For more than a decade, he was a feared presence in Iran, where he led a vast intelligence apparatus. He crushed domestic dissidents and political rivals, and expanded covert operations beyond Iran’s borders to attack dissidents and enemies abroad.
Hossein Taeb, a 59-year-old cleric and intelligence chief of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, appeared untouchable.
That was until he was abruptly removed from office last week, a victim of Israel’s relentless campaign to undermine Iran’s security by targeting its officials and military sites, according to officials and analysts in both countries.
A failed Iranian attempt to attack Israeli civilians in Turkey, sparking an embarrassing diplomatic crisis with Ankara, a regional ally of Tehran, ultimately made the difference, according to Israeli intelligence officials aware of the Iranian plot and requested anonymity to discuss sensitive operations and intelligence topics.
Taeb’s removal was a recognition by Tehran that confronting the threat from Israel required new leadership and a reset of strategies and protocols, according to Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist former vice president of Iran and cleric who was slain by conservatives in 2009. was dropped off. but has maintained close ties with top officials.
“The security breaches in Iran and the sheer scope of Israel’s operations have really undermined our most powerful intelligence organization,” Abtahi said by phone from Tehran. “The strength of our security has always been the foundation of the Islamic Republic and it has been damaged in the past year.”
Calls to purge Mr. Taeb emerged amid a growing climate of mistrust within Iran’s leadership after a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Brig. Gene. Ali Nasiri, was secretly arrested on charges of spying for Israel, according to one person close to top Revolutionary Guard officials and another with knowledge of the arrest. She and other Iranian officials quoted in this article requested anonymity because they were not officially authorized to speak on internal discussions.
Officials with Iran’s mission to the United Nations said they had no immediate comment on the claims.
General Nasiri’s arrest came two months after several dozen employees of the Defense Ministry’s missile development program were arrested on suspicion of leaking classified military information, including missile design blueprints, to Israel, according to an Iranian official familiar with the raid. .
Over the past year, Israel has stepped up the scale and frequency of its attacks in Iran, including on the nuclear and military sites Mr Taeb’s organization was supposed to protect.
One of the Israeli officials said part of the strategy was to expose the Revolutionary Guards’ failures in their secret war with Israel in the hopes that it would spark conflict between political leaders and the defense and intelligence community.
On Monday, three Iranian steel plants, including the state-owned Khuzestan Steel, were hit by a cyber attack, forcing one to shut down its production line. The three factories affected on Monday are major suppliers of steel to the Revolutionary Guards, according to a Western intelligence official.
A group of hackers known as Gonjeshke Darande claimed responsibility. The same group claimed responsibility for another cyberattack in November that shut down gas stations across Iran and which US officials said was linked to Israel. Officials in Israel declined to confirm the source of the attacks.
Israel’s spy network has infiltrated deeply into Iranian security circles, Iranian officials have acknowledged, with Iran’s former intelligence minister warning last year that officials should fear for their lives, according to Iranian media reports.
Keren Hajioff, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel, said in an interview that the strategy against Iran was part of Bennett’s “octopus” doctrine.
“This doctrine is a strategic shift from the past when Israel focused on Iran’s proxy ‘tentacles’ in the region, in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza,” she said. The new tactic, she added, was “a paradigm shift: Now we’re going straight for the head.”
Israeli agents have committed murders using remote-controlled robots and drive-by shootings, flew drones into sensitive missile and nuclear facilities, and kidnapped and interrogated an agent of the Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran. Tehran also suspects that Israel killed two of its scientists in May.
Mr Taeb was appointed head of the Revolutionary Guards intelligence organization in 2009 following nationwide unrest over the disputed presidential election. He had previously served as chief of the Basij, a plainclothes militia notorious for attacking and sometimes killing protesters.
Mr Taeb forced a systematic crackdown with a brutality that elevated the intelligence organization from an obscure security unit to the most feared spy operation in the country.
More recently, Mr. Taeb has been under pressure to wipe out and retaliate Israel’s network of spies in Iran, according to a government adviser and another person affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards.
General Nasiri, who was arrested in June, served as the senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards Guard’s Information Protection Unit, which was charged with overseeing and overseeing the organization’s work.
His arrest, coupled with Israel’s repeated attacks, shocked the leadership in Tehran, according to Iranian officials who were aware of the situation. Some began tacitly demanding that Taeb resign or be fired, the officials said.
Mr Taeb requested another year in his post to rectify the security breaches, the Guards member said.
Then came the plot to target Israelis in Turkey.
On June 18, an Israeli intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to release the intelligence data, said Mossad believed Iran was planning attacks against Israeli tourists and civilians.
Israel’s counter-terrorism headquarters raised the warning for Turkey to the highest level and told all Israelis in Istanbul to lock themselves in their hotel rooms.
The intelligence official said Israel had informed Turkey and shared information showing that Mr Taeb was behind the plot, which it said was in retaliation for the May assassination of Colonel Sayad Khodayee, the deputy commander of another secret unit of the United States. the Revolutionary Guard.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh last week said Israel’s allegations that Tehran was planning to attack Israelis in Turkey were “ridiculous” and “a pre-cooked scenario to damage relations between two Muslim countries.” .
Turkey has arrested five Iranians and three Turkish nationals suspected of involvement in the plot, which involved the seizure of two pistols, two silencers and documents and digital materials containing the identities and addresses of persons allegedly targeted , Turkish news media reported. Turkish authorities have not responded to requests for comment.
Mr Bennett, the Israeli Prime Minister, said last week that there is “cooperation at all levels” with Turkey and that this has paid off. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a news conference with Yair Lapid, his Israeli counterpart, on Thursday that Turkey would not tolerate “tax bills” and “terror attacks” on its territory.
A regional alliance between Arab countries and Israel is forming against Iran, and the crisis threatened to push Turkey, a key regional ally of Tehran, closer to the Israeli camp. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was in Turkey on Monday to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mr Cavusoglu to discuss the crisis.
“Turkey was the turning point for Taeb, it made Iran incompetent and it increased its vulnerability, and they finally had to get rid of him,” said Omid Memarian, an Iran expert at Democracy for the Arab World Now, an advocacy group based in Washington.
Some conservative lawmakers in Iran have told news outlets that Mr Taeb’s replacement was nothing out of the ordinary and that his tenure was simply over. but one tweeted that Mr Taeb’s removal was one of the most significant in the history of the Islamic Republic.
Mr Taeb was replaced by General Mohammad Kazemi, the current head of the Revolutionary Guard’s information protection unit. Mr Taeb has been moved to an advisory role to the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and not to Ayatollah Khamenei, which would have been more typical of one of the Ayatollah’s closest confidants.
On Saturday, Iran also replaced the head of a Revolutionary Guards unit protecting Ayatollah Khamenei and his family, and a new head of the Guards’ Protection Information Unit was announced on Monday. More reshuffling of senior commanders is expected, analysts say.
Hossein Dalirian, an analyst associated with the Revolutionary Guards, said in an interview, “After 13 years, it was necessary to have a new-blooded leader to manage the future.”
“Security and intelligence activities are expected to strengthen and Iran’s enemies are expected to face heavier blows,” he added.
Safak Timur contributed to reporting from Istanbul, Turkey.