Targeted Killings and the Deterrence Dilemma

This month will mark the 16th anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s top military commander, in the suburbs of Damascus on February 12, 2008. Mughniyeh’s highly-targeted killing, attributed to a joint U.S.-Israeli covert operation, is considered by many analysts as one of the most effective counterterrorism operations in recent decades. The act deprived Hezbollah of its military wing “chief of staff,” hindered the organization’s operational capabilities, and shattered its leadership’s sense of security.

Mughniyeh was an integral part of Tehran’s proxy network across the Middle East and the IRGC officers supporting them, who operate covertly while using the relative safety of the surrounding civilian environment. Maneuvering in the shadows, the IRGC commanders and their local collaborators in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have been able to build an elaborate network of smuggling routes and training facilities to share knowledge and know-how.

The outcome of this long-running IRGC campaign is evident in the multiple fronts of low-intensity regional war that Iran and its proxies initiated last year against Israel, the U.S., and their allies following the Hamas massacre on October 7.

Deterring Iran, the leading state-sponsor of terrorism, from using the complex regional terror capabilities it has built over the years cannot be done merely through the degrading of infrastructures and low-ranking members of local proxies.  Those assets are expendable from Tehran's perspective. They are meant to shield Iran from retaliation through the concept of “deniability,” - as Iranian officials have done over the past months.

The nature of the covert activity is that few men are involved. Thus, each member in the operation holds a significantly higher value than any overt parallel activity. The result is that taking on a specific actor will greatly affect the overall operation. The Mughniyeh assassination is a good example, as the blow to Hezbollah's military wing was significant, no one Hezbollah commander was able to fill his position, and was able to enjoy the close relationship and trust Mughniyeh established with top IRGC officials.

The fallout from Mughniyeh’s death can be compared with the demises of former IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Soleimani’s removal from the battlefield had a severe effect on the IRGC’s attempt to build significant military infrastructures in Syria and to turn it from a transit arena for moving arms, funds, and fighters from Iran to Lebanon to an active operational one, hosting military capabilities and fighters, akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Fakhrizadeh’s killing was also very significant as he was the mastermind of the nuclear weaponization project and had unique knowledge and managerial capabilities.

As in the Mughniyeh case, the deaths of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh were followed by Iranian calls for harsh revenge. Nevertheless, Iran was cautious to act in a way that would prevent further escalation. A few days after Soleimani’s assassination, Tehran fired a barrage of ballistic missiles at a U.S. base in Iraq – only after informing Iraq in advance of the strike, which likely tipped off the Americans. The response to Fakhrizadeh’s death was even more subtle – an attack on an Israeli merchant ship in the Gulf of Oman.

These retaliations clearly demonstrate Iran's cautious approach when confronting rivals with superior intelligence and military capabilities. Because of this risk aversion, these targeted killings of critical figures responsible for Iran’s covert activities left Tehran with no real “proportionate” response options.

As proven in the long list of thwarted Iranian terror attempts (and the one deadly success in Burgas in 2012) across Asia and Europe over the years, Iran and Hezbollah have suffered from significant weaknesses in their attempts to carry out attacks against high-profile American and Israeli targets. Instead, their retaliation took the form of terror attacks aimed at softer targets, such as civilians or low-ranking diplomats.

The other option for Iranian retaliation is a direct military response from Iranian soil towards available targets in the region – like U.S. bases and Israeli civilian assets. But retaliating directly through military means carries the risk of military escalation—a scenario that clearly contradicts Iran’s national security strategy of “fighting away from its borders.”

Deterring Iran and preventing it from further destabilizing the region through its terror-sponsoring activities has today become a critical issue for Western decision-makers. Diplomatic messages, strongly worded press statements, and military signaling by hitting its proxies’ terror infrastructures are all half-measures.

As long as Iran’s proxy war strategy and its plausible deniability remain unchallenged, the chances of any change in Iran’s calculus are slim. Targeting high-profile IRGC officers and leading figures of the Resistance Axis is an escalatory step, but in the context of current regional dynamics, it is necessary.

The targeted killing of Imad Mughniyeh 16 years ago was a highly calculated operation. The decision-makers who approved the operation were surely exposed to an elaborate intelligence analysis regarding the predicted impacts of his disappearance and the risk of potential retaliation. Nevertheless, the cost-benefit calculations were clearly in favor of his removal. In hindsight, there has been wide consensus among counterterrorism analysts and scholars about the effectiveness of the operation. 

Today, when Iran’s proxy network is engaged in direct military attacks against U.S. personnel and assets, the idea that Tehran should not be made to pay a price is as absurd as it is dangerous. Now is the time to challenge Tehran’s national security paradigm of keeping the war away from its borders and exploiting to the maximum Iran’s interest, avoiding a direct confrontation with Washington.

Dror Doron is a senior advisor at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) focusing on Hezbollah and Lebanon. He spent nearly two decades as a senior analyst in the Office of Israel’s Prime Minister. Dror is on Twitter @DrorDoron