January 1, 2028 … Tabriz, Iran, 0100 Hours
They departed from the Iranian’s modest home near Tabriz shortly after 1:00 AM.
The highway was virtually deserted, and the Israeli felt a sense of relief until their Zamyad Z24 pickup truck stalled and died just north of Avaciq, sixty miles short of their planned destination. It had been sputtering and lurching for the past hour, and finally the rusty Nissan, a relic by any standards, succumbed to old age and exhaustion.
It was 5:22 AM.
To the east, the morning sky was a subtle pink.
The two men exited the truck.
“I told you it was a bad idea to take my truck on this journey! We should have stolen a car. What the hell are we going to do now?” yelled the Iranian.
The Israeli shrugged off the remarks. He removed a small screw driver and a pen light from his pouch and bent down behind the truck.
“What are you doing?” Another question from the Iranian.
“I’m removing the license plates, and then I’ll pry off the VIN plates from the dash and driver’s door. That should delay them, for a while, from realizing this truck belongs to you.”
“And then what?”
“Are you out of your mind?”
The Israeli stood slowly. He stretched his back and grimaced. Sleeping on a wooden floor for the past three nights hadn’t agreed with the screws and rods in his back, and he replied harshly. He jabbed a finger to the west.
“Turkey is about four miles that way. Or, if you prefer, we can simply sit in the truck and wait for your friends at VEVAK to locate us. I’m sure you’ve been witness to their handiwork at Evin Prison.”
He finished removing the VIN plates.
“You do realize those snow-capped things in the distance are mountains,” replied the Iranian. He sounded defeated.
The Israeli laughed and started walking.
Colonel Arshad Sassani shook his head briefly in resignation and followed. Their pace quickened, and the only sound in the wilderness they entered was the repetitive crunch of their boots on the impacted snow and its layer of thin ice.
An hour later that morning, at Vezarat-e Ettela’at va Amniyat-e Keshvar, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence Agency, or “VEVAK,” it was noted that the Colonel had failed to respond to a phone call from his superior officer late the evening before. But since Colonel Sassani was a privileged and respected member of Oghab 2, Iran’s counter-espionage agency chartered to protect the nation’s nuclear facilities from threats, he was given some latitude by those currently on duty at VEVAK. His continued failure to respond to a second telephone call, placed to his residence at 7:10 AM, caused growing concern and immediate action. VEVAK agents were soon dispatched, and they reported the Colonel and his truck were missing.
Arshad Sassani was a career military man with twenty-six years of service, second in command at Ogbad 2. He was also an agent of Mossad and Israel’s most highly-placed informant in Iran. For the past seven-plus years, Colonel Sassani had dutifully fed the Israelis a stream of useful information about Iran’s nuclear and missile launch technology. But Sassani’s latest revelations stunned the Mossad and Israel’s Prime Minister, Joshua Ben-Gurion, into a highly perilous decision to extract Sassani from Iran and grant him eventual asylum in Israel or the United States. First, of course, Israel’s Mossad would interrogate the Colonel in person.
The two men trudged on. One mile slowly approached two.
They were in the mountains now, and there were ice-covered walls of granite and dense pine forests in all directions. The Israeli activated his sat-phone and a rapid exchange in Hebrew took place. The wait seemed an eternity, but the light on his phone came on and began flashing. He listened as directions were given.
Tel Aviv would steer them and guide them through the seemingly impassable terrain. The chip imbedded in the Israeli’s left shoulder was all they needed, as he could be pinpointed anywhere on the planet to within a distance of four feet. An ancient goat herder’s path became their precious yellow brick road, and a lone operator at a terminal deep in a bunker at Mossad’s headquarters became their eyes.
Directions were given in periodic, deliberately clipped sentences into the Israeli’s headset, and the two men moved slowly forward, sometimes a bit north, sometimes to the south, but inevitably in a westerly direction.
Their path was a perfect Kipniss landscape, barren and snow-encased. If not for the fear that clutched relentlessly at his heart, the Colonel might have considered it beautiful. But appreciation of their surroundings instead gave way to exhausting footsteps, and the Israeli and the Iranian concentrated on their feet, neither of them hardly ever looking up or around.
The Colonel’s thick black beard became a tangle of icicles.
It was 10:48 AM.
An observant Revolutionary Guard Lieutenant stopped and reported an old Nissan truck parked at the eastern side of Highway 32, between Avaciq and Beyk Kandi to the north. It matched the description of the missing vehicle, and when his second radio report mentioned there were no license plates on the vehicle, concern at VEVAK gave way to panic. Three helicopters with more than thirty VEVAK agents were in the air within minutes, and a Revolutionary Guard contingent was ordered to leave Tabriz shortly thereafter. Their column consisted of ten armored personnel carriers, filled to capacity with a hundred and twenty heavily-armed troops.
At 12:03 PM the helicopters arrived. A brief inspection of the pickup truck revealed the engine was seized up, a result of a massive coolant leak. First, the VEVAK agents correctly surmised there had been no pre-planned exodus from the vehicle on this desolate road. Then they discovered two fresh sets of footprints in the snow.
“Rahim to base. Rahim to base. Over.”
“Go ahead, Rahim.”
The agent named Rahim continued, excitedly.
“We’ve located the vehicle owned by Colonel Sassani, at least we believe this is his truck. The engine has failed, and the truck has been abandoned. We surmise there were just two occupants, because there are two sets of fresh footprints, heading west.”
“What do you mean, Rahim, when you say you believe this vehicle is the one owned by Colonel Sassani? Did you not already trace the registration numbers?”
“We cannot do that, sir. In addition to the license plates being gone, the metal registration number tags have also been removed from the vehicle. But I’ve seen the Colonel stubbornly drive in and out of headquarters for more than three years in his grandfather’s dilapidated old truck, and I can assure you this is the same vehicle.”
“So what do you think is going on, Rahim?”
“I can think of only two possibilities, sir. Either he has been kidnapped, or he is attempting to defect. I’m also assuming that since his truck unexpectedly broke down, those two sets of footprints in the snow give a strong statement that he and his accomplice or his abductor had planned all along to head toward our border with Turkey.”
“He cannot possibly be trying to defect, Rahim. He’s traveled at least a dozen times with our delegations to the U.N. and Switzerland, and it would have been a much simpler matter to seek asylum during any of those visits rather than to now trek over icy mountains toward the Turkish border. So I dismiss one of your two stated scenarios. We must conclude that the Americans or Israelis are attempting to kidnap a man who has extensive knowledge of our weaponry and our plans, and we must prevent him from crossing our border into Turkey.”
“Yes, I understand, sir.”
“Rahim,” the voice added, if you are incorrect, and if this vehicle turns out not to be our faithful Colonel’s ancient Nissan truck and we create an incident with the sovereign nation of Turkey, you do understand this will not go well for you.”
“Yes, General, I understand.”
Twelve minutes later, the General issued orders.
“Rahim, your helicopters are to take up positions at the border and wait for Colonel Sassani and his kidnapper to emerge from the mountains. There is an old goat herder’s path in that area, and our analysts believe that is the only way they can wind their way through the forests and mountain passes. And Rahim, if, somehow, these two men get through the gauntlet we’re preparing and appear to be escaping into Turkey, you have my permission to pursue and kill them. Even, that is, if that means you must violate Turkish air space.”
“Kill Colonel Sassani?”
“His head is filled with our secrets, Rahim. It must be severed from his body to protect our great nation.”
It was 6:40 PM.
All was still. Precise instructions had been given by Tel Aviv for the two men to hide at the edge of the tree line and wait for darkness to engulf the area.
They could hear occasional distant sounds from the forested slopes behind them. The contingent of Revolutionary Guard troops was getting ever nearer, closing in.
There were now eight helicopters at rest ahead, which had landed to disperse more than a hundred VEVAK agents. These agents now formed a well-established skirmish line, and effectively blocked the path to the border.
Directly in front of the two men in hiding was a broad clearing, a perfect killing field. It extended for perhaps three hundred or four hundred yards.
The Israeli mumbled something.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“What was that you whispered?” asked the Iranian.
Colonel Sassani shrugged at the insufficient reply. This Israeli agent of Mossad was a strange character. He seemed tireless, driven by some unknown force. But “Tennyson,” here and now?
“Absurd,” he mumbled.
An Iranian helicopter suddenly exploded. Then another, and another in quick succession. The night sky was immediately engulfed in bright light, as a wing of American AH-64D Apache Guardian helicopters swooped in from the Turkish side of the border. Their infrared sensors easily pinpointed the Revolutionary Guard troops less than three hundred yards into the forest, and four well-placed AGM-114 Hellfire missiles killed more than half of them instantly, and halted their advance.
The four Apaches circled as avenging angels, and in less than three minutes all eight Iranian helicopters were ablaze. In the bright torch light that emanated from their burning transports, the VEVAK agents became simple target practice for the Apaches. KMK-42 laser weapons on swivel mounts in both side doors of the Apaches were arced back and forth by their gunners, cutting and slicing through the helpless men and leaving them to bleed out on the frozen ground.
The Israeli spoke rapidly into his headset and nodded, as though the man in Tel Aviv stood directly in front of him.
A CH-47 Chinook, illuminated by the flaming carnage below, appeared overhead and landed in the clearing near the two men.
Eight well-equipped Navy SEALs exited the helicopter and moved toward them. A sat-com message was received and obeyed, and the Israeli tapped the Colonel on his shoulder.
“Time to go.”
They raced toward the SEALs and the Israeli shouted the word, “Terrapin” to indicate they were the package to be delivered.
Safely aboard the Chinook and well within Turkish air space, the Iranian Colonel looked at the Israeli and asked a question.
“What is this ‘terrapin’ you shouted at the Americans?”
“It’s a turtle, sir,” replied the SEAL team leader.
“You’re a lot slower moving than your Israeli pal,” added one of the other SEALs, “so your code name for this mission was terrapin.”
The Seals all laughed at that, and for the first time in four days, the Israeli smiled. He then said something, softly.
Half a league,
Half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“More Tennyson, my friend?” asked the Colonel.
“Yes, sir, that’s correct,” replied the Israeli.
Exhausted, Yaakov slowly closed his eyes and nodded off.
The Iranian studied his savior. The Israeli was perhaps thirty-five and had the chiseled, no-nonsense features of a boxer. At one point in their perilous journey through the mountains, Sassani slipped and fell. The Israeli simply reached down, secured the Iranian under one arm, and dead-lifted him to his feet. Strength, endurance, and dedication were to be respected, thought the Colonel.
He also glanced around at the Navy SEALs. They clearly were all of that same mold.
Less than an hour later, the Israeli and the Iranian arrived at a Turkish military airfield near the city of Çetenli.
They promptly boarded an unmarked Gulfstream G650, were greeted professionally by three agents of the CIA, and the plane immediately taxied toward the runway.
“Happy New Year,” remarked one of the agents to the two men.
The aircraft then streaked toward Tel Aviv.
lan N. Levy, who died in 2019, was a political columnist at Audere and blogger at The Times of Israel, and the author of The Tenth Plague, an acclaimed geo-political thriller that focuses on a future with a nuclear-armed Iran, from which this excerpt is taken, published in 2019 from Chickadee Prince Books. The book is available in paperback at your local bookstore, from Amazon and B&N, and also on Kindle.
Design by Steven S. Drachman from an Image by Lenamann/Pixabay.