The death of a senior Iranian military officer at his home in a Tehran suburb a week ago has fueled conflicting reports that he fell from a balcony, committed suicide or was killed.
The officer, Col. Ali Esmaelzadeh, died about a week after another high-ranking officer in the same unit, Col. Sayad Khodayee, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Tehran.
Their deaths come amid a new wave of heightened tensions between Iran and Israel, which for years have conducted a clandestine war of sabotage and targeted killings.
Both officers were high-ranking members of an elite secret detachment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Force, Unit 840, which Israeli officials say is tasked with killing foreigners abroad.
Iran blamed Israel for the killing of Colonel Khodayee, the deputy commander of the unit, and Israel told American officials that it was behind the killing, according to an intelligence official briefed on the communications.
But two senior Israeli defense officials said Friday that Israel did not kill Colonel Esmaelzadeh. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
The death of Colonel Esmaelzadeh was first reported Thursday by the Saudi-financed, London-based Persian television channel Iran International. The report, citing anonymous sources in Iran, said that Revolutionary Guards officials suspected Colonel Esmaelzadeh of spying for Israel and staged his suicide.
The New York Times could not verify that claim, and Iranian and Israeli officials declined to comment. One official Iranian news outlet said that report was false.
But Iranian news media have offered conflicting reports on Colonel Esmaelzadeh’s death.
Sabreen News, an outlet affiliated with the Quds Forces, reported Thursday that Colonel Esmaelzadeh died after falling off the balcony of his home in Karaj, Iran, under “suspicious circumstances.” The report said that investigations were underway.
Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, said that Colonel Esmaelzadeh had died after “an accident” at his apartment, and denied that he had been killed.
A news platform on the Telegram app affiliated with the Guards, Ammariyon, initially reported that the colonel had been assassinated, then deleted the report and said he had committed suicide by jumping off the balcony.
The Tasnim news agency, also affiliated with the Guards, reported Friday that Colonel Esmaelzadeh had fallen off the balcony because it did not have appropriate guard rails, and that the coroner’s office had confirmed the cause of death.
There were other unusual circumstances surrounding his death that raised red flags for some Iranians.
Colonel Esmaelzadeh was a high-ranking officer in an elite unit, but Iranian news media did not report the death for over a week, until the London-based Iran International did.
The Revolutionary Guards have not issued a statement or offered public condolences to the family, standard procedure for a fallen officer.
The funeral was held under a media blackout in a remote village in his native province of Hamedan, according to fliers for the event posted on social media — not, as would be customary, at Tehran’s main cemetery with news coverage and officials in attendance.
For three days after Colonel Esmaelzadeh’s death, security guards swarmed his neighborhood in Karaj, according to an Iranian reporter who was there and asked not to be identified.
The confusion has led some Iranians, including conservatives, to question the competing narratives.
“Who had the power to carry out the killing of Colonel Esmaelzadeh and why?” tweeted Attaollah Husseini, a conservative veteran of the armed forces.
“It is impossible for IRGC members, who are on the path of martyrdom all their lives, to commit suicide,” tweeted Abbas Qaidari, a researcher on Iran defense policy in Toronto. He added that if the Guards were suspicious of someone, they would arrest and interrogate him. “The clues are elsewhere,” he said.
The deaths of the two officers of Unit 840 were not the only murky deaths in Iran in the past two weeks. On May 25, a drone attack damaged a military site outside Tehran where Iran develops missile, nuclear and drone technology, and killed a Defense Ministry engineer.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but it fit a pattern of previous Israeli strikes.
Iranian officials have pledged to take revenge on Israel for the killing of Colonel Khodayee last month, prompting Israel to warn its citizens from traveling to countries in the region where Iran may have operatives.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel said in a speech on Sunday that Iran had carried out terrorism through proxies against Israel for years but that “the era of immunity for the Iranian regime is over.”
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, shot back on Friday, telling a reporter in Norway, “The Zionists may only be able to dream of striking Iran — and if that happens, it will be a dream from which they will never wake up.”
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