Why Iran has trouble targeting Israeli diplomats

Security and Defense: Stepped-up security, the vacuum left by Imad Mughniyeh’s death offer an answer.

By
February 17, 2012 17:37
Thai police escort Iranian terror suspect

Thai police escort Iranian terror suspect 390 (R). (photo credit: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

 
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Once upon a time, it seemed that all Iran and Hezbollah needed to do was press a button and poof – up went an Israeli target.

This is exactly what happened in 1992, when just a month after Israel killed Hezbollah chief Abbas al-Musawi, the Lebanese terrorist group – with Iranian help – succeeded in bombing the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.

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Two years later, in the same city, the Iranian- Hezbollah partnership bombed the AMIA Jewish community center.

“If I were Iran, I would be frustrated,” a senior defense official said this week. “They are trying and trying but not succeeding.”

This doesn’t mean though that they won’t. While the Iranians seem to have been plagued this week by a string of failures, Israel has also run into a spate of good luck.

The plot in Bangkok, for example, was uncovered due to a “work accident” which occurred as the Iranian cell was assembling bombs it planned to use to target Israeli diplomats. Had it not been for the work accident, it is possible that the plot would have succeeded.

The attack in Georgia was foiled when the driver of the embassy car noticed something banging against the street as he was driving, and even the bombing in New Delhi, which injured a diplomat’s wife, did not fully succeed.

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Before this week, similar plots in Azerbaijan, Turkey, Egypt, Bulgaria and Thailand were also foiled.

The question is why? The answer is slightly more complicated. One explanation which came up in intelligence assessments in Israel this week is that operationally Hezbollah is having a difficult time.

This could be the result, as some officials said, of the loss in 2008 of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s terrorist mastermind and commander of its operations overseas.

Described by former Mossad chief Danny Yatom as having a “satanic and creative mind,” Mughniyeh was instrumental in the two bombings in Buenos Aires in the 1990s as well as in a string of other terrorist attacks overseas in the years up until his death in a meticulously planned car bombing in Damascus four years ago.

Israeli intelligence believes that despite the years that have passed, Mughniyeh’s place as commander of Hezbollah’s military forces and overseas operations – run by Hezbollah Unit 1800 – has yet to be completely filled. Instead, the roles have been separated and given to a mixture of Iranians and Lebanese positioned high up in the group’s hierarchy.

At the same time, Israel has dramatically improved the security of its missions overseas and possibly even more important has used the years since Mughniyeh’s demise to bolster cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies.

In October 2010, for example, then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan paid a visit to Sofia for talks with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. A picture from the meeting was distributed to the press but nothing was said about what was discussed.

Last month, though, a possible result of that meeting was demonstrated when Bulgarian authorities foiled a plot to attack an Israeli-chartered tourist bus. It is possible that they were acting on Israeli intelligence.

A similar scenario took place in Bangkok last month when an earlier effort by Hezbollah to bomb Israeli targets there was thwarted.

According to Thai defense officials, Israel had tipped them off – once in late December and again in early January – about Hezbollah operative Hussein Atris’s movements and with exact details of when and where the attack he was planning would take place. When Atris was arrested he led Thai security agents to a warehouse filled with bombmaking materials.

The question though is why is Tehran taking such risks, particularly now when it is under the world’s spotlight and is facing increased economic sanctions and growing diplomatic isolation. It seems that it would make more sense for Iran put a lid on things, to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

Even in New Delhi, where this week’s attack was a partial success, Israel’s ties with India are extremely strong and there are growing calls for the government there to cut off its dependency on Iranian oil to aid Western efforts to undermine the Islamic regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Just days before the attack, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo reportedly visited India. While the Indian press portrayed his visit as proof that Israel did not know about the planned bombing, the opposite is possible and his trip might have been meant to coordinate what would happen after such an attack took place.

The fact that the Iranians are doing the exact opposite is a cause of major concern in Jerusalem. This might mean that as the pressure mounts, instead of the regime becoming more moderate it is becoming more radical. This does not mean that the sanctions effort is misguided.

It simply means that the process could be slightly dangerous.

This radicalization was apparent in October when the US Justice Department announced it had thwarted an Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States with the assistance of a Mexican drug cartel.

The wave of unsuccessful bomb attacks in India, Georgia and Thailand might be indicative of a regime that is panicking and is shooting in every possible direction, even in the dark.

While that might be the case, the Iranians could also be trying to show the world that a price will be paid for an escalation in efforts to stop its nuclear program. In the past two months alone plots have been uncovered in Europe, Asia and the former Soviet Union.

While they were not successful, the possibility that this infrastructure could be activated in the aftermath of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities should worry both Israel and the US.

Tehran’s desperation was apparent again on Wednesday when it revealed what it termed “breakthroughs” in its nuclear program but which were really modest advances that were expected and already known in the West.

Nevertheless, the loading of independently manufactured fuel rods into the Tehran Research Reactor was a sign of how Iran is continuing to move forward with its program, even if the steps are sometimes small and predictable.

Iran’s strategy of so-called “nuclear hedging” remains as it has been for the past few years – to straddle the threshold and keep up its enrichment of uranium so that when it makes the decision to build the bomb it will take the shortest amount of time possible.

Western intelligence agencies predict it would take anywhere from nine to 12 months for Iran to build a bomb. The Iranians are, however, trying to shorten the process to around half a year.

Interestingly, as the bomb plots were uncovered this week, the story that had topped the headlines for the previous month – if and when Israel will attack Iran – was pushed aside.

Even US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta played down remarks attributed to him by The Washington Post earlier this month saying that Israel would attack sometime between April and June. Speaking before the Senate, Panetta said that Israel had yet to decide whether it will attack.

This seems to be a more accurate description of the standoff between Israel and Iran. While Israel is serious about the use of military force it is also quite amazed at the way the world has, for the first time, enlisted in the economic crackdown on Iran and believes that there might be a chance for it to work. For that to happen, though, Israel will need to give the process time.

On the other hand, there is Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s idea of the “immunity zone,” a phrase he coined to describe Iran’s dispersal of capabilities and fortification of facilities to the point that a strike by Israel might no longer be possible. The problem is that not everyone who deals with Iran agrees with the notion.

The first sign of this was when Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at the Herzliya Conference this month that anything built by man can be destroyed by man. Next was an article in The New York Times which quoted senior administration officials as calling Barak’s phrase an “ill defined term” and saying that it reflected a narrow Israeli take on Iran’s nuclear progress.

The bigger problem is that Barak is an enigma. When he invents such a term is it being done 1) sincerely since it reflects reality 2) to speed up a strike by Israel – possibly for political purposes so he can be re-appointed defense minister after the (hopefully successful) strike and ensuing war, or 3) to provoke the US to take tougher action against Iran? Like a lot about Barak, the answer to this question is not available.

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