BY AFSHON OSTOVAR
The bombing that killed five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last week has once against cast a spotlight on Iran and its links to terrorism. Although they have presented no public evidence, Israeli and a U.S. officials have implicated the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and by extension, its patron Iran in the attack (Iran has denied any involvement). Outside of any clear link, we are left to wonder: How solid is the evidence, really? And why would Iran risk retaliation by killing Israeli tourists in Bulgaria? But Iran's connection to several foreign operations over the last year only makes the speculation more plausible.
It's been a busy 12 months for the Islamic Republic. Together, the foiled assassination plot against a Saudi diplomat in the United States, bombing attempts in Georgia, India, and Thailand, as well as the arrests of Iranians in Kenya, Azerbaijan, and a possible Hezbollah operative in Cyprus, suggest that Iran's once relatively cautious approach to covert activity may be giving way to a more hot-blooded, aggressive strategy driven by Iran's hawkish military leaders. Some of these recent foreign operations have reportedly targeted Israeli diplomatic officials. But an attack on innocent civilians on European soil -- which would garner little for Iran politically, put it at risk for further retaliation and conflict, further stain its tarnished reputation, and increase its international isolation -- would seem to severely conflict with Iran's overall defensive-minded strategic interests.
Because of their secretive nature, covert operations tend not to reveal too much about the individuals or powers behind them. Iran has benefited from such anonymity in the past, and has generally added another layer of credible deniability by outsourcing violent operations to non-Iranians. In occupied Iraq, for instance, although Iranian intelligence and military units were active, it was difficult to tie Iran to specific violence incidents conducted by Iraqi groups. The Feb. 14 bombings in Bangkok are a vivid exception. The explosion that tore through an apartment rented by an Iranian national, and an Iranian suspect's failed attempt to flee the scene (which culminated in him accidently blowing off his legs after throwing an explosive device at Thai police), led to the arrest of four suspected Iranian operatives, the warrants for two more, and directly linked Iran to a terrorism plot in the process. The Thai bombings came just a day after two attempted bombings against Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India, and gave credence to the perception that Iran was connected to those incidents as well. (Indian authorities later arrested an Indian journalist and issued warrants for three Iranian nationals suspected of involvement in the plot.)
Assuming the bombings in Georgia, India, and Thailand -- and now possibly Bulgaria -- show a shift in Iran's behavior, what precisely is motivating this change? On the surface, it appears that Iran was attempting to target Israeli officials in neutral countries in retaliation for Israel's suspected role in murdering Iranian scientists in Iran. The sloppy nature of these failed attempts, however, and the direct involvement of Iranian nationals in at least one of them, suggests that Iran's decision to retaliate could have been rash if not poorly planned.
Why the rush? Iran's impetus to act and act quickly is likely rooted in the extreme external pressures currently facing the Iranian regime. Robust international sanctions, including those aimed at Iran's petroleum and gas exports, are already exacting a stifling economical toll. Throw in failed nuclear negotiations, unrest and change across the Arab world, and widespread condemnation of the brutal repression of civil unrest in Syria, and you get an Iran increasingly isolated internationally and unpopular in the region. Add to all this Iran's already established fears of a military conflict with the United States and renewed popular unrest at home, and Tehran's leadership rightly understands that the regime is up against its most acute, existential challenge since the Iran-Iraq war.
The fall of the Assad regime in Syria would be a significant strategic setback for Tehran. Not only is Syria Iran's closest ally in the region, it also serves as a vital intermediary between Tehran and Hezbollah. A post-Assad Syria, assuming the largely Sunni opposition takes power in some form, would likely be unsupportive if not hostile to Iran and its interests in the Levant. Iran relies on its ties to Hezbollah to act as a spoiler in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And though Iran's actual influence may be exaggerated, Tehran, through its relationship with Hezbollah, has cast a long shadow, cultivating a perception of importance and gaining certain strategic advantages over Israel and the United States. The loss of Syria would hurt.
The escalating crisis in Syria thus comes at an extremely delicate time for Iran. Not only is it suffering the repeated indignities of internationally backed sanctions, ongoing sabotage against its nuclear program, and the humiliating assassinations of its scientists on its own soil, it is steadily losing influence across the Middle East and seeing its allies increasingly besieged. Despite their often rhetorical enunciations of confidence, Iran's leaders understand one thing clearly: They're at war.
Ironically, the United States' retreat from Iraq has only made Iran more vulnerable. At the height of the U.S. occupation, Iran's ability to initiate violence against U.S. forces afforded Tehran a prophylactic against a U.S. military attack. Iran has never been able to replicate that effort in Afghanistan, and with the drawdown of U.S. forces from the Afghan theater forthcoming, Iran's leverage against the United States will reduce further. This leaves Iran with three main ways to threaten its enemies: 1) rocket and naval attacks against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf; 2) closing the Strait of Hormuz; 3) targeting adversaries via proxies such as Hezbollah. Iran cannot directly attack U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf without risking an open war with the United States. And though Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz for a short period, it would be a kamikaze action that would likewise initiate a military conflict with America.
Enter Hezbollah. Terrorism by proxy affords Iran the only retaliatory option that does not necessarily bring it to or past the brink of war. And it's an area where Iran has plenty of experience, relying on both its successes in Iraq and its handful of well-known previous operations in cultivating the reputation as an effective covert actor outside its borders. All this makes it unsurprising that Iran, in a time of heightened tension, severe pressure, and repeated attacks against its people and interests, might reach for the only serviceable means of retaliation at its disposal.
The question that we are left with is not whether Iran was involved in the Bulgaria attack or not --- that's a question authorities may never be able to publicly answer convincingly -- but rather, how Israel, the United States, and Iran will respond. This long-simmering conflict is now reaching a boiling point. Unless or until either side relents and offers significant compromises to the other, Iran and its adversaries will continue along a trajectory toward war. Every conflict has its trigger, and terrorist attacks like the one that killed five innocent civilians in Burgas on July 19, can only increase the likelihood that one begins.
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 23/07/2012
-Afshon Ostovar is a senior Middle East analyst at CNA, a non-profit research organization, and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University