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The Israel Embassy Attacks: Where next for Iran and Israel?

Commentary, 14 February 2012
Middle East and North Africa
The attacks against Israel diplomatic targets in India and Georgia may well usher in a new chapter in the covert war between Iran and Israel. The Jewish state may feel emboldened to retaliate decisively on an Iran that is becoming increasingly isolated in the Arab world.

The attacks against Israel diplomatic targets in India and Georgia may well usher in a new chapter in the covert war between Iran and Israel. The Jewish state may feel emboldened to retaliate decisively on an Iran that is becoming increasingly isolated in the Arab world.

By Michael Stephens, Researcher RUSI Qatar

Hizbullah, Syria and Iran Leaders

The news on 13 February 2012 of two separate bomb attacks in Tblisi and New Delhi targeting Israel's Embassies and staff, has temporarily moved the spotlight away from Syria, and back toward the Middle East's most unstable and dangerous problem: the standoff between Israel and Iran.

It has been noted that the incident came a day after the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah's deputy leader, Imad Mughniyah. It has led many to speculate that Iranian perfidy lay behind this brazen and dangerous move.

The Israeli response has been unusually swift and certain. Within an hour Israel's Foreign Minister and Avigdor Lieberman stated 'We know exactly who is responsible for the attack and who planned it, and we're not going to take it lying down'.[1] This is to be contrasted with a bus bomb attack in 23 March 2011, when Israeli authorities still have not to this day named any suspects. Given the swiftness of this reaction and Lieberman's uncompromising and certain word-choice, unless he is performing a barefaced bluff, it seems likely that Israel does indeed know exactly who attacked its citizens.

Iran and Hezbollah are widely believed to be the culprits. Some disagree, with Indian analysts casting doubt on this, noting the importance of Iran maintaining close ties with India and suggesting that it is unlikely that Iran or Hezbollah has sufficient assets in India to assist with the operation.  

However, after announcing that Israeli authorities have thwarted several attacks in the past twelve months from Hezbollah backed by Iran, Israel's sights are firmly trained on Hezbollah which is backed by Iran. After making such open statements about Iran's guilt, they will not turn back, now that they have so openly stated who they believe to be at fault. To do so would be an embarrassment that Israel could not easily live down. In the heightened climate of tension, the presence of Israel's developed intelligence networks and its elite Sayeret Matkal strike force inside Iran and Lebanon serve as a source of fear and extended deterrence, a fact of which the Israelis are extremely proud. For Israel to admit a mistake in attribution would be a blow to its deterrent posture.

The potential for escalation

Given that Iran and Hezbollah are now the target of Israel's wrath, it makes sense to analyse what developments may emanate from this attack, and Israel's inevitable response.

A descent into chaos in either Lebanon or Iran at this particular stage is highly unlikely. Israel will not respond with airstrikes or, in the case of Lebanon, artillery barrages. Israel is already highly concerned about Syria and the potential fall of their bulwark, President Assad, from power. To attack Lebanon, for example, would antagonise this fractious situation, complicating an already Gordianly complex issue with any number of unpredictable regional repercussions.

In all likelihood, Iran will have prepared for Israeli retaliation and its response to any Israeli reaction will be limited. Like Israel, they too do not want to further destabilise the Levant as their central regional ally, President Assad, teeters. The prospects for war are therefore slim and heated rhetoric will not necessarily translate into regional destabilisation.

Far more likely is an increase in low-level, tit-for-tat responses between the two sides.

The overarching strategic goals of the two nations remain the same: Israel for its part will continue its actions to disrupt and stymy the Iranian nuclear enrichment process in any way it can, whilst holding a strong deterrent posture against both Hamas and Hezbollah, the two perceived pincers of Iran that Israelis believe encircles them. Iran will continue the policy of support for its regional proxies, priming and readying them for a much more serious conflagration, but not necessarily encouraging them to strike at any time in the near future, or while Bashar al Assad struggles to remain in power. Indeed neither Hamas nor Hezbollah are mindless drones, and possess a degree of freedom of action. And given both organisations current domestic political problems, it is doubtful that they would be amenable to Iranian encouragement at the present time.

A Covert Great Game

Whether the attacks on Israeli officials were inspired by Iran or not, the events form part of the great game that has unfolded between Iran and Israel since the last days of the Mohammed Khatami presidency and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Israel had long felt that America's interests were better served focusing on Iran and its nuclear programme rather than the relatively weak, although brutal Saddam regime. Israel's frustrations with the United States in taking the wrong option caused it to seek a far more activist foreign policy than America would traditionally countenance. This has led to to a protracted policy of targeted killing, disruption and sabotage, most notably through the introduction of the Stuxnet virus in June 2010, which is now widely attributed to have been Israel's most cunning moment vis-à-vis Iran to date.

Iran in response has endured a number of significant losses in recent years, its intelligence services have failed to prevent attempts on the lives of five of its nuclear scientists since 2007,[2] or to protect Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's 'terror mastermind' and staunch Iranian ally. In short its abilities have paled in comparison to those of the Jewish state. Given this lack of success, and the death of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan - the deputy director of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility on 11 January - it seems highly likely that his attack was a way for Tehran to reassert itself and to show that it could respond in kind.

Iran's Weakened Position

These cloak-and-dagger machinations will no doubt continue on through the year, for neither Israel nor Iran is prepared to back down in the face of pressure by the other. It is, however, Israel that still holds the upper hand, leaving Tehran with much catching up to do. It is hardly an enviable position for Tehran to be in. In its search for popularity and influence in the Arab world, Iran has locked itself into a battle against a foe all too familiar with playing games against regional and local trouble makers. But Iran must continue to compete with Israel, or else its regional influence will wane significantly. Indeed its friends in the Arab world are already rapidly deserting over Iran's stubborn support for President Bashar al Assad's regime in Syria, begging the question as to whether Tehran's games against Israel bring any value whatsoever to its regional strategic position.

The answer to this question is no. Tehran's meddling in Syrian affairs places it in an altogether different world from the days of 2006, when President Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah basked in the glory of having given Israel a  bloody nose. The reality is that now the majority of Arab states do not see Israel-baiting as being of sufficient importance to overcome their concerns over Tehran's continued ambiguity over its nuclear programme, and the (partially misguided) perception, that it is stirring up sectarian strife across the region, favouring only its Shia co-religionists in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain.

The result is that Iran has been left to battle Israel alone, without the support of the Arab states; it is a painful realisation for Tehran to come to grips with, and the Mullahs should now think very carefully about whether the 32 year policy of hostility to Israel has ultimately backfired.

Yet for Israel too this is becoming a difficult battle. Their targeted assassinations of civilian Iranian scientists, while pursuing a noble goal in the Israeli mindset, severely undercuts their position on the moral high ground, which they so fervently seek - and need - to retain. Indeed, the attack in New Delhi whereby a bomber affixed a sticky-bomb to the Israeli car before speeding off on a motorbike purposefully mirrors Israel's recent methods for killing Iranian civilian scientists. Chutzpah aside, the parallels that Hezbollah and Iran seek to draw are clear. In response to this latest attack, Israel must consider its response carefully, for Israel's place as the victim on the receiving end of dozens of terrorist attacks endows it with the moral high ground that it must not squander for tactical, temporary gains.

 The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Barak Ravid, 'Lieberman: Israel will not tolerate an attack on its diplomats abroad', 13 February 2012, Haaretz

[2] Richard Engel and Robert Windrem, 'Israel teams with terror group to kill Iran's nuclear scientists', NBC News 9 February 2012


Michael Stephens
Associate Fellow

Michael Stephens was the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies. He joined RUSI’s London office in September 2010, first in the Nuclear... read more

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