Israel Blames Iran For Shadow War On Israelis

Israel says Iran is behind a string of bombing attempts in three cities abroad. And it says Israelis are the targets. Details are still emerging from attacks this week in India, Georgia and Thailand. Steve Inskeep talks David Ignatious, a columnist for The Washington Post, to make sense of the evidence so far.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're following several developments in Iran's confrontation with the west. President Obama's administration is talking of even stricter sanctions against Iran's financial system. That's part of an effort to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

MONTAGNE: An Iranian news agency says today that a senior official has made another provocative announcement. The official claims Iran is about to install homemade nuclear fuel in a research reactor.

INSKEEP: All this talk comes during a week in which Israelis have been targeted, and in some cases, injured in several countries: India, Thailand, the Republic of Georgia. Israel is blaming Iran. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius is following the story.

DAVID IGNATIUS: What's striking from the evidence that we have, and obviously it's fragmentary, is that this is not a highly professional operation that Iran is running. The attack in India was botched in the sense that it wounded the wife of an Israeli defense official there and infuriated the Indians, who were an important oil customer for Iran.

The attack that's alleged to have been attempted in Tbilisi in Georgia was against somebody who was employed the Israeli embassy and didn't work. And then the incident in Bangkok involving grenades is a kind of crazy amateur story of a guy blowing his own legs off.

So, if these allegations are true, they tell you that Iran is wiling to take more risks to retaliate against Israel for what it perceives to have been Israeli covert actions in Iran. But that they're not carrying these attacks out with a high level of skill.

INSKEEP: Now, we're getting into areas where there's less and less evidence and so we have to speak carefully. But a number of Iranian scientists have been assassinated. It's not clear who is doing it, but of course the Iranians have blamed the United States, they've blamed Israel. Is it possible to see some of these attacks as an effort to respond?

IGNATIUS: Well, because of the M.O., the modus operandi, in the Indian and Georgian attacks, where a bomb was affixed to a car, which is the same M.O. that allegedly was used in the attacks on Iranian scientists in Tehran, it does look like a direct response.

As you say, we don't know who's been killing those scientists in Tehran. But I think it's safe to say that what we're looking at is a kind of shadow war, a dirty war, involving intelligence services and operatives.

Again, we're speculating here, but the sort of tit-for-tat warfare is a sideshow to the real issue, which is the Iranian nuclear program. Now, I would think in Israel there'd be a desire to really focus on the main issue, which is stopping the program.

INSKEEP: That leads to another question, then. The Israelis are said to be discussing the possibility of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. If Israelis are being attacked in various countries and the Israelis immediately and loudly blame this on Iran, do such attacks at some point give Israel a casus belli, a reason to attack, a reason to go to war?

IGNATIUS: Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are said, by sources I talked to, not to have made the decision yet about whether to strike a bombing assault on the Iranian nuclear program. But it's one more thing that pushes these two countries towards the sort of situation where you'd see a crack up, where you'd see actual military action.

INSKEEP: So you're suggesting that if in fact we have two countries that are targeting each other's nationals, which we can't prove certainly, it could increase the risk of war for any reason, accidental war?

IGNATIUS: Graham Allison, who is a professor at Harvard University, has spoken about the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program as the Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. Actions like the ones that we're seeing, assassinations in different capitals, add to the momentum, the motion speeds up, and the risk of an accidental unplanned series of events that cascades into war is greater.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post and the author of novels including "Blood Money" and "The Increment."

Thanks very much.

IGNATIUS: Thank you, Steve.

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