Iran, Israel trade blame over embassy attacks
The technique had a familiar ring.
A motorcyclist speeds toward a government vehicle, attaches a magnetic bomb and buzzes away moments before a fiery explosion.
Last month, that’s how an Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in Tehran. And on Monday, Indian officials said such an attack injured an Israeli diplomat’s wife and three others in a well-guarded neighborhood of New Delhi near the Israeli Embassy.
Israel and Iran are accusing each other of perpetrating the plots. Israel is also blaming Iran for a second embassy vehicle bombing incident Monday, in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, that caused no injuries.
Meanwhile, analysts expressed concern that the incidents could mark the latest round of a campaign of covert and possibly state-sponsored, retaliatory violence between the two enemies or their proxies.
Israeli officials blamed Iran and its Lebanon-based Islamist ally, Hezbollah, but few expect the strikes will trigger an overt retaliation or direct military confrontation with Iran.
Likewise, Tehran has, officially at least, done little more than publicly condemn what it sees as Israel’s hand in nearly half a dozen assassinations of its scientists and deadly explosions at its nuclear facilities over the last two years.
Whatever the case, many analysts predict that a vigorous — yet publicly deniable — campaign of violence is in the offing.
“This is an extension of the shadow war,” said Uzi Rabi, chair of Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. “We will be seeing more of this.”
Israel is believed by many to have initiated a covert assassination campaign to slow Iran’s nuclear program, which it fears will be used to build atomic weapons that will one day be used against it. Iran insists its nuclear program is meant for civilian energy purposes only.
To maintain credibility with its allies and the Iranian public, analysts say, Tehran needs to retaliate for the attacks on its scientists it blames on Israel. But closing the Strait of Hormuz or attacking Tel Aviv would be too risky, Rabi said. Even encouraging Hezbollah to resume rocket fire against Israel might lead to a destructive regional war, as it did in 2006.
“So the only recourse left at Iran’s disposal is to hit back in the same way it claims it has been hit,” Rabi said.
By the same token, Israel will find its options limited in responding to Monday’s attacks, according to experts. Though it maintains a tough deterrence policy with the Gaza Strip-based militant organization Hamas — retaliating for virtually every rocket fired against southern Israel — Israel would be reluctant to openly move against Iran for Monday’s incidents given the region’s current instability.
“I don’t think there will be a direct response toward Iran,” said Danny Yatom, former head of Israeli spy agency Mossad. “We have to behave wisely. We don’t want the situation to deteriorate into something we don’t want now or cause deterioration in our northern border. Israel will choose the time, target and location of the response.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at such a reaction in a statement Monday. He promised a “strong, systematic, yet patient action.”
Though Israel provided no evidence of Iranian involvement, Netanyahu put the blame squarely on Tehran and Hezbollah.
“Iran is behind these attacks,” the prime minister said. “It is the biggest exporter of terror in the world.”
According to Yatom, who left the Mossad after Israel’s botched 1997 assassination attempt against Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, the diplomatic attacks probably won’t be a factor in Israel’s ongoing debate regarding what it sees as the overarching issue: whether to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“The nuclear issue is totally separate,” he said.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists. Iranian officials denied involvement in Monday’s attacks.
“It is a sheer lie of the Zionist regime,” said senior parliament advisor Husain Shaikoleslam. “Iran is not involved in the assassination of Zionist diplomats.”
The New Delhi explosion injured Tal Yehoshua Koren, wife of a security official, moments after she dropped off her children.
Amateur video taken about 3:15 p.m. outside the embassy showed a silver Toyota Innova with Israeli diplomatic license plates consumed by flames. The driver of the car was also hurt, and the blast ignited a car behind the Innova, slightly injuring two people.
A witness who asked not to be identified said he saw a woman in the Innova blown across the street by the blast as the car stopped at a traffic light. She was badly hurt, he said, but refused to go to the hospital and was taken away by embassy staff.
Police Commissioner B.K. Gupta, citing witnesses, said a device was planted on the Innova by a man on a motorcycle. The victim was in stable condition at a private hospital, he added.
In Georgia, a messenger for the Israeli Embassy notified security officials after noticing a suspicious object under his car. The bomb was defused with no injuries.
Israel’s diplomatic missions around the world were already on heightened alert because of the Feb. 12 anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah. The militant group blamed Israel for Mughniyah’s 2008 killing and has repeatedly vowed to retaliate.
Analysts said the amateurish nature of the India operation — failing to include enough explosives to prove lethal and targeting a diplomat’s wife — suggested that it was outsourced to groups that lacked expertise or that it was merely meant as a warning.
Given the strong relations between India and Iran, some analysts questioned whether Iran would carry out an attack on Indian soil given that New Delhi is one of its few allies right now and it needs India to purchase its oil, particularly as Western economic sanctions start to bite.
“I’d be very surprised if Iran participated in this,” said K.C. Singh, a former foreign secretary and counter-terrorism coordinator.
That could point to alternative perpetrators: Syrian-Hezbollah groups angry at India, which recently voted in favor of a U.N. resolution condemning Syria’s government. Or, analysts say, the attack could have been undertaken by one of the loosely affiliated Islamic fundamentalist groups extending from Indonesia to Central Asia that are trying to exploit regional tension. Such scenarios, however, would not explain the simultaneous blast in Georgia.
Sanders reported from Jerusalem and Magnier from New Delhi. Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem bureau and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.
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