Israeli leaders and generals certainly don't mind smiling knowingly every time a top Iranian commander meets an untimely accident, which has been happening surprisingly often these past few years, but the explanation is likely to be more complicated than Mossad secrets agents operating behind the scenes. The logistics of infiltrating people on the ground to carry out assassinations isn't easy, anyone viewing the chronology of the Dubai hit for one man in a hotel room, can only begin to imagine what it would take to pull off more complicated operations in Iran, which sees far less foreign travelers and has much tighter security.
Iran's religious leaders have never trusted its military, and instead relied on the Revolutionary Guards to suppress dissent. Like most military forces turned Praetorian deciders, the Revolutionary Guards has been split by its own factions and violent internal disputes. The volume of deaths among top Guards commanders suggests less of a vast Israeli assassination network and more knives in the dark or sabotaged helicopters.
With Iran's power pyramid now in the hands of Revolutionary Guards commanders, eliminating some commanders who support rivals, or eliminating commanders who block a supporters' path to the top is politics in action within a system where even the pretense of popular elections has been dispensed with.
The bloodshed has comprehensively killed the lie on which the Islamic revolution was based on, that the religious leaders represented a more than human will and were incorruptible. The Shiite revolution fell apart into squabbling and power struggles, ironically in the same way that the Shiite-Sunni split over dynastic rivalry originally occurred.
Ayatollah Khamenei is protecting his family wealth, like every other tinpot dictator in the region. And Ahmadinejad, the unpopular president whose fraudulent election tore apart the last shreds of political stability is a complete lunatic who also fancies himself to be the 'chosen one'. The strains of suppressing popular protests stemming from the stolen election also broke the alliance between the traditional power base of the Ayatollahs and the Islamic populists.
Ahmadinejad was the great hope of the Ayatollahs for keeping the lid on youthful unrest. A smiling fellow who seemed to understand "the kids" and was into all the new technology. Charismatic and charming, the man seen as a mad dog around the world, was supposed to be the one who would salvage the unstable situation. Instead Ahmadinejad only made it worse. Not by threatening to destroy Israel, that is standard rhetoric in Iran and throughout the Muslim world, but by falling prey to his own mysticism.
By Sunni standards, the Shiites are already guilty of excessive mysticism, a tendency which the legalistic structure of the clerics are supposed to contain. While the clerics saw Ahmadinejad as a way to put a human face on a brutal and corrupt regime, Ahmadinejad saw his rise as the fulfillment of a prophecy. The Ayatollahs thought they were getting a pleasant representative of reactionary rule, what they were actually getting was a maniac who thought he was here to bring on the end of the world.
The end of the world part wasn't so much of a problem for the clerics, as Ahmadinejad's theological innovations and starring role. And the minimal reforms weren't winning over the youth or calming them down. Iran's economy was troubled and its leaders were pouring money into a global war with only one possible target. The United States. But such a war could only end one way.
It was bad enough that the Iranian leadership was looting the country's oil wealth for its private gain, but it was also squandering it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. Iran was acting like a great power because it had oil, squads of suicide bombers and a nuclear program. And Western tolerance allowed them to get away with it.
Iran seized British personnel and held them hostage. It attempted to kidnap American troops. It sent weapons to the Taliban. And each time it got away with it, its leaders became emboldened. It was no wonder that Ahmadinejad's delusions of grandeur got worse with every sign of western weakness. But like Bin Laden, Ahmadinejad didn't understand the West or track its unexpected shift from pacifism to brutal violence. Instead while the Ayatollahs kept planning empires and Ahmadinejad was picking out the right outfit to wear to armageddon, it was the Iranian people who decided that enough was enough.
What made Khameini take that drastic step? Was it arrogance or financial interests that would be threatened? Had American weakness emboldened him to dispose of elections without worrying that the West would take advantage of the internal chaos? Or paradoxically, did the possibility of a conflict with the United States necessitate keeping Ahmadinejad where he was? There's no way to know, but the consequences were ugly.
The rebels weren't just university students, though university students invariably provide the core of the rebels in the Middle East, as they do in the West. Joining them were members of the clergy who had been shut out by the power structure or were tired of the corruption. A weak economy combined with repression and corruption are fertile ground for revolutions. And Iran was no different.
The Islamic revolution had relied on mobs, brutality and religious sanction to stay in power. The mobs were no longer on their side, except for the imported Hamas and Hezbollah thugs funded by the regime. The religious sanction had come apart in the face of endless corruption and hypocrisy. That left armed force, but suppressing popular uprisings with the military means turning over power to the military.
When Mubarak had to call on the military, it was the military that took power. Bringing out the Revolutionary Guards to decide a power struggle quickly turning into a civil war, meant that the new instrument of power in Iran was the Guards. Once the military becomes the deciding power then the only way to prevent it from seizing power outright is either by appointing your own family members to high positions or by choosing them from members of a minority group that cannot hold power. (And even that isn't always reliable as the Alawites have managed to rule Syria.) Finally that just leaves random terror.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards is now the supreme power in Iran, even though it was created because of the clerical distrust for the regular military, its part gang of regime thugs, part guerrilla and terrorist group and currently the only thing standing between the regime and the people who hate it enough to want to die tearing it down. But it's also more than a name or the sum of its functions.
Like so much of the regime, it's also a business built on stolen wealth, corruption and greed. Like the KGB, it's part secret police and part mafia. The KGB wound up taking over and ruling the USSR, brushing aside the Communists and replacing their ideology with an oligarchy run for their own profit. Given time and power, the IRGC will go the same way and the Islamic revolution will drift to a close and be replaced by officers calling themselves presidents, much as it is throughout the region.
But time is running out. The KGB could not have taken over without undermining the Communists and the reformers. The Revolutionary Guards suppressed the reformers and are in a position to bring down the Ayatollahs if they choose. But the reformers were never discredited and the Guards may never get their oligarchy.
Quite a few Guards commanders have fled or defected, much as top KGB officers who weren't on the inside jumped ship and turned into Putin's worst enemies. The Litvinenko assassination was the KGB killing its own. The same thing is likely happening with the Revolutionary Guards in Iran with rivals affiliated with different factions in the grand power struggle fighting an internecine war among themselves. Some may be allied with the CIA or the Mossad, and may be bringing their own house down for their own reasons.
The sabotage and assassinations all point to internal factions, likely working with outside parties in a quiet civil war. Inside Iran the nuclear program is about more than destroying Israel, it's about power and it's about money. The nuclear program puts money into the pockets of the well-connected which includes the extensive construction businesses of the Guards. It also gives the regime bragging rights. Nuclear weapons mean genocide to those on the outside, but to those on the inside they mean money and having the biggest gun to show off on parade.
Imagine for a moment if the leaders of the coup against Gorbachev had accused him of being an American spy and sent tanks across the German border? Had they done that, it's very unlikely that the Soviet Union would have ever fallen. And in the worst case scenario, it would have meant a nuclear war. But the leadership had become too conservative and cautious to roll the dice and take the risk. There's no reason to think that applies to the numerous factions playing the game in Iran.
A war likely wouldn't save them, but if nuclear weapons are added to the mix, it could still raise a pile of bodies that would make Saddam look like a slacker. And while the good news may be that the Islamic Revolution is on its last legs, the bad news is that it's planning to go out with a nuclear kick.
The fanatics want armageddon, the clerics want a big gun that they can use to become a world power and the people doing the killing-- it's anyone's guess what they want.