Israeli scientists have reportedly been warned that they could be at risk of assassination after a top Iranian nuclear scientist was killed last week.
Experts and former senior staff of the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center have been advised to take precautions, The Jerusalem Post reported on Friday, citing Hebrew-language outlet Kan News.
A former employee was reportedly told to vary his routes regularly and be alert to unexpected packages or unusual behaviour.
This came after Israeli security officials warned the scientist that his online activities and social media presence could be being monitored by Iran, according to Kan News.
Iran has vowed to seek revenge for the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was shot in Damavand, a city east of Tehran, on November 27.
Fakhrizadeh had been a brigadier in Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and in the 2000s, played a key role in the country’s nuclear programme.
Iran has accused long-time foe Israel of masterminding the attack and has threatened to hit Israeli targets in response.
Israel is known to have conducted the assassinations outside of its own territory of individuals it perceives to be a threat – including other Iranian scientists – but rarely acknowledges any such incident.
Israel has not publicly commented on Fakhrizadeh’s death, fuelling Iranian suspicions that the country is responsible.
In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned Fakhrizadeh in a press conference, telling those in attendance to ‘remember that name’.
Israel has long accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge it denies.
According to The Jerusalem Post, the Israeli military and defence establishment have increased intelligence collection related to the country’s tense northern borders with Lebanon and Syria.
Both countries have poor relations with Israel and are home to Shia groups aligned with the Iranian state.
On Thursday, the Israeli government also urged its citizens to avoid travel to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, citing threats of Iranian attacks. The government has also beefed up security at embassies around the world.
In recent months, Israel has signed agreements establishing diplomatic relations with the Gulf Arab states of the UAE and Bahrain – its first normalisation deals with Arab countries in a quarter century.
The agreements, brokered by the Trump administration, have generated widespread excitement in Israel, and thousands of Israeli tourists are scheduled to travel to the UAE for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah this month.
However that might now change with the travel warning, which also advised against trips to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, the Kurdish area of Iraq and Africa.
Yoel Guzansky told the Associated Press that while Israel is well prepared to deal with threats from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza – which is ruled by Hamas, a group that also has ties to Iran – safeguarding citizens in countries like the UAE would be more difficult as Israeli’s will be conspicuous and spread out across many hotels, restaurants and tourist sites.
‘This is going to be a nightmare, and I really hope that both governments, UAE and Israel, are coordinating and doing the best they can to safeguard those Israelis,’ said the former Israeli counterterrorism official who is now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
‘I’m really worried that that something might happen, and especially now because of the context of Fakhrizadeh, because Iran is really looking for revenge,’ he added, speaking before the travel advisory was issued.
The Israel Airports Authority estimated that about 25,000 Israelis will fly to the UAE this month on the five airlines now plying the route between Tel Aviv and the Gulf state’s airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Celebrities, entrepreneurs and tourists already have been flocking to Dubai.
With the coronavirus appearing to be under control in the UAE, it is one of the few quarantine-free travel options for Israelis during the coming Hanukkah holiday vacation, adding to its appeal. Israel this week also signed a tourism agreement with Bahrain.
Israeli’s concerns could be well-founded as Iran and its proxies have targeted Israeli tourists and Jewish communities in the past.
Agents of the Lebanese group Hezbollah bombed a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012, killing six and wounding dozens more. That year, Israel also accused Iran of being behind attacks targeting Israeli diplomats in Thailand and India.
Iran and Hezbollah also bombed the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, claiming the lives of scores of civilians.
Concerns for the safety of Israelis in Dubai also is not without precedent. In 2000, an Israeli ex-colonel was kidnapped by Iranian proxy Hezbollah and held captive in Lebanon until he was released in a prisoner exchange in 2004.
Today, Dubai, famous for its glittering shopping malls, ultra-modern skyscrapers and nightlife, is a crossroads for travellers from around the world, including many nations that do not have relations with Israel.
Iran maintains a major presence in Dubai, due to historical and current trade ties, and Dubai is believed to be a major station for Iranian intelligence services. The family of a California-based member of an Iranian militant opposition group in exile says he was abducted by Iran while staying in Dubai just a few months ago.
In a possible sign of Emirati security concerns, travel agencies in countries across the Middle East and Africa say the UAE has temporarily halted issuing new visas to their citizens.
With tens of thousands of Iranians working or doing business in the UAE, Iran is also among the countries facing the visa restrictions.
Israel had already had a travel warning in place advising citizens against nonessential travel to the UAE.
Similar ‘basic concrete threat’ advisories are in place for visiting other Arab states with which Israel has peace treaties. But the language of Thursday’s warning was especially tough.
The UAE meanwhile has gone out of its way to say it wants to de-escalate tensions in the region despite its own suspicions over Iranian behaviour. It called the killing of Fakhrizadeh a ‘heinous assassination.’
However despite the recent tensions, Iran may be hesitant to strike on Emirati soil, wanting to maintain its economic interests there.
On top of that, Iranian retaliation for the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a major general in the IRGC who commanded its Quds force, created huge problems for the state.
Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq on January 3, 2020, prompting concerns that a conflict might follow that would pull in other actors from the restive Middle East.
Tehran retaliated by launching missile strikes against US targets in Iraq, then prompted an international crisis by accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 people onboard.
Analysts believe Iran is unlikely to take any immediate action and Iran’s president Rouhani said the country will will seek its revenge for the assassination in ‘due time’ and not be rushed into a ‘trap’.
One motivator may be the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden in the US.
Biden has promised to return to the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, which could see crippling sanctions Trump imposed on Iran being lifted – a key priority for the cash-strapped country.
Israel received the first of its new missile boats today, with a top naval officer saying the upgrade ‘dramatically’ improves the country’s ability to counter regional rivals, including Iran.
The procurement of four naval vessels and three submarines from German industrial giant Thyssenkrupp has been the subject of long-running corruption probes involving top allies of PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
But graft allegations aside, the ships themselves form a key part of a major naval upgrade in the Jewish state, Israel’s head of naval operations said last week.
Eyal Harel said the new fleet would bolster the navy’s capacity to defend increasingly lucrative offshore natural gas assets from rivals like Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah, which receives backing from Iran.
According to a September article by the Center for International Maritime Security, a Washington-based think-tank, the ships and new submarines will enhance Israel’s capacity to launch a direct strike on Iran.
The vessels – Saar 6-class corvettes – are equipped with ‘the (most) sophisticated radar on board any vessel in the world,’ Harel said.
The first Saar 6, the INS Magen, arrived at Haifa’s port on Wednesday.
Fakhrizadeh’s killing has reportedly prompted in-fighting among officials, with security agencies blaming each other for the lapse which led to his death.
The scientist was killed in broad daylight in a targeted attack on his car, despite having IRGC bodyguards.
Commander Hossein Dehghan, a former defence minister, told state TV that Fakhrizadeh had been killed because of ‘infiltration into Iran‘s security structure’, after witnesses said a group of gunmen had opened fire on the scientist’s car.
But semi-official media linked to the IRGC has published more elaborate accounts of an unmanned, high-tech operation involving a remote-controlled machine gun and carried out ‘without any assassin at the scene’.
On Wednesday, CNN quoted a US official as saying that Israel was behind the assassination, as Iran already believes.
The unnamed official said Israel has sometimes shared intelligence with the US before carrying out covert operations in Iran, but did not say whether the White House knew about Fakhrizadeh’s killing before it happened.
Fears have grown that powers in the Middle East may exploit the lengthy transition period in the US to inflame tensions and complicate president-elect Joe Biden’s efforts to mend relations with Iran when he takes office in January.
Fakhrizadeh is the fifth nuclear scientist to be killed in a targeted attack since 2010, exposing apparent flaws in Iran’s security apparatus.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said on Tuesday that the intelligence ministry had warned the scientist’s bodyguards weeks in advance about a possible attack, according to the New York Times.
The Revolutionary Guards’ Security Force, or Close Protection Unit, assigns bodyguards and security officers to top military and civilian officials.
‘This crime could have been prevented if security protocols has been followed and they had been a little more careful,’ Rabiei said.
Another Iranian security official said that the assassins ‘obviously operated based on detailed intelligence about martyr Fakhrizadeh’s movements’.
‘It is clearly a security weakness and many questions should be answered,’ said the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
‘We should know whether there are spies among security people and locate the leak. This is essential for us.’
An alternative account was published at the weekend by Fars News and Tasnim News, two agencies linked to the Guards.
Tasnim said the scientist had been killed in a ‘complicated operation that involved electronic equipment without any assassin at the scene. ‘
On Sunday, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, told state TV it was ‘a very sophisticated assassination that was carried out remotely with electronic devices’ and with no people on the ground.
‘There are conflicting accounts on how Fakhrizadeh was assassinated, but a degree of infiltration is certain and this is what worries the Islamic Republic the most,’ said Kasra Aarabi, an Iran analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Change think tank.
‘We have no idea whether these reports of a satellite-controlled-truck-mounted-machine-gun are true, but they serve two key purposes for Tehran: trying to deflect embarrassment by portraying the assassination as remarkably sophisticated; and showing how quickly they can crack the case,’ said Henry Rome, senior analyst with Eurasia Group.