Jason Burke’s recent reports for The Guardian shed new light on evidence linking Iran to three bomb plots in February. Indian ministers have reportedly been informed that that an Iranian state “security entity” was behind the bombing in New Delhi, which injured the wife of an Israeli military attaché on February 13. On the same day, another device was found attached to an Israeli embassy vehicle in Tblisi, Georgia. No one was injured. A day later, on February 14, an explosion tore through a private residence in Bangkok, where multiple Iranian nationals lived and plotted against Israeli targets. One fled the scene with grenades and accidentally blew off his own legs. Several plotters are in prison but India, Georgia, and Thailand have yet to officially accuse Iran.
“Police evidence, witness statements and court documents seen by the Guardian, plus interviews with local and international law enforcement and security officials, indicate that the attempted triple-bombing on 13 and 14 February was conducted by a well co-ordinated network of about a dozen Iranians and prepared over at least 10 months,” Burke reports. Similar bomb devices have been recovered from each group. “Travel documents, phone records, police inquiries and customs data show how, in a series of trips by key individuals over the summer and autumn of 2011, flats were hired, local helpers recruited, transport arranged, finances organised and surveillance of targets carried out.”
Many observers continue to dismiss plots tied to Iran because they seem too “sloppy” and “unprofessional.” This was the case last year, when the U.S. accused Iran of plotting the assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington. Iran is frequently (and wrongly) labeled a “chess player” in international affairs and is said to possess a masterful spy cadre. And so it was assumed that incompetence in this case was exculpatory. Iran’s track record, after all, was excellent even if it was despicable.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, agents of the Supreme Leader killed dozens of dissidents across Europe, culminating in Germany’s Mykonos trial and an international arrest warrant for Iran’s intelligence minister in 1997 (See Roya Hakakian’s excellent account, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace). Israeli and Jewish targets were struck in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994. 114 died in the attacks and about 550 were injured. A terrorist outfit linked to Iran took credit for the 1992 bombing. In 2006, Argentinean prosecutors formally accused Iran of directing the 1994 attack.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh insists Iran was behind the 1996 Khobar Tower bombings in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 Americans. No Iranians were named in the 2001 indictment, but, as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told a news conference that year, “The indictment explains that elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hizbollah.” (Note: Al Qaeda was not responsible for Khobar. Thomas Hegghammer dismantled that “myth” in a 2008 edition of the West Point’s CTC Sentinel.) Altogether, terrorism cost Iran very little while intimidating enemies at home and abroad.
Old victories are not adequate grounds for dismissing recent failures, however. After all, every spy scheme sounds absurd when it fails. Remember when Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a co-founder of Hamas’ military wing, was assassinated in a Dubai hotel two years ago? Israel’s Mossad–an intelligence agency many consider to be the best in the world–was implicated immediately. More than twenty suspects were named. Pictures and video of the assassins were distributed to international media. Interpol added 11 of the suspected killers to their Most Wanted list within a month. The international fallout was significant as well. The United Kingdom and Ireland expelled senior Israeli diplomats in response; France summoned Israel’s chargé d’affaires; Germany launched an investigation; and Australia, a long-time supporter of Israel, abstained from a UN motion pushing for an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by Israel. Remember too that Israeli agents poisoned Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal but were ultimately forced to hand over the antidote because of Jordanian outrage in 1997. Let me say this again: Mossad is widely considered the best intelligence outfit in the world.
A cursory review of international reporting going back five years proves Iran is heavily engaged in espionage, like every other state, but–more importantly–several operations have been compromised. In January and March of this year, Azeri authorities arrested more than two dozen people with links to Hizballah and Iran. According to the Azeri National Security Ministry, an Iranian agent helped two Azeris acquire weapons and explosives. Prominent foreigners were targeted in Baku and large cash payments were made. Another plot was disrupted in Thailand in January after the U.S. and Israel alerted officials there. One Lebanese male affiliated with Hizballah, Iran’s favorite Shia proxy, was arrested in Bangkok; the other suspect escaped. 8,800 pounds of urea fertilizer and several gallons of liquid ammonium nitrate were recovered from a warehouse used by the cell.
Other allegations have been more explosive. In October, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al Jubeir, was the target of an assassination plot, according to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The trial is set to begin later this year. In May, a Saudi consular official was gunned down in Karachi. David Ignatius of the Washington Post later quoted a Saudi source who claimed that Washington and Riyadh agreed who the culprits were: “Pakistani intelligence had identified the killer as a member of a Shiite dissident group known as Sapih Mohammed, which has connections with the Quds Force. The Saudi official said this conclusion, that the group had links with Tehran, was based on messages between Iranian officials in Islamabad and members of the dissident group.”
Agents purportedly linked to Hizballah were arrested in Turkey and Egypt in 2009. In 2008, Azeri officials arrested two Hizballah operatives who were caught with explosives, weapons, reconnaissance photos–and Iranian passports. 15 Azeris were charged with sedition and treason in 2007 for collecting intelligence on Western targets for Iran. I’m leaving out some cases like the March 6, 2012 murder of another Saudi diplomat in Bangladesh as well as recent claims regarding an Iranian cell plotting against Riyadh’s ambassador in Cairo. As far as I know, charges are still pending. Follow-up reporting has been scant or contradictory.
I’m not saying Tehran is responsible for all of these plots. Some sentences have been carried out, while other investigations continue. But Tehran doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. Preliminary findings from India, Georgia, and Thailand prove that much. And recent cases suggest the country’s intelligence apparatus is fallible. The increasing plausibility of new plots should give skeptics reason to reconsider whether or not old plots are authentic.