By RFE RL
By Golnaz Esfandiari
(RFE/RL) — The killing of a senior officer in Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in broad daylight in the capital, Tehran, is rare.
But the deaths of two senior members of the IRGC, the elite branch of Iran’s armed forces, inside the Islamic republic in the space of two weeks is unprecedented and has raised eyebrows.
Iran’s official government news agency, IRNA, reported the death of Ali Esmailzadeh on June 3. IRNA said the IRGC colonel died in an accident and authorities had launched an investigation.
The IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency said Esmailzadeh “died after falling from a terrace in his house” in the city of Karaj, near Tehran, around a week ago.
The reports by Iran’s state-controlled media came hours after the London-based Iran International television station reported that Esmailzadeh had been assassinated by Iranian intelligence over suspicions that he was involved in the May 22 killing of another IRGC colonel.
Colonel Hassan Sayad Khodaei was killed by gunmen outside his home in Tehran. Iranian authorities blamed regional foe Israel for the killing and vowed revenge. Tehran offered little information about Khodaei. Israeli media reported that he headed a unit of the IRGC’s overseas arm, the Quds Force, that planned attacks on Israelis abroad.
Iran International reported that Esmailzadeh was a “close colleague” of Khodaei. Following Khodaei’s killing, Iranian intelligence investigated possible security leaks inside the IRGC and “became suspicious of Esmailzadeh and decided to eliminate him,” it added, citing unnamed sources.
Iran International added that Iranian intelligence made his alleged assassination look like a suicide. IRGC officials told Esmailzadeh’s family that he took his own life “due to psychological problems caused by his separation from his wife” and that he had left a suicide note, it added.
IRNA, quoting an unnamed source, dismissed Iran International’s report, and described it as “false news.”
Iran International is funded by a firm with close ties to the Saudi Arabian government, another of Tehran’s regional rivals, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. The station has denied the allegation.
Khodaei’s killing was the most high-profile inside Iran since November 2020, when Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated outside Tehran.
Khodaei’s killing is part of a series of incidents, including assassinations and sabotage and cyberattacks, that Tehran has blamed on Israel. Tel Aviv is believed to have been behind the assassinations of at least four Iranian nuclear scientists in the past decade. The assassinations have raised questions about the possibility of foreign intelligence agencies penetrating Iran’s security apparatus.
A day before Tehran confirmed Esmailzadeh’s death, the hard-line Telegram channel Ammariyoun reported that “another member of the IRGC’s Quds Force had been assassinated.” The news channel quickly deleted the post and said that Esmailzadeh had died by suicide by jumping off his balcony.
Iran’s Sabereen News, which is believed to have ties to the Quds force, reported the “suspicious” death of Esmailzadeh on June 2, adding that he had died after falling off his balcony.
In a Twitter post, Sabereen News said that an “investigation has been launched and his assassination has not been confirmed.”
A memorial service for Esmailzadeh was held on June 2 at a mosque in the western city of Hamedan, according to a notice posted online.
The notice called him a “defender of the shrine,” which refers to members of the Quds Force. It also described him as a “janbaz,” a reference to disabled war veterans. The notice did not disclose the cause of Esmailzadeh’s death.
- Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.