Iran blames ‘Zionists’ for killing officer, vows revenge; Israel boosts air defenses

Security officials said worried about drone or missile attacks by Tehran-backed groups in countries that border Iran; IRGC chief says Sayyad Khodaei was murdered by Israel

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

The body of a senior member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard identified as Col. Hassan Sayad Khodaei, who was assassinated in Tehran on May 22, 2022. Inset: Khodaei (Twitter/screenshot)
The body of a senior member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard identified as Col. Hassan Sayad Khodaei, who was assassinated in Tehran on May 22, 2022. Inset: Khodaei (Twitter/screenshot)

The head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Monday blamed “the Zionists” for the assassination of a senior officer in Tehran last week, vowing revenge, as Israel bolstered its air defenses amid fears of an Iranian missile or drone attack.

Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was shot five times in his car last week by two unidentified gunmen on motorbikes in the middle of Tehran. He reportedly was involved in killings and abductions outside of Iran, including attempts to target Israelis.

“The martyrs who are murdered by the Zionists are of a much higher status. God willing we will take revenge against the enemies,” Maj. Gen Hossein Salami said during a visit with Khodaei’s family. Iran had indicated that it believe Israel or the US were responsible for the killing, but had not previously directly blamed Israel.

An unnamed intelligence official told the New York Times last week that Israel told US officials it was behind the assassination. A senior Israeli MK denied this.

“The enemy pursued him from the heart of the White House and Tel Aviv for months and years, house to house and alley to alley to martyr him at some point,” Salami added, according to the semiofficial Tasnim news agency.

“The greatness of this martyr is so great that the enemy considers himself victorious with his martyrdom.”

Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces bolstered the country’s air defenses over concerns Iran could launch an attack in response to the assassination.

Security officials fear a missile or suicide drone attack by Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon and Syria, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Various air defense systems — including the Iron Dome — were placed on high alert and their deployments adjusted following the threat.

Israel has repeatedly warned that Iranian drones are a significant threat to the region — especially as Tehran arms proxy groups stationed along Israel’s borders.

An Iron Dome air defense system is seen near the Israeli border with Lebanon, on February 18, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Military officials said in March that Iran’s “UAV terror” is a new and global issue, accusing Tehran of directly attacking both military and civilian targets in the Middle East.

The IDF has confirmed it intercepted at least four Iranian drones heading for Israel or the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years. Another pair of drones heading for Israel were downed by the US Air Force in February.

The IDF believes Iran is attempting to arm all of its proxies in the region — in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen — with hundreds and even thousands of UAVs, in addition to providing military training.

An Iranian Shahed-136 drone is launched during a military exercise in Iran, December 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Earlier Monday, Israel issued an updated travel warning for Turkey amid fears of an Iranian response there to the assassination of Khodaei.

Security officials said the warnings follow “real threats to Israelis” in Turkey, which they did not specify.

“For several weeks now, and even more so since Iran blamed Israel for the death of the Revolutionary Guards officer last week, there has been growing concern in the defense establishment about Iranian attempts to harm Israeli targets around the world,” a statement from the National Security Council said.

The National Security Council said it was “sharpening” the travel warning to Turkey, stressing that the country and other nations bordering Iran pose “a high level of risk to Israelis these days.”

Mourners gather around the coffin of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodaei during a funeral procession at Imam Hussein square in the capital Tehran, on May 24, 2022. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Iranian authorities have yet to pin down suspects in the assassination, even though the incident took place in the heart of one of the most secure areas in Tehran — Mohahedin-e Eslam Street, home to other senior officials in the IRGC and its elite Quds Force.

Israel, which has not officially commented on the incident, reportedly raised the security alert level at its embassies and consulates around the world, fearing a retaliatory Iranian attack.

Khodaei’s assassination was the most high-profile killing inside Iran since the November 2020 killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

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