Last month I argued that Iran doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to terrorism. Although trials and investigations are ongoing, we shouldn’t dismiss Tehran’s motivation or capabilities outright, like some do. Since last month’s post, still more plots have been revealed.
On July 7, a Lebanese suspect was detained in Cyprus. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the suspect “faces nine charges of security-related offenses related to tracking the movements and areas frequented by Israeli visitors.” Police reportedly believe he is a member of Hezbollah. British intelligence is said to have tipped authorities in Cyprus. Days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran and Hezbollah of targeting Israelis on the island, a bombing in Bulgaria killed five Israeli tourists on July 18.
Two more Iranian nationals were charged on July 23 with possession of military grade explosives in Kenya. Israelis have been targeted there before as recently as 2002. Al Qaeda is believed to have been behind the plot that killed 13 people at an Israeli-owned hotel; shortly after takeoff, an Israeli airliner was nearly downed by shoulder-fired missiles on the same day. The continued vulnerability of Israeli assets in Mombasa makes it appealing for those who want to do harm, regardless of their affiliation.
The Times of India is also now reporting that Indian police believe a February bombing in New Delhi was the work of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This begs the question: What next for Indian-Iranian relations? India imported 368,000 b/d of Iranian crude in the first six months of 2012, making it the Islamic Republic’s second-largest customer. It’s unclear if outrage will be enough to harm trade relations. But the audacity of attacking targets in a friendly capital raises a more important question: What is the logic behind Iran’s recent activities?
Iran’s standing has not been enhanced by recent plots. Too many cells have been detected and thwarted early, which reflects poorly on the country’s spycraft and its proxies. Also, these plots only add to the long list of grievances already kept by Israel, the United States, and other nations—so they are no remedy for isolation. Terrorism might still alienate Iran even more when carried out on friendly or neutral soil (like India and Bulgaria). It’s important to note that “plausible deniability” is no longer a free pass either.
With that said, these plots still serve as a deterrent to Iran’s enemies. Attacks on officials and citizens can still intimidate. Better yet, they are cheap and don’t risk the kind of escalation that might endanger the regime. (By contrast, closing the Strait of Hormuz would invite the full force of the U.S. Navy). Iran can deny responsibility even as it exposes the vulnerability of others. Consider also the imbalance in conventional forces: Iran has no choice but to resort to terrorism if it wants to strike distant enemies. It can’t project power any other way.
Most interestingly, Iranian plots have increased since the country’s scientists began dying mysteriously in 2010. Assassinations inside Iran have been linked to the country’s controversial nuclear program. Naturally, the prime suspects are the U.S. and Israel. The total number of nuclear scientists and engineers killed stands at four. If indeed Iran is connected to recent plots in the U.S., Georgia, India, Thailand, Cyprus, and Kenya, we know why: they are trying to create a balance of fear. Doing so could halt future attacks while exacting vengeance for previous killings. What’s more, it may be working.
The last reported assassination of an Iranian scientist came on January 12, 2012. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was killed by a magnetic car bomb in Tehran. Iran’s Fars News reported that Roshan supervised a unit at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Isfahan. Since then, Iranian plots have been uncovered almost every month around the world, all of which targeted Israeli, American or Saudi assets. Iranian authorities also claim that they’ve been able to arrest many of the assassins.
Iran is clearly playing offense and defense at the same time. They’re doing their best to secure the home front while firing warning shots abroad. Since January, no more Iranian scientists have died mysteriously (as far as I can tell from international reporting). Iran’s increased use of terrorism may explain why assassinations have stopped inside the country. Authorities might also be truthful when reporting that they’ve rounded up the killers. Whichever country is responsible for the assassination of scientists might also be playing more conservatively this year, perhaps because the operations have had no effect on Iran’s nuclear pursuits, or because targets are lacking. We just don’t know. What we do know is that the number of plots linked to Iran has risen steadily while attacks on Iranian scientists have declined over the same period.
Any discussion of Iranian terrorism would be incomplete without any mention of cost. Terrorism is cheap—but risky. An attack might invite the wrath of the victims, especially if a wounded nation can determine responsibility before outrage fades. In the case of Tehran, however, history shows that terror has been a risk-free tactic for the regime. Iran’s use of it throughout the 1990s produced very little fallout. Iran only faced diplomatic isolation after the Mykonos trial concluded in 1997, revealing that Iran had killed dozens of dissidents across Europe. Several countries withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran in protest but their absence was brief. That same year, Iranians elected reformist Mohammed Khatami as president. His promises of change erased ill-will in many capitals. Leaders around the world hoped that Iran would no longer resort to terrorism.
We can assume that none of the plots tied to Iran this year or last were intended to fail. But how far can the regime push its luck? We might find out soon if more plots are revealed or some prove terribly successful.