The “shadow war” between Israel and Iran is escalating, Middle East analysts say, as a wave of terrorist incidents in far-flung corners of world unsettles U.S. officials.
Monday’s bombing of an Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi, a foiled attack the same day on Israeli officials in Tiblisi, Georgia, and an explosion involving a suspected Iranian bomb maker in Bangkok on Tuesday are just the latest examples.
All three follow attacks that targeted Iranians during the past two years, but the New Delhi bombing bore striking resemblance to one last month in which a motorcyclist used magnets to affix a deadly bomb to a nuclear scientist’s car in Tehran.
“This is part of what we call the ‘shadow war,’” said Uzi Rabi, a historian at Tel Aviv University. “It means the kind of things that can be used and done by states without actually leaving behind some footprints.”
U.S. officials have condemned this week’s attacks but stopped short of openly endorsing assertions by Israeli leaders, who have blamed the incidents in India, Georgia and Thailand on Iran, and specifically the Iranian-supported Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
“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,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who noted that U.S. officials are “concerned” about a “spike in the number of incidents that we’ve seen.”
Authorities in Thailand last month arrested a Lebanese man suspected of Hezbollah ties and accused of plotting an attack on tourists. Also in January, three men in Azerbaijan were arrested on charges of plotting an attack on Israelis working at a Jewish school in Baku, the Central Asian nation’s capital.
Iranian officials have denied any involvement in the incidents. Similarly, Israel denied involvement when Iranian leaders accused Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, last month of working with the CIA to carry out attacks in Tehran.
But the specter of a growing proxy war ratchets up an already tense standoff about Iran’s nuclear program. Western leaders have grown increasingly dismissive toward Iranian claims that the program is peaceful, and several world powers have joined in economic sanctions against Iran.
In recent weeks, U.S. and European leaders have attempted to attract support for a global embargo on Iranian crude oil.
The crude passes through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Nerves were on edge there Tuesday when Iranian patrol boats and aircraft continued trailing a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group.
U.S., British and French warships entered the Gulf last month in a show of force against Iranian threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s crude oil is transported.
The incident in Bangkok, meanwhile, involved a man’s legs being blown off when a grenade he had been carrying exploded. Four people also were injured by the blast, which occurred after a separate explosion ripped part of the roof off a house linked to the man, identified by authorities as an Iranian named Saeid Moradi.
A stash of explosives apparently detonated by accident in the house, prompting Mr. Moradi to flee, according to a report by the Associated Press that quoted a Bangkok police general as saying the Iranian “tried to wave down a taxi, but he was covered in blood, and the driver refused to take him.”
He then hurled a grenade at police, but it somehow bounced back and detonated.
The incident happened one day after a magnetic bomb attached to an Israeli Embassy car in New Delhi injured four people, including the wife of an Israeli Defense Ministry official. A similar attack was foiled in Tiblisi on Monday, when police defused a bomb found under an Israeli diplomat’s car.
The incidents, far from Iranian and Israeli soil, fall amid concerns among some senior U.S. officials about Iran’s terrorism ambitions. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Jan. 31 that if Iran feels threatened, it could seek to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States.
Mr. Clapper cited the charges filed last fall by the Justice Department, which revealed a failed plot by Iranian officials to hire an assassin from a Mexican drug cartel to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington.
U.S. foreign policy observers remain skeptical of the plot’s legitimacy, citing difficulty in identifying a clear Iranian motive. “I still have a lot of questions about that particular plot,” said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council foreign policy think tank in Washington.
“I think these incidents of trying to kill Israelis overseas make more sense to me than a plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
“There’s ample evidence of a covert war between Israel and Iran, and it goes back a long time,” she said, noting significance in the timing of the current wave of attacks.
The India, Georgia and Thailand incidents happened during a week marking the anniversaries of two assassinations of former major Hezbollah operatives. The group’s co-founder and former secretary-general, Abbass al-Musawi, was killed by an Israeli attack helicopter Feb. 16, 1992, and its former military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, was killed by a car bomb Feb. 12, 2008.
“Hezbollah has been trying to retaliate for years, and the timing of the India attack suggests a connection,” said Ms. Slavin. “But what is new and more ominous is the fact that Iran now has a maturing nuclear program and five Iranian scientists connected to the nuclear and missile programs have been assassinated in recent years, and, of course, Israel is widely believed to be behind those incidents.”
Mr. Rabi said that Iran’s willingness to employ shadow war tactics against Israel reflects the Islamic republic’s lack of other options for aggressively responding to Western pressure.
“They can’t respond by shutting the Strait of Hormuz because doing so would be perceived by the West as a reason to wage war against Iran,” he said. “They can’t order Hezbollah to attack Israel from Lebanon because Israel would retaliate.”
By engaging in attacks similar to those by Israeli agents, Mr. Rabi said, Iran is sending a “signal that ‘we can do to you what you are doing to us in our neighborhood — if you can use proxies, we can use proxies, too.’”