Israel has deeply infiltrated and drastically shaken Iranian intelligence operations in recent months, a senior Iranian official told the New York Times.
The report published Wednesday cited the recent ousting of the intelligence chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the secret arrest of a senior commander accused of spying for Israel as examples of the growing levels of distrust in Iran.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president of Iran who lives in Tehran and still maintains close ties with top officials, told the newspaper that Israeli operations had seriously damaged trust within the country’s security establishment.
“The security breaches inside Iran and the vast scope of operations by Israel have really undermined our most powerful intelligence organization,” he said.
“The strength of our security has always been the bedrock of the Islamic Republic and it has been damaged in the past year,” Abtahi said, telling the newspaper that the Iranian defense establishment would now be looking for a new approach.
The report said that unnamed Iranian officials also admitted that “Israel’s spy network has infiltrated deep into the rank and file of Iran’s security circles.”
Israel has allegedly stepped up its attacks on Iran’s nuclear program in recent months.
Israeli officials told the Times that this was a deliberate tactic to expose failures by the IRGC, generating conflict between the political and defense establishments in Iran.
Iran’s decision to replace the intelligence chief of the IRGC, Hossein Taeb, who had held the position for more than 12 years, was seen as a prime example of the long-running campaign by Israel.
The Times reported that Taeb had “seemed untouchable” before a number of recent high-profile killings blamed on Israel and before the apparently foiled Iranian plan to attack Israelis in Turkey.
An unnamed adviser to the Iranian government and an individual affiliated with the IRGC both told the newspaper that Taeb had been tasked with exposing Israel’s spy network in Iran.
Israeli intelligence officials who requested anonymity told the newspaper that the thwarting by Israeli and Turkish security forces of the plot had proved the final straw for officials, who abruptly removed Taeb from his position.
But the report also said calls for Taeb to be ousted had already been voiced in the wake of increasing distrust among senior Iranian officials after a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards, Brig. Gen. Ali Nasiri, was secretly arrested amid allegations that he spied for Israel.
Iranian officials with knowledge of Nasiri’s detention said he was placed in custody earlier this month, around two months after a wave of arrests in which several dozen Iranian Defense Ministry employees were arrested on suspicion of leaking classified materials to Israel.
The report said the leaked information included the design blueprints of missiles.
Nasiri held a high-level position in the IRGC’s Protection of Information Unit, a branch of the force responsible for supervising the Guard Corps’ operations, the Times said.
His arrest had begun to rattle senior Iranian officials who already had concerns about Taeb, but the balance was tipped after Israel exposed the plot against its citizens in Turkey.
Jerusalem reportedly told Ankara that Taeb was behind the planned attacks.
Taeb was a trusted ally of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and prior to his appointment in the IRGC was notorious for his role in brutal crackdowns on protestors.
Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war but tensions have ratcheted up following a string of high-profile incidents Tehran has blamed on Jerusalem.
A number of members of the IRGC and scientists have been killed in recent weeks, with Iran often pointing the finger at Israel.
Iran reportedly suspects Israel killed two Iranian scientists several weeks ago by poisoning their food. The details of the men’s work, the circumstances of their deaths and their ties to the government remain unclear.
On June 13, Ali Kamani, a member of the Guard’s aerospace division, was killed while on a mission in Khomein in the central province of Markazi, the IRGC said in a statement, without elaborating.
Earlier in June, Colonel Ali Esmailzadeh, a commander of the IRGC’s external operations unit, the Quds Force, died “in an accident in his home,” according to state news agency IRNA.
And on May 22, Guards Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, 50, was killed outside his home in the east of the Iranian capital by attackers on motorbikes who shot him five times. State television in Iran said Khodaei was a member of the Quds Force and that he was “known” in Syria, where Iran has acknowledged deploying “military advisers.”
The IRGC described Khodaei as a “defender of the sanctuary,” a term used for those who work on behalf of the Islamic Republic in Syria or Iraq, accused “Zionists” of being behind the assassination, and vowed revenge.
And late last month, an engineer was killed and another employee injured in Iran’s Parchin military complex under unclear circumstances. The New York Times reported that the deadly explosion at the military complex was caused by quadcopter suicide drones. Iran said the man was killed by “industrial sabotage.”
There have also been a number of attacks — both physical and cyberattacks — on nuclear and industrial facilities in recent months.
Israel and Iran have for years been involved in a largely clandestine cyberwar that occasionally bubbles to the surface. Most recently, Iran’s major steel companies were hit by a cyberattack on Monday.
Israeli military correspondents, who are regularly briefed off-the-record by senior Israeli officials, hinted that Israel was directly responsible for the assault in retaliation to a suspected cyberattack that caused rocket sirens to be heard in Jerusalem and Eilat last week.
Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned Tuesday that anyone who attempts a cyberattack against Israel will “pay a price.”
“[The] approach with our enemies, especially Iran… we don’t go around wreaking havoc in Tehran — that’s never been our policy. Our policy is, if you mess with Israel, you’ll pay a price,” Bennett said at the Cyber Week conference in Tel Aviv.
Agencies and Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.