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Iranian assassination plot foiled in Cyprus: Could it happen in Australia?

Dror Doron
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Iranian assassination plot foiled: Could it happen in Australia?

Published: 29 June 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

DROR DORON examines the implications of Iranian attempts to attack Israeli and Jewish targets in the Diaspora.

Israel and Cyprus announced this week that they had foiled an Iranian terror attack on Israeli and Jewish targets in the Mediterranean island.

Seven Pakistan nationals, believed to be recruited by Tehran, were arrested and an international arrest warrant issued for the cell’s leader. The operation disrupted a plot to assassinate a visiting Israeli property businessman, attack the local Chabad house, and target hotels and entertainment venues frequented by Israeli tourists.

 The Iranian embassy denied responsibility but the plot is believed to be linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian army that is considered a terror organisation by several countries.

The wider context of this week’s events is the shadow war that has raged between Israel and Iran for the past 15 years. The conflict centres on Iran’s attempts to advance its nuclear capabilities, Israel’s actions to disturb and delay those plans, and Teheran’s countermoves on Israelis outside Israel.

As both countries refrain from direct military confrontation, which would carry disastrous consequences for the two sides and could escalate to a regional war, Jerusalem and Tehran are engaged in a covert fight that allows each side the safety of deniability.

A significant difference, though, lies in the targets and modus operandi of the two countries.

Israel is blamed by the Iranian regime for pin-point attacks on Iranian soil against infrastructure and scientists involved in Tehran’s nuclear project. The most prominent examples are the assassination in November 2020 of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was regarded as the chief of Iran's nuclear program, and the mysterious massive explosion in the Nataz nuclear facility in April 2021.

Iran is implicated in a string of failed retaliation attempts targeting Israelis abroad and Jewish buildings in the Diaspora. The Cyprus plot can be added to similar attempts to target a synagogue in Athens last March; a Turkish arrest of a group targeting Israeli tourists in Istanbul in June 2022; and the arrest of an operative trying to target an Israeli businessman in Cyprus in October 2021.

In each case, the targets were Israeli civilians or Jews with no connection to the Israeli security apparatus, the location was outside Israel, and most of the perpetrators were not Iranians but Pakistani, Azeri, Turkish or another nationality, operating under Tehran orders.

Chabad Cyprus, one of the targets in the planned attacks
Chabad Cyprus, one of the targets in the planned attacks

Beyond its war with Israel, Iran has a history of terror plots in western countries. In 2018, a Belgium court sentenced Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi to 20 years in jail in Belgium for his involvement in a planned attack on an Iranian opposition group rally near Paris. (In May this year Assadi was released in a prisoner exchange with Iran.)

Britain’s MI-5 head announced in November last year that it had exposed planned Iranian attacks on UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.

Australia is not immune. In February, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil revealed that security agencies had disrupted Iranian surveillance targeting an Iranian-Australian citizen, due to his opposition to the regime in Tehran.

This week’s events in Cyprus and the O’Neil announcement in February raise the possibility of an Iranian terror attack on Israeli or Jewish targets in Australia. Could Iran’s willingness to carry out covert illegal activity in Australia and its plots against Israelis and Jewish buildings in the Diaspora combine to make a Melbourne Chabad house or Sydney falafel outlet a target?

Reassuring factors should be considered. Australia’s security agencies are doing their job in foiling the latest plan, Israeli security services are monitoring and disrupting Iran’s terror campaign worldwide, and there is close cooperation between the two — as was demonstrated in the foiling of an ISIS-planned attack of an airplane taking off from Sydney in 2017.

We cannot forget that the Middle Eastern conflict has brought devastating outcomes to Jews and Israelis living outside of Israel, most dramatically in the 1994 Iran and Hezbollah attack against the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, in retaliation for an Israeli operation against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.

More recently, the combination of awareness of the danger, local security measures and international intelligence cooperation have resulted in effective countermeasures. There has been a string of foiled plots but no successful attacks. Let us hope that security measures will continue to prove effective.

Israel 'welcomes foiling' of attempted Cyprus terror attack (Haaretz)  

In first, Israel seizes crypto accounts linked to Iran’s Quds Force, Hezbollah (Times of Israel)
Defence minister says operation to confiscate digital wallets with millions of dollars came thanks to new tools developed by Israeli security agencies

Amid reports of new Iran-US understandings, Blinken says no agreement soon (Haaretz)  
The US Secretary of State says that Iran would not take steps to get back into compliance, making a new nuclear agreement unlikely in the near future.

Photo: The Revolutionary Guards in Tehran in March (Wana News Agency/Reuters)

About the author

Dror Doron

Dror Doron is a senior political analyst specialising in the Middle East, who has worked for the last 17 years for the Israeli government as a research and analysis expert.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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