Diplomat Attacks Raise Specter of Escalating Israel-Iran War

U.S. officials and defense analysts are concerned that a covert war of assassinations between Israel and Iran could escalate out of control.

“Things are heating up and there is a surge” of assassination attempts, Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury Department official and now director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a telephone interview.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran yesterday for car bombings of Israeli diplomatic vehicles in New Delhi and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The attacks come after the deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists, the most recent in a Jan. 11 car bombing in Tehran that Iran said Israel had orchestrated.

Israeli leaders have said time is running out for sanctions to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons and haven’t ruled out a military strike. The U.S. and its allies have tightened economic restrictions on Iran while seeking to avert a military conflagration in a region that holds more than half of global oil reserves.

The attacks came a day after the fourth anniversary of the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, who was a leader of the military wing of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which Israel and the U.S consider a terrorist organization.

Israeli Vow

Four people were injured in New Delhi, including the wife of an Israeli diplomat and her Indian driver, in a blast about 500 meters (1,640 feet) from Israel’s embassy, Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a text message. A bomb planted in an Israeli embassy employee’s car in Tbilisi was discovered and defused before it exploded. Officials in Thailand said an Iranian was critically injured in a grenade explosion today as he and two others tried to escape arrest in Bangkok.

“Israel will act methodically and with determination and steadfastness against international terrorism originating from Iran,” Netanyahu said in comments to parliament sent to reporters by text message.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland drew an explicit link between the three attacks as well as two earlier events today as she commented today on the Thai attack.

U.S. Comment

“With regard to this bombing, the incidents in Delhi, incidents in Georgia, while we will await the results of the investigations, these events do come on the heels of other disrupted attacks targeted at Israel and Western interests, including an Iranian-sponsored attack in Baku, Azerbaijan, and a Hezbollah-linked attack in Bangkok, Thailand, before this,” Nuland told reporters.

She said the U.S. sees the use of international terrorism as a foreign policy tool as “reprehensible.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned yesterday’s attacks, and Iran denied any connection to them. White House press spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. is concerned about the targeting of Israeli interests, adding that the American government doesn’t have information about who sponsored the operations.

U.S. intelligence officials and analysts said the latest incidents appear to fit a pattern of escalating violence between Israel and Iran, some of it probably carried out by Hezbollah in concert with elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Changed Calculus

In his annual threat assessment to Congress on Jan. 31, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said an alleged plot last year to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. “shows that some Iranian leaders -- probably including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime. We are also concerned about Iranian plotting against U.S. or allied interests overseas.”

Another U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified, said there is growing concern that Khamenei, who he said controls the Revolutionary Guard and its elite Qods Force, is becoming more isolated and radical and less risk-averse, partly in reaction to heightened Western economic pressure on his country and its nuclear program.

Coincidence of Interests

Four U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity cited a planned Hezbollah attack that was prevented in Thailand and what they said were other anti-Israeli operations that were disrupted in Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. Thai police charged a Swedish-Lebanese man they said was linked to Hezbollah with possessing illegal substances after he was detained last month in connection with a plan to attack tourist sites frequented by Americans and Israelis, Charamporn Suramanee, the assistant police chief, said on Jan. 16.

Levitt said this period resembles the years 1992 to 1994, when Hezbollah and Iran had a coincidence of interests in attacking Israeli targets similar to the situation today. Those years included a 1992 bomb attack on an Israeli embassy building in Buenos Aires and a 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in the Argentine capital, both blamed on Hezbollah.

This time, Hezbollah is seeking to avenge Mughniyeh’s 2008 death in Damascus, and Iran is responding to the killings of its nuclear scientists, having blamed Israel in both cases, Levitt said.

‘Iranian Retaliation’

“The most likely possibility is that this is Iranian retaliation for assassinations of the scientists,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst who now teaches at Georgetown University, in an e-mail response to a query. “Even the method used was the same as the most recent such assassination” of the Iranian scientist.

Khamenei pledged Feb. 3 to help “any nation or group that confronts the Zionist regime.”

Indian and Georgian authorities said they were trying to determine who was behind the attacks.

The attack in New Delhi was carried out by somebody who had been “well trained,” India’s Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters today. The government isn’t “pointing the finger” at any group as its investigation is continuing, he said.

“There is reason to believe that the target was the Israeli diplomat’s wife and, therefore, one has to proceed on the basis that it was a terrorist attack,” he said.

Injured Israeli

The Israeli injured in the Delhi explosion was in stable condition in a hospital in the city, Police Commissioner B.K. Gupta told reporters. A fire engulfed the car moments after the blast and was responsible for most of the damage to the vehicle, he said.

“The Israeli car was targeted, there is no doubt about it,” Gupta said.

Initial investigations suggest that a magnetic device was attached to the car in New Delhi before it exploded, Gupta said. At least three other people including the driver were hurt in the explosion that occurred as the car drove toward the city’s American Embassy School, he said.

Iran’s ambassador to India, Mahdi Nabizadeh, rejected charges his country was behind the attacks. According to Iran’s official news agency IRNA, Nabizadeh called the Israeli accusations “lies” and said his government condemned any “terrorist” acts. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the accusations “are part of a propaganda war” by Israel, according to a report on state-run Press TV’s website today.

In Tbilisi, an Israeli embassy employee discovered the bomb and reported it to police, who defused it, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said by phone. There were no injuries and the embassy wasn’t evacuated, he said.

The incident in Thailand followed an explosion at a rented house, according to officials in Bangkok. Five people were hurt. Police said two men, possibly Iranian, escaped.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE