drones to an area near the Golan. The Hezbollah drone team was neutralized.

In addition, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has increasingly warned of the drone threat, including shining a spotlight on new drone centers in Iran where the threat originates and also pointing out how Iran traffics in drone technology and trains proxies in drones.

Across the sea, the US Congress is seeking to highlight the Iran drone threat as Israel, the US, UAE and others are working on counter-drone or what is known as counter-UAS technology. This can include drones that down drones, the use of rockets, lasers, gun sights and radars, as well as jamming technology.

Iran has basically been poking at Israel and what it is finding is that Israel is very aware of the emerging threat and prepared to confront it with global partners.  

What can Iran do?

This leaves Iran with other options.

It has recently targeted the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq with ballistic missiles. This attack, which Iran claimed responsibility for, targeted a site that Iran claimed was linked to Israel near Erbil.

Iran has long believed that the autonomous Kurdistan Region was closer to Israel than Iran would like it to be. It has worked sometimes to divide or undermine the region. The region is among Iraq’s most stable, successful, safe, secure and wealthy. Iran needs the Kurdistan region for trade and other reasons. But it also thinks that Israel may have a presence there and has alleged via state and pro-government media that “Mossad” or Israeli or “Zionist” assets are in Iraq.  

As such, Iran has threatened, in the wake of the recent assassination, to strike at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This may be bluster, but it is a credible threat because Iran has used Shi’ite militias in the Nineveh plains to target oil facilities near Kalak and other sites in the past, including a Turkish base at Bashiqa. Iran is willing to do something to respond, even if it means attacking a target that can’t fight back so that Iran can pretend it “did something.” 

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