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Oct 4, 2013 | 21:05 GMT

6 mins read

Iran: A Mysterious High-Level Killing

Iran: A Mysterious High-Level Killing
(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

For the second day in a row, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has denied that the recent death of Mojtaba Ahmadi, an Iranian allegedly working under a cyberwarfare unit linked to the corps, was an assassination. The murky details surrounding Ahmadi's death raise many more questions than answers, but the information released so far does not appear to support widespread speculation that this was either an Israeli-orchestrated operation or the result of an IRGC power struggle amid a developing U.S.-Iranian dialogue.

Mojtaba Ahmadi was found dead Oct. 2 in a forested area near his home in the town of Karaj, northwest of Tehran. An eyewitness at the scene of the police investigation told Alborz news agency, a regional media outlet based in northwestern Iran, that Ahmadi had two bullet wounds in his chest, suggesting he was shot at close range. The local police chief also told Alborz that two motorcycles were seeing fleeing the scene. Footage of Ahmadi's funeral procession was shown on local television and members of his cyberwarfare unit offered condolences on a Facebook page.

Adding to the confusion surrounding his death, reports surfaced Oct. 4 claiming that a largely exile-based Iranian monarchist group called Soldiers of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran had claimed responsibility for the murder. Sharif, the IRGC official who denied Ahmadi's death was an assassination, also dismissed these claims, saying the group "has nothing to do with assassination whatsoever, and this group intends to use this case in its favor." The group's stated goal is to overthrow the clerics and restore the monarchy in Iran through a series of attacks on the regime in what it calls Operation Tondar, the Persian word for thunder. The group claimed a 2008 bombing at a mosque in Shiraz, but those links were never proven. Two of the group's members were also executed following the 2009 post-election unrest for alleged anti-regime activities. The organization's monarchism is more in line with the ambitions of pockets of the Iranian diaspora in the West than Iran's domestic opposition, and the organization has not demonstrated serious militant capabilities.

While it is clear that Ahmadi died under mysterious circumstances, the IRGC has avoided terming his death an assassination. A headline Oct. 3 from Sepah news agency, a mouthpiece for the IRGC, read: "Denial of news reports of the assassination of one of IRGC's officials." Without naming Ahmadi specifically, the report said, "In the wake of a horrific incident involving one of the IRGC officials...the matter is being investigated and the main reason of the event and the motive of the attacker have not been specified." IRGC spokesman Ramazan Sharif then told Iranian Student News Agency on Oct. 4 that while the death of a member of the "Karaj Corps" has "fueled suspicions from the very beginning...that it was an assassination...the investigation made clear it was not an assassination" and the police are continuing their investigation.

It is highly notable that Iranian officials, both political leaders and IRGC, are trying to downplay the incident. By not terming the death an assassination, the Iranian regime wants to give the impression that the incident was not politically motivated. At the same time, no official statements blaming the Israeli Mossad have been made so far, in contrast to the Iranian reaction to previous assassinations of scientists linked to Iran's nuclear program.

Israel has never outright claimed an assassination in Iran but has coyly suggested in previous statements that it was pleased with the outcome. Those statements would indirectly convey a message that Israel had covert reach into Iran to sabotage the country's nuclear program, with the possible help of operatives belonging to local militant organizations such as Mujahideen-e-Khalq. This time, however, Israel has deliberately distanced itself from the incident. Former Shin Bet intelligence chief and current Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri said on Israel Radio on Oct. 4 that "The fact that this or that leading Iranian nuclear or cyber figure is killed did not mean that Israel was necessarily involved." He added, "Many of these events are the consequence of internal disputes in Iran," and that while the deaths of such figures can sometimes have an impact, "There are always replacements...and such acts do not always cause a slowing or a reduction" of the threat posed by Iran.

Israel is deeply unnerved by the developing dialogue between the United States and Iran and is highly skeptical that this negotiation will lead to the verifiable containment of an Iranian nuclear threat. Israel therefore has an incentive to try to derail the talks, but carrying out an assassination at this early stage of the negotiation would risk seriously damaging Israel's position vis-a-vis the United States. Israel simply cannot afford to alienate Washington when it still lacks the ability to independently attack Iran's nuclear program. So far, interactions between the United States and Israel do not suggest that the United States is holding Israel responsible for the death of Ahmadi.

There are also factions within Iran that oppose Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's outreach to the United States. The IRGC in particular is the entity to watch inside Iran for attempts to derail Rouhani's strategy as the organization seeks to protect the economic assets and political influence it has developed during the sanctions regime. This concern is what drove the supreme leader and Rouhani to publicly warn the IRGC against interfering in this political strategy, with a promise that the IRGC would not see its economic interests threatened. Still, factions within the IRGC are uneasy over the talks, and the possibility that assassinations and other forms of intimidation can occur in Iran remains as the negotiations progress. However, Ahmadi does not appear to be a likely target in an internal IRGC power struggle. He is not a high-profile, politicized or controversial figure whose death would send a message to others either supporting or resisting the negotiation. Nor does Ahmadi appear to be a vital asset to the IRGC's core operations.

The murkiness surrounding Ahmadi's death leaves much to be explained, but so far, his death does not appear to fit neatly into a theory of foreign sabotage or internal power struggles. His death may well have been linked to a personal dispute at a politically sensitive time, though it is still too early to draw conclusions either way. What is clear, however, is that the Iranian clerical regime and IRGC is coordinated enough to downplay the incident overall and deny a political motive. Had this been a manifestation of an internal power struggle, we would likely be seeing more visible signs of conflict than this level of coordination. At the very least, this suggests enough political coherence to preserve the negotiation with the United States for now.

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