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Analyst: Suspected Iran Attacks A Sign Tehran Feeling The Pressure


Investigators work at the site where a vehicle exploded near the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi.

Investigators work at the site where a vehicle exploded near the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi.

WASHINGTON -- Israel has blamed Iran for two bombings targeting its diplomats in India and Georgia this week, as well as for a botched bombing in Bangkok that Thai intelligence officials said was aimed at top Israeli diplomats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran's "terrorist activities" have been exposed, but Iran has denied any involvement.

RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to Juan Zarate, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism about the attacks and Iran's alleged role.

RFE/RL: What do you make of Israel's accusations that Iran is behind the recent attacks and plots targeting Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, New Delhi, and Tbilisi?

Juan Zarate: It strikes me that this forms part of a pattern that the Iranians have had not just in the past few months but in the past two decades: The use of retaliation and intimidation as part of a pattern in their foreign policy.

You look back to the attacks in 1992, 1994, in Buenos Aires against Israeli targets, the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, and others over the years -- the 1990s and beyond -- and then you see these attacks, in addition to the one in Azerbaijan. There is no question that the Iranians are trying to lash out both to respond to pressure that they’re feeling from the West and perhaps Israel but also to message to Israel and the West that this is the kind of retaliation that can be expected, if they continue to be pressured and continue to be attacked with sabotage and sanctions.

RFE/RL: But these attacks are very amateurish. In Bangkok, one of the bombers blew off both of his legs. In India, the wife of the target was injured. These operations don’t appear consistent with the sophisticated operations we've seen in the past that have been tied to Iran.

Zarate: You’re absolutely right, and this is a bit of a mystery with these plots and attacks -- why they’re not being handled more professionally. But we saw here in Washington, with the disrupted assassination plot of the Saudi ambassador, what looks like a very sloppy operation turns out to be tied right back to the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iranian leadership. So it’s not clear to me what’s happening.

One theory, and certainly one folks in Washington are talking about, is that the Iranians are not only under pressure but feel the need to lash out quickly and perhaps less effectively than in the past, and using networks that are perhaps less reliable.

RFE/RL: Why would Iran want to damage its ties with India, especially now that it is becoming increasingly isolated?
Zarate: It’s a very good question. I think one of the challenges, though, for the Iranians is the fact that they not only have proxies that have their own interests – Hizballah certainly, its own interest for retaliation for the death of [senior Hizballah official Imad Mughnyah] four years ago -- but also they have called on all actors [and] organizations to attack the Zionist state, Israel, and so [it] very well could be that Iran has provided the inspiration but others are providing the man power.

But none of this makes sense if the Iranians are trying to win friends. So you’re right that it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But there are interests at play here, and I think part of it is an attempt by the Iranians to demonstrate an ability to retaliate.

RFE/RL: If the allegations are true, could this be Iran’s response to the assassinations of its nuclear scientists, which they blame on Israel’s Mossad?

Zarate: I think absolutely. The Iranians promised retaliation against those they [believe are] responsible for the assassination efforts in their country and the sabotage effort, so there is no question in my mind that at least in what the Iranians have stated, that there is an interest in responding.

RFE/RL: Where is this going, this increased war of words and exchange of accusations between Iran and Israel?

Zarate: Well, you certainly see tensions rising. You’re right that the rhetoric has been raised to a new level and talk of war is more open and certainly more vigorous. But I think at this stage we’re still at the tit-for-tat stage where there seems to be a sense that this is containable and that the proxy war under way is simply that: a proxy war.

I think the real danger is that the level of danger grows unmanageable and that the level of mistrust grows and you have something that triggers a broader war. I worry about a significant attack against an Israeli target, for example, that then serves as a flashpoint for a broader war. But no doubt you’re right that the tension is increasing.

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