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Media Watch | Tensions Escalate over Alleged Iran Link to Bulgaria Attack


20 Jul 2012 04:30Comments

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SuspectedSuicideBomber.jpg4:30 a.m. IRDT, 30 Tir/July 20 Wednesday's terrorist attack at the Burgas International Airport in Bulgaria on Israeli tourists, possibly by a suicide bomber, has caused an uproar within the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran, and then Hezbollah. Israel's defense and foreign ministers also alluded to Iranian involvement, though without offering evidence. The Israeli government presently claims that "the immediate perpetrators were Hezbollah members...operating under the perpetual Iranian aegis both in all overseas operations as well as in their activities in support of the al-Assad family."

So far, no evidence has yet emerged to tie Iran, Hezbollah, or any other organization to the attack (early reports also put forward Hamas and Islamic Jihad as suspects). In condemning the attack and announcing that an FBI team will fly to Burgas to assist in the investigation, Bulgarian and U.S. officials did not echo the claims of their Israeli counterparts.

According to Al-Alam TV and the Islamic Republic News Agency, both Iran and Hezbollah have denied any involvement in the bombing, and Iran's Foreign Ministry condemned the attack.

The explosion was the deadliest overseas attack on Israelis since two simultaneous hotel bombings in Egypt in 2004. No suspects have yet been named by any of the investigators. For several hours, Bulgarian media outlets claimed that the attack was carried out by Swedish citizen Medhi Ghezali, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was held at the camp between 2002 and 2004 due to suspected al-Qaeda ties; after his release, he was arrested in Pakistan in 2009 on the same suspicions.

Now, though, both the Bulgarian police and the Swedish Security Service are denying these reports. A representative of the Swedish police told reporters that Ghezali has been under strict surveillance for years and was not in Bulgaria. It is not clear how Ghezali came to be suspected by the media in the first place, beyond a passing resemblance to a man seen on the airport's CCTV tapes thought to have been the bomber.

If someone like Ghezali was involved, the attack would fit in with a larger pattern of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists in Europe targeting public transportation after 9/11, such as the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which were carried out with remotely detonated backpack bombs. Reflecting on the Toulouse shootings this past March, in which Jews were targeted in the name of the Palestinian cause, it is also possible that like Mohamed Merah the Burgas bomber was acting essentially as a "lone wolf." In any event, al-Qaeda links would be difficult to reconcile with alleged Iranian involvement, since according to documents seized from Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, Iran's relationship with al-Qaeda has been poor at best.

The as yet unproven Israeli charges of Iranian orchestration have also been contested in the Israeli media. Some commentators have accused the government of seeking to use the attack to call for military measures against Iran. The placement of blame on Hezbollah and Iran, and the subsequent range of heated responses -- from former U.S. officials anticipating retaliatory strikes against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases to Gulf of Tonkin allusions -- illustrates the larger split within Israel over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. As Haaretz's Amos Harel put it, "The struggle between Iran and Israel will probably continue, mainly under the surface, until a decision is made on how to deal with the nuclear issue." Indeed, the longer it takes to identify the bomber, the harder it will be for the Israeli government -- which has so far declined to publicly release whatever information it may have on the attack -- to maintain that Iran and Hezbollah orchestrated it.

These debates in the Israeli media also illustrate the persistent problem of trying to determine just how far ahead Iran's leaders are thinking with their Israel policies. Ordering this attack would represent a serious misjudgment on Tehran's part regarding world opinion and the direction of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. A shift from targeting Israeli diplomats to targeting tourists in Europe would mark not just a serious escalation of the Iranian-Israeli "shadow war," but indicate that Iran had become so desperate to strike back against Israel that it is risking a wider confrontation and tacitly admitting its repeated failures to retaliate for the deaths of scientists and military personnel that have been blamed on Mossad and the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO).

Planning and carrying out an attack like this in Europe would constitute a tremendous risk, especially when cooperation between Bulgarian and Israeli intelligence will now be redoubled to identify (living) suspects. If their involvement were exposed, they'd find themselves in even more of a diplomatic black hole than now, Russia and China notwithstanding. While immediate military action is unlikely, it would be extremely optimistic to assume that a country linked to the attack would fare no worse than, say, North Korea did after Pyongyang's fingerprints were found all over the downing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. It's worth bearing in mind that in the same decade this attack occurred, the United States and Israel bombed countries -- Libya and Lebanon, respectively -- in retaliation for terrorist attacks on their citizens. In the case of Lebanon, the terrorists were not even linked to the Lebanese government -- hence the comparisons being made between Lebanon and Bulgaria today by worried Israeli commentators.

Even if the Revolutionary Guards do not truly believe their own press about their ability to resist and retaliate against Israel and the United States, any sort of escalation would indicate a split within the regime over the nuclear question, one with very dire implications for a nonmilitary outcome to the crisis. If Iranian involvement is proven, it would show that the regime's leaders -- or at least the Guards -- have decided on armed escalation as a necessary course of action despite hopes that a compromise over Iran's uranium enrichment can still be reached. As the American Enterprise Institute reported in May, citing the pro-regime outlet Botia News, it was Major General Ghasem Soleimani of the Quds Force who feared that Hezbollah might jump the gun and undermine Iran's interests by taking too hard a line on Israel:

Today, the Zionist regime is in total isolation and is facing a serious legitimacy crisis. Any attack would depict them as victims and us as unjust aggressors, which would mobilize the public sympathy for them.... The claim that in order to relieve Syria of crisis one must create another crisis for the Zionist regime is false.

Botia News has since strenuously denied that the meeting between Soleimani and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah where the former reportedly made this statement ever occurred. Tehran Bureau also reported on the statement, noting that it appeared in other news outlets linked to Iranian security forces, but was then retracted.

If Hezbollah itself had carried out the attack -- the date of the bombing coincides with the 18th anniversary of a bombing in Buenos Aires targeting Jews for which the Argentine, U.S., and Israeli governments hold Hezbollah and Iran responsible -- it would have gone against Soleimani's reported advice in May. Hezbollah expanded on its earlier denial, challenging a claim from an Israeli source that this was a revenge attack for the death of one of its senior officials, Imad Mughniyah, in 2008.

Indeed, neither Hezbollah's nor Iran's alleged involvement appears to make sense from a tactical or strategic standpoint right now: it is true enough that precipitating one crisis can hardly solve another, whether it is Syrian, economic, or nuclear. But in this climate of escalation, with Iranian nationals arrested in several countries for alleged plots against Israeli diplomats, and Israeli spooks blamed by Iran for killings and explosions in the country, the attack in Burgas would have assumed a "logic" in Tehran that carries forward into action.

What we can see more clearly is the debate within Israel pitting Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak against former intelligence and military chiefs such as Meir Dagan (Mossad), Yuval Diskin (Shin Bet), and Gabi Ashkenazi (IDF) on whether or not the time is fast approaching to strike Iran. The ultimate preference in many Israeli and American circles is for regime change, since that is theoretically the most likely course of action to put an end to Iran's contesting of Israeli and American hegemony in the region by supporting Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Israeli intelligence apparently settled on a concept in the 1990s to gradually wear down the ayatollahs by a combination of covert ops, sanctions, diplomacy, and sabotage. Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, authors of Spies Against Armageddon, a controversial new book about Israeli black ops against Iran, note that

Dagan and analysts in the Mossad's research department realized that networks inspired by al-Qaeda were not seriously interested in battling Israel and the Jews.... Dagan had to consider re-ordering priorities again. In light of Iran's nuclear and missile programs, plus the rhetoric of its leaders who declared Israel an illegitimate state to be wiped off the map -- it seemed wise to place the Islamic Republic at the very top of the priority list. Intelligence collection and analysis aimed at Iran would be more than doubled.

Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who cautioned the Israeli government in the wake of the Burgas attack that "sometimes the price of the punishment exceeds the advantages of success," noted that Mossad has been given "unlimited funding" to operate against Iranian assets. And investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh asserts that the U.S. government was still training MKO operatives at least as recently as 2005.

These measures are all part of a "five pillar" containment strategy, according to leaked documents. This, then, is the concept Israeli generals have stuck with for over a decade on Iran. Intelligence leaders and missile defense experts fear that if Netanyahu is serious, a military strike this year or the next will undo all that work, isolate Israel internationally, lead to a regional war, and entrench the Iranian regime -- which they are sure will then "go nuclear."

The political climate in the Middle East will likely deteriorate anyway in the wake of the Bulgarian attack, just as tensions in the Persian Gulf and Syria are rising.

The time for an Israeli attack is not yet nigh, says analyst Meir Javedanfar, not least because too many logistical and political hurdles remain, though none inherently impossible for either Obama or Netanyahu to overcome. But even so, one hurdle -- skepticism among Israeli citizens over war with Iran -- may well be cleared as a result of this terrorist attack, making a confrontation between the U.S.-Israeli alliance and Iran much more likely before the year is out.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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