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The Writing on the Wall

16/02/2012 | by Ganor, Boaz (Prof.)  
First published in Hebrew in Globes

What can we learn from the series of attempted and completed terrorist attacks against Israeli diplomats of the past two days? Even at this early stage of investigation of the three incidents – in Thailand, New Delhi and Georgia – it is possible to highlight a number of common denominators: First, a unique kind of bomb was used, one apparently prepared or compiled in a designated, “operational” apartment by the attackers in the target country. Composed of a magnetic mechanism, the bomb was apparently meant to be appended in all three cases to the car of an Israeli diplomat, or to an embassy car, while it was moving. This would have to have been accomplished by motorcyclists, who would follow the diplomatic car from the moment it left the gates of the embassy and, when it stopped at a red light, attach the bomb to it, and then detonate it by remote control. This method would enable the attackers to circumvent the precautions taken by the victim, such as close surveillance of the car prior to getting into it. In effect, according to this method, from the moment the car had begun moving, only a malfunction or some interference with the detonator would be able to prevent the attack. The attackers were very focused. Their goal was not mass killing (for that, they would have deployed a suicide bomber to a crowded place). In this case, also, they apparently were not interested in killing just any Israeli; rather, they honed in on Israeli diplomats. These terrorist attacks were thus meant to send a message to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. They are a kind of “explosive discourse”. One needn’t strain too hard to get the message. By choosing a plan of action almost identical to that used in recent months to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists (albeit with far less success), Iran’s regime of Ayatollahs essentially took responsibility for the attacks – indirectly. And if this were not enough, then the failure of the attack in Thailand and the apprehension of the two Iranians involved in preparing it provided the smoking gun that the world and Israel needed. Moreover, the plan of action was also parsed out by the Iranian Minister of Defense at a memorial ceremony for the nuclear scientists, who said that, with the guidance of Iran’s spiritual leader Khamenei, Iran had adopted a new strategy whose key component is “a threat for a threat”.

In carrying out such attacks, Iran is likely to rely on one of three institutions, or on an operational combination of the three: the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence; the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; or Hizbollah. The Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards have in the past been involved in terrorist attacks around the world, either by directly using Iranian intelligence agents or, alternatively, by exploiting local terrorist elements. But another terrorist “element” that bows to the will of Iran is Hizbollah’s overseas operations unit, headed, until his assassination in Damascus four years ago, by Imad Mughniyeh, the anniversary of whose death was several days ago. Ostensibly, the proximity of the attacks to the anniversary of Mughniyeh’s death may indicate some involvement by Hizbollah. At this stage, it is not yet possible to rule out such involvement. However, the chosen plan of action is not typical of Hizbollah. That Iranians, and not Lebanese, were caught in that “operational” apartment in Thailand, and that Hizbollah spokesmen have denied that the attacks were meant to avenge Mughniyah’s murder, may indicate that, whatever Hizbollah’s role in the recent attacks, it was only secondary. The attacks were initiated, supervised and, apparently, directly implemented by Iranian elements. Thus, through these attacks, Iran was attempting tell those whom it sees as responsible for the assassination of its scientists, loud and clear, to cease interfering with its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. By so doing, Iran is trying to draw for Israel a “line in the sand” which, if crossed, will elicit retaliation and reprisals. The assessment that these attacks will indeed deter Israel from persisting in the actions ascribed to it does not seem unreasonable to the Iranians, based on past experience. For example, the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 – a “boomerang response” to the assassination of then-director-general of Hizbollah Abbas Musawi – did indeed deter Israel for many years from attacking Hizbollah’s leaders. Will Israel be deterred this time? Will efforts to impede the development of nuclear weapons in Iran cease following these attacks? Time will tell. There is no doubt that the latest Iranian move was a total failure: a “work accident” in Bangkok, Thailand that led to the capture of two Iranian activists; the scuttling of the attack in Tbilisi, Georgia; and the attack in New Delhi, India, that led to the injury of an Israeli woman. The three incidents did not generate the effect Tehran anticipated. The relatively minimal damage that the attempted attacks caused does not obligate an Israeli military or operational response. However, the negligence of the would-be attackers, who left multiple Iranian finger prints at the scene(s) of attack, will facilitate an international legal and diplomatic campaign against Iran that will increase its isolation, impair its relations with the countries in which the attacks were attempted or carried out, and will make its senior leaders hunted pariahs throughout the world.