At the end of November 2020 another senior Iranian nuclear scientist was killed when a roadside bomb halted his car and machine-gun fire hit the vehicle killing veteran IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) general Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. During decades of IRGC service the 63-year-old Fakhrizadeh also managed to get several advanced scientific degrees, including a doctorate in physics. With that technical training Fakhrizadeh became a key member of the team developing nuclear weapons for Iran. His prominence in the nuclear weapons program was mentioned several times in the half-ton of secret nuclear program documents Israel stole from Iran in 2018. Those documents confirmed the key role Fakhrizadeh played in the nuclear program, something he was sanctioned for by the United States as far back as 2008. He is the fifth key member of the Iranian nuclear weapons effort to be killed since 2010. Iran accused Israel of all five killings and has been trying, without much success, to strike back. This frustration became obvious after another IRGC general, Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, was killed by an American missile in January 2020. That attacks took place in Iraq, where the Quds Force was seeking to drive all Americans out of Iraq using violence and intimidation. A year later Soleimani is still unavenged, the Americans are still in Iraq and Iran is blamed for the growing number of Iraqi civilians killed during Iranian attempts to kill Americans.
In Iran the IRGC is still seeking to regain power they lost in the 1990s. Back then an Israeli assassination campaign against Iranian agents in South America, and exposure of Iranian illegal activities in South America, Europe and elsewhere, was becoming a diplomatic liability for Iran. The Iranian radicals, largely from the IRGC were forced out of many high government jobs in order to make peace with European nations and achieve a ceasefire in the clandestine war the IRGC had been waging against Israel, and Jews worldwide, for nearly a decade. The more moderate members of the religious dictatorship also feared that the IRGC radicals would trigger another ruinous war which, given the decade long war with Iraq that Iran, by Iranian standards, lost in the 1980s, the country could not afford.
The IRGC had been created to protect the religious dictatorship, not put it in more danger. No IRGC were punished for 1990s “wet work” (assassinations) since the religious dictatorship still needed its own separate army to protect the 1980s religious revolution that mobilized the country to halt the Iraqi invasion. The Iraqi war effort, especially when a desperate Iraq was on the defensive, was financed by the Gulf Arab oil states, led by Saudi Arabia. This Arab coalition had also played a major role in ending the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990, which halted Iranian efforts to expand the power of the Shia minority in Lebanon. Iran saw itself at war with the Sunni Arabs but could not publicize, or turn the IRGC loose on, that yet. By 2020 the Gulf Arabs further enraged the Iranian government and IRGC by establishing diplomatic and trade relations with Israel, which was considered a vital ally in opposing their common enemy; Iran.
In the 1990s the Iranian leaders sensed a more dangerous enemy closer to home, the growing number or radicalized Sunni Arabs. The 1980s also saw the Russian occupation of Afghanistan ended by an army of Sunni “holy warriors” who made no secret that they considered the Shia heretics and as much an enemy as the Russian infidels (non-Moslems). The Iranians were seen as heretics by this new wave of Sunni Moslem religious extremism but were considered too dangerous to mess with, yet. These Sunni radicals were on the offensive and Shia Moslems everywhere, which Iran considered itself the protector of, were ultimately a prime target.
By 2018 the Iranian religious dictatorship still saw itself as on a Mission From God and any opposition was seen as un-Islamic and thus punishable by death. Once again, as in the 1990s, a growing number of senior Shia clerics were reluctant to sanction mass murder of fellow Iranians on religious grounds. In this case the IRGC was urging the use of lethal force against the growing number of anti-government demonstrators in Iran. But the opposition the IRGC hard liners was facing, as it did in the 1990s, proved to be useful in other ways. That meant obtaining permission to resume the overseas wet work. This was not a sudden development but one that has been developing for nearly a decade. One could see what was happening after Israel confirmed some of the clandestine actions undertaken in the 1990s. In 2013 a retired Israeli diplomat revealed that Israel had quietly tracked down and killed most of the Iranians or Iranian operatives involved in two terrorist attacks against Jews in Argentina in 1992 and 1994. The Israeli overseas intel and special operations organization (Mossad) had handled assignments like this for decades, and making this public was a way of warning the Iranians that Israel still had the edge over the IRGC in this department. Back in the 1990s the two Argentine bombings killed 114 and wounded over 200. Most of the victims were not Jews but nearly all were Argentinians. Israel had long responded to these attacks by quietly going after those responsible for the attacks and killing them. There was rarely any official admission of this activity or the results. But the terrorists did take notice.
After the 1990s, as Iran moved forward with its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs the Israelis pushed back by killing key Iranian nuclear scientists inside Iran as well as successfully sabotaging Iran efforts to produce weapons grade uranium. The IRGC wants some revenge and has had a difficult time obtaining any satisfaction.
One thing Iran did do was honor its own successful terrorists, especially those who survived the Israeli 1990s assassination program. For example, in 2009 Iran took a wanted (by Interpol) terrorist, Ahmad Vahidi, and installed him as Defense Minister. Vahidi was wanted in Argentina for involvement in a 1994 attack on a Jewish community center. Vahidi was commander of the Quds Force at the time and believed to have helped carry out other terror attacks as well. This brought him much recognition and many rewards in Iran. Vahidi served as Defense Minister until mid-2013 and continues to hold senior government positions. Vahidi has long known that the Israelis are gunning for him and takes precautions.
Iran and its professional terrorists are still active in South America. For a decade now Iran has been in touch with leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (deceased) and his successor. This led to hundreds of Iranian intelligence and special warfare (terrorism) operatives being dispatched to South America. The Argentine truck bomb attack in 1994 killed 85 Argentineans and this horrified people throughout the region but memories fade. The backlash caused Iranian diplomats and terrorism operatives to run for cover. But with Venezuela as a safe, and hospitable, base, Iranian death squads are again up and running in South America. Iran is not encouraging attacks in order to maintain its espionage networks, but wants to be ready just in case. The Venezuelan effort has been crippled by the economic collapse in Venezuela and popular opposition to the pro-Iran government.
Most of the Iranian foreign terrorist operations are handled by the Quds Force, which is an intelligence and commando operation that supports Islamic terrorism overseas and is part of the IRGC. Quds has always attracted very bright and able people, but also recruited personnel possessing a wide range of views on just what constituted an "Islamic Republic" or the proper role for the Quds Force itself. For over two decades, one of the few things Quds officers could agree on was the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Many Quds officers actually warmed to the United States in 2003 for doing the deed for them. But most Quds operatives are still dedicated to Shia Islam becoming the dominant religion on the planet. Quds Force can be found operating nearly everywhere, from South America (Venezuela) to wherever Iran has a diplomatic presence. But the big Quds operations are in southern Iraq, western Afghanistan and Gaza.
Because of the success of wet work in neighboring countries, Quds Force operatives have been turned loose to carry out assassinations in the West. Quds is at it again, accused of killing “enemies of Iran” in the Netherlands and attempting to do the same in France and Germany. Israel is believed to be the key source of information on these aborted attacks. The most recent targets have been outspoken members of Iranian minorities (Arabs and Kurds) living outside Iran and accused of responsibility for minority violence in Iran. Iran has used Hezbollah operatives more frequently, but as professional as those Lebanese operatives are, they cannot pass as Iranian diplomats and get diplomatic immunity.
This has also been the case in other parts of the world. Quds Force has long worked with the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah in its South American operations. Iran helped create Hezbollah in the 1980s and has sustained it ever since. Hezbollah has long been involved in the drug business in South America. That gives these Iran backed Islamic terrorists access to the smuggling routes that Mexican gangs use to smuggle drugs and people into the United States. Hezbollah has also been active in narcotics and people smuggling in South America's tri-border (Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil) region. For over a century this area has been a hotbed of illicit activity, and too many politicians and police commanders are on the take from gangsters there to change this.
South America, in theory, makes an excellent refuge and base for Islamic terrorists. Particularly worrisome was the cooperation between leftist rebel movements there and Islamic terrorist groups. But the leftist rebels in South America have been on the skids for over a decade and in no position to help terrorists. Islamic radicals are known to be working in the ethnic Arab communities in many Latin American countries, aided by the porous frontiers. The Islamic radicals have been able to raise some money from Latin American Arabs, often through bogus "charities." But the extent to which they have been able to recruit active supporters is harder to gauge and has apparently been unsuccessful. In some countries, such as Bolivia and Paraguay, recruiting efforts have been reported to the police, who took action. One factor hampering the Islamic radicals down there was that many of the Arab immigrants to Latin America were Christians, and those who were Moslems often became secularized, in an environment where they found very few co-religionists. In addition to this resistance the Americans and Israelis have their own intelligence networks in South America and are believed, by Iran, to be the “unnamed source” of so many tips to South American governments about Hezbollah and Quds operations especially which Iranian diplomats (with diplomatic immunity) are actually IRGC members.
Africa was seen as a promising area for Quds to make some progress but that has backfired just about everywhere. For example, Quds has long backed Polasario, a heavily armed separatist group in southern Morocco (a rare pro-Israel Arab country) that has long had sanctuaries next door in Algeria (an old friend of Iran and enemy of Morocco). Algeria was recently accused of ignoring Quds and Hezbollah efforts to ship weapons to Polasario. This is was generally seen as a hostile act as Polasario has evolved into a criminal gang that does business with local al Qaeda groups that controls most of the drug smuggling routes north and into Europe. Al Qaeda hates Shia and has a hard time doing business with Hezbollah under any circumstances (even of both groups can make a lot of money).
Further south IRGC support for the Shia minority in Nigeria went badly. By 2018 Nigerian police managed to eliminate most armed members of the Shia IMN (Islamic Movement in Nigeria). There has not been much violent activity from the Shia since 2016 when the security forces cracked down hard. There are about seven million Shia in Nigeria and since the 1980s a growing number of them have joined IMN, a group founded and quietly supported by IRGC. While relations between Shia and Sunni Moslems have generally been good in Nigeria, local Sunni radical groups like Boko Haram practice the anti-Shia attitudes so common in Sunni terror groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban. IMN always proclaimed itself a peaceful group that welcomed all Moslems but over the years it has become all Shia and a lot more militant.
Africa was provided more examples of how setting up religious schools to train fanatical Shia was no more popular than the Sunni version (long financed by Saudi Arabia). Iran made a major effort in Senegal (and Gaza) and in both cases it backfired. Afghanistan and Pakistan, both with Shia minorities under constant attacks by Sunni radicals, are handled mainly via diplomatic threats. Both nations share borders with Iran making it too easy for cross border operations, going in either direction, to take place.
Iraq has a Shia majority, one of the two Arab nations (in addition to Bahrain) to have that advantage. But in Iraq most of the Arab Shia are anti-Iran because of ethnic differences and a long history of not getting along with the dreaded “Persians.”. The Iranians are Indo-European and have more in common culturally with India and Europe than with Arabs. This is reflected in the generally good relations between Hindu majority India and Iran. The same would be true of Europe except for the fact that is where Iranian political exiles (including the ones who returned to overthrow the Iranian monarchy in the late 1970s) prefer to seek asylum and operate from. In 2018 most of the Iranian exiles in Europe are opponents of the Iranian religious dictatorship and targets for Quds assassins.
Israel has always been most dangerous to Iran for acts that got no publicity. Currently this consists of quietly providing evidence of which local Iranian diplomats were IRGC. These Iranian “diplomats” prefer to keep their IRGC affiliation secret and often succeed until the Israelis provide local governments with verifiable evidence that some Iranian diplomats have a decidedly undiplomatic job. While Israeli assassins or sabotage is greatly feared by Iran, it’s the damn intelligence leaks that hurt the most. The Israeli revelation of how Mossad stole a half-ton of Iranian top-secret documents in January 2018 and got them out of the country. literally overnight, was a rare event. Mossad could have kept quiet because Iran still insists the documents caper never took place. Iran would have preferred that Mossad had kept quiet about it, as Israel tends to do. But sometimes show and tell is the best approach and the best revenge.
Nevertheless, IRGC and Quds operatives worldwide have got their license to kill back and people are dying, just not the ones Iran wants dead.