Iran’s Global Terror Campaign Has Been Stifled, for Now

With international intelligence services ratcheting up their efforts against Iran, and mounting domestic pressure in advance of the country’s elections − perhaps the regime’s ability to monitor execution of terror attacks has slackened.

As of Thursday afternoon, the roster of Iran’s global terror assault on Israel had five new additions: one wounded Israeli and four injured citizens of India, as a result of the New Delhi explosion. A terror attack in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, failed. A planned attack in Thailand was thwarted and within a day, three persons, each with passports from the Islamic Republic, were detained.

Iran vociferously denied Israel’s accusation that it sponsored the attacks in New Delhi and Tbilisi.

Iran graphic - Wolkowski - Feb 2012

The explosive planted by a motorcyclist on an Israeli embassy car in
India caused limited damage. The device that was intended to destroy the car of a Georgian driver from the embassy in Tbilisi was snatched from the vehicle before it was detonated, and was then defused. And the three detainees in Bangkok were apparently unable to furnish persuasive cover stories.

The initial investigations suggest that the explosive devices employed in the different locations resembled one another. If the Iranians are operating other terror cells that were supposed to strike other targets in this wave of violence − the arrest of the Bangkok squad probably made them bring the militants back to Iran, lest Tehran’s complicity in this recent global assault become more manifest. There is a distinct possibility that Tehran’s global terror campaign has been stifled, at least for now.

Car bomb Dehli - AP - Feb 2012

This week’s episodes would appear to belie the ominous comments by top
Israeli officials − this week, as well − that describe Iran’s intelligence and security services as the “world’s leading producer of terror.” Still, there are other pieces in the puzzle that deserve to be deciphered before final conclusions are drawn.

One possible explanation for the gap between the expectations and the results is that Israeli intelligence and diplomatic officials deliberately exaggerate the level of the threat posed by Iran, just as the CIA and hawkish politicians in the U.S. inflated dangers posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. It bears mentioning that Iran and Hezbollah have in recent years launched close to 20 failed attempts to attack Israeli and Jewish targets overseas, in reprisal for the death of Imad Mughniyeh, the head of Hezbollah’s terror network. Only on Monday − four years and one day after Mughniyeh’s assassination in Damascus − did these reprisal efforts tally their first success, when an Israeli diplomat’s wife, Tali Yehoshua-Koren, was wounded in New Delhi. The Iranian scheme to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington that was uncovered last year was also revealed to be amateurish in its design.

A major question mark looms over the character of the attack in Bangkok this week. It’s possible this wasn’t exactly a “work accident” that occurred in the preparation of an explosive; indeed, it might have been a foiled terror attack. Thai police raided the apartment in which the Iranian terrorists were hiding, and it was around that time that the explosion took place. Later, one of the terrorists was wounded when he tried to flee the site, while carrying explosives.

Last month, another planned attack, this one intended for Israeli tourists in Bangkok, was thwarted; a Lebanese suspect was detained after this incident. Media in Thailand estimated that local police forces operated then on the basis of a “tip” supplied by a foreign intelligence service. The possibility that the same dynamic was at play this week should not be ruled out.

Israeli intelligence officials were surprised by the attacks in India and Georgia. The picture regarding Thailand is less clear. A logical evaluation holds that the Iranians used local “subcontractors” in the three incidents this week. The safe house exposed in Bangkok served as a preparatory facility for terror: It’s possible that the Iranian citizens were not supposed to carry out the actual attacks, but that their proxies were supposed to pick up the bombs at a later time.

Haste and pressure

The attacks’ failed execution might have been the product of haste and pressure. In fact, Iran’s intelligence services are facing pressure to attain immediate results. The attacks appear to have been timed not only to coincide with the anniversary of the Mughniyeh killing; they also might have been quickly arranged reprisal attempts for the killing of five Iranian nuclear scientists, the most recent of which occurred last month. Tehran blames Israel for these killings. Ahead of parliamentary elections in March, Iran’s leaders want to demonstrate that they have ways of responding to such attacks on their nuclear program.

However, there is more than domestic election concerns at play here: Iran is conducting wars on several fronts, and it is not especially pleased with the way any of them is going.
There is, of course, the mostly clandestine global struggle being waged by Iran against Western intelligence services. Only the tip of this campaign’s iceberg is visible to the public. The struggle involves arms smuggling, the assassination of scientists, cyber-war and, now, attacks on Israeli diplomatic installations. In tandem, Iran’s main investment of effort is in the nuclear sphere.

The international sanctions campaign, whose purpose is to stifle Iran’s nuclear efforts, moved into higher gear this past January, with the declaration of a European embargo on Iranian oil, to begin in July. Israel continues to threaten about a possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, plus tensions about the continued supply of oil are on the rise in the Persian Gulf.

In addition, Iran has its hands full in dealing with regimes in the Arab world. Its effort to spearhead a Shi’ite revolution in Bahrain was foiled by a joint Saudi-Jordanian effort. Furthermore, its joint attempt with Hezbollah to contain popular unrest against Bashar Assad’s dictatorial regime in Syria have not been crowned with success.

With so many things happening at once in the Arab world, and with so many world intelligence services stepping up efforts against Tehran, it’s quite possible that its regime’s ability to monitor attack plans has slackened, with one consequence being such malfunctions as the mishaps in Bangkok and Tbilisi.

Low-profile activity

Do the attacks against Israeli targets overseas this week portend anything regarding the campaign against Iran’s nuclear efforts? Might they in fact accelerate Israeli plans to attack Iranian nuclear sites? On the one hand, it would appear that the sides are maintaining a low profile vis-a-vis the dispute, and that it is not likely, for now, to spill over into full conflict. But plans can always go awry. It’s by no means certain that Israel would have been content with public censure had the explosion in New Delhi occurred after Yehoshua-Koren had picked up her kids from school and was driving with them in the embassy car.

On Monday, following the incidents in India and Georgia, urgent consultations were conducted by officials from the IDF General Staff, the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service. The historical precedents confused the issue at hand: In 1982, Israel used an assassination attempt against its ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov, as a pretext to launch the first Lebanon War, which had been in planning for quite some time. In contrast, in 1992, it opted for restraint after the bombing of the embassy in Buenos Aires, which was perpetrated by Iran and Hezbollah in reprisal for the killing of the latter’s secretary-general, Abbas al-Musawi.

This time, Israel refrained from immediate responses, although it stepped up its rhetorical assaults. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu twice denounced the Iranian terror attacks, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman promised that Israel “will not carry on with business as usual” and overlook them. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was in Singapore’s airport at the time, twice pointed out that he had made an interim landing in Bangkok just hours before the explosion there.

It’s hard to imagine that Barak was the Iranians’ target. Yet the defense minister, a frequent flyer whose trip to Singapore has spilled over into a weekend excursion in Japan, implied that there was some sort of connection between the Iranian moves and his trip to the Far East. In any case, in view of Barak’s sober warnings about the critical point to which affairs related to Iran have reached, it’s somewhat surprising that he has found so much cause in recent weeks to leave the country for trips abroad.

Renewed opposition?

Iran’s regime has decided to ban stoning as a method of execution, and from now will sanction hanging alone as its means for meting out the death penalty. On Tuesday, the regime forcibly dispersed a protest rally, and arrested a few opposition activists.

The next day, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officiated at a festive unveiling of fuel rods produced in Tehran’s nuclear research reactor. This was a deliberate ploy designed to attain a number of goals: the demonstration of a technological accomplishment; the obtainment of leverage ahead of possible future, renewed negotiations with the international community ‏(enrichment of uranium to a 20-percent level is now an established fact in Iran’s reactors‏); and a show of strength for the country’s citizenry.

Yet this week’s protest demonstration, two years to the day when two leaders of the failed Green Revolution of the preceding summer − Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karubi − were arrested, is likely to mark the start of renewed efforts on the part of opposition movements. Though a relatively small number of people took part in this latest protest, the combination of a domestic economic crisis and the winds of change generally blowing through the Middle East is liable to promote stirrings of dissent in the Islamic Republic.

In the Wall Street Journal this week, Mehdi Khalaji, an expert on Iranian affairs and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, quoted comments made by a recently retired Iranian general, Hossein Alai, founder of the Revolutionary Guard Navy. Writing in Tehran’s Ettelaat newspaper, Alai had drawn comparisons between the current situation in Iran and the circumstances preceding the Islamic revolution. He suggested that should Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei fail to work out a compromise with the reformist leaders, Mousavi and Karubi, he will be making an error similar to ones perpetrated by the shah, prior to his fall.

For his part, Khalaji claimed that many former Revolutionary Guard officers are today businessmen involved in the oil business and in Iran’s banking system. These retired officers, like the Guard itself, are liable to incur a devastating blow when a new round of international sanctions is applied. Khalaji explained that Khamenei’s political status depends largely on the situation of the country’s nuclear program − as well as upon his image as someone who knows how to handle outside pressure. “Holding firm” against sanctions, Khalaji wrote, “is a matter of life or death” for Iran’s supreme spiritual leader.

The only factor that could lead to a change in Khamenei’s position is the disposition of the Revolutionary Guard. In Khalaji’s view, the Guard represents the sole force in Iran today with the power to make the country’s spiritual leader adopt a course of compromise.

Historic rift

Hamas’ political leadership in Gaza, headed by Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar, has failed to date in its efforts to torpedo the reconciliation agreement forged by the head of the organization’s political division, Khaled Meshal, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Surprisingly, in this showdown Meshal enjoys the support of the senior officials of the organization’s military branch, headed by Ahmed Jabari.

In an organization that has steadfastly upheld an image of unity during its 24 years of existence, the crisis in Hamas is historical. Signs of the rift surfaced last May, during the reconciliation ceremony staged by Abbas and Meshal in Cairo. On this occasion, Meshal expressed relatively moderate views regarding Israel − which stirred Zahar’s wrath. The controversy continued through the end of last year, after Meshal spoke about a transition to “popular resistance” against Israel, and announced that his organization was prepared to join the PLO.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was Meshal’s statement of his readiness a few weeks ago to establish a unity government headed by Abbas. Haniyeh, who became the main victim of Meshal’s rapprochement strategy, refused to keep mum this time.

After having been described by Israel for years as a predatory, dangerous militant, Meshal is now promoting a rapprochement strategy with the PA, and enjoys support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egyt. For his part, Haniyeh, who has been thought of as being relatively pragmatic, went off to embrace Ahmadinejad in Tehran, ignoring the sentiments of the moderate Arab camps.

In all likelihood, Benjamin Netanyahu will bring the photo of the Hamas leader’s appearance at the Tehran rally with him to the White House when he visits there early next month.

Hamas’ leadership in Gaza is apparently fed up with Meshal’s proclivity for taking independent action. As far as the organization’s political leadership in Gaza is concerned, in view of the impending collapse of the Syrian patron, and of Hamas’ strengthened position in the Strip, they deserve to play a more prominent role in decisions made by Hamas’ governing council. As the movement’s leaders in Gaza see it, rapprochement and a subsequent election campaign could jeopardize the organization, which could face a setback in the election. Plus, even a victory in the elections would not alter Hamas’ standing in the West Bank, since Israel would hunt it down there in such a scenario.

This position, however, has been offset by that of Hamas’ military wing, which decided to align itself with Meshal. In the Hamas power struggle, this military branch seems to be the big winner, at least for now, since it tips the balance in any contest between the Gaza leadership and Meshal’s political wing.

Though influenced by personal interests and ego, these arguments about Hamas’ strategy and policies reflect processes by which the organization has matured into an establishment force on the Gaza Strip, after five years of rule. Top IDF officers were asked this week to cite the last time Hamas figures took part in rocket attacks against Israeli targets. The last time that happened, they responded, was about half a year ago.