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Assessing the Attacks in New Delhi and Tbilisi

By William Tucker

An employee of the Israeli embassy to India, along with three others, was injured in an IED attack in New Delhi today. According to press accounts of the incident, the IED was placed on the target vehicle by a motorcyclist while both vehicles transited a secure area near the Indian PM’s residence. The occupants of the target vehicle were fortunate to have survived as the device used in the attack was certainly powerful enough to be lethal, but its placement was not the most advantageous. Another attempt was made against an employee of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi. This individual, a Georgian national, noticed something wrong with his vehicle and managed to contact the authorities before the device detonated. Press reports indicate that the device used in Georgia was a modified hand grenade. As of this writing the country of origin of the grenade was not released by Georgian authorities. The components of the IED’s will be important to both investigators and analysts as the dissection of these attacks continue. For its part, Israel has already laid blame for the attacks on Iran.

The Tactical Elements

The media reports of these incidents have focused on the similarity of the attacks to those used to assassinate several Iranian nuclear scientists. Also noted by the press is the fact the attacks coincided with the anniversary of the 2008 assassination of notorious Hezbollah militant Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. Hezbollah vowed to retaliate and has made several attempts to follow through with this threat, however today’s attacks pale in comparison to the past plots that were meant to avenge Mughniyeh. Not only did the attacks fail, but they appeared to have been hastily conceived. Furthermore, the targets were embassy staffers as opposed to higher ranking officials. Comparing the attacks with past Iranian and Hezbollah activities indicate that the jobs were indeed rushed as better surveillance would have led to better target selection. Recent activities disrupted in Azerbaijan and Thailand indicate that Iran, or Hezbollah, planned to construct much larger explosive devices similar to what both have used in the past. It appears that either today’s attacks indicate a decline in operational capability, or equally possible, a means to alleviate the pressure that has been coming to a head in Iran and Syria.

Before we get to the political analysis, the tactical elements of today’s attacks, and several past plots, deserve more attention. Over the past three years (this is a bit arbitrary for a timeline, but it does show the trend) Iran and Hezbollah have planned numerous grandiose attacks, yet failed in their execution. These plots, while not always planned or conducted in concert, show that both are suffering from some sort operational problems. Because Iran has worked with Hezbollah so extensively in the past, the perceived operational decline that both are equally suffering from may be due to good defensive counterintelligence work. Although the U.S. has suffered some setbacks to intelligence collection in Iran and Lebanon it is only one piece of the intelligence puzzle. Domestic counterintelligence, with a focus on defense, has sufficed thus far in disrupting the aggressive tactics Iran and Hezbollah are known for. The primary target of this work, with a focus on surveillance, would most likely be focused on Iranian embassies or cultural centers. Nations that have relations with the U.S., Israel, and Iran would have received the heaviest scrutiny. When moving operatives into countries it is not uncommon that a nation would use its official foreign presence to move people and supplies. This may serve to explain why many recent plots, such as the plan to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., relied on subcontractors for operatives and weaponry.

The Political Angle

Iran has been coming under significant pressure over its nuclear program, but with the help of Russia and China has been spared the harshest of sanctions. Its closest ally, Syria, is embroiled in what has increasingly become a civil war. The Syrian opposition is finding backing from a variety of sources including everything from nations in the west to former arms dealers that supplied the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Thus, the challenge to Damascus has become all the more difficult. Although Iran has managed to consolidate much of its political influence in Iraq, it is the prospect of losing the Assad regime as an ally that has become a major problem. Iran plans to spread its influence through the Levant, but to do that it would need to maintain the relationship with Syria. If Iran were to lose Syria, supporting Hezbollah with the same level of military assistance would become near impossible. Tehran could still supply cash, but Hezbollah has a conventional military component. Without a well supplied military, Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon could loosen. Furthermore, Iran fears that the Arab spring may bring about new regimes that would find a more endearing friend in Riyadh.

Iran has managed to challenge its foes in the Middle East quite successfully over the past decade, but many of these accomplishments are not necessarily static. It is this situation that may have forced Iran to strike back, even though their response was rather tame comparatively. The west has long been concerned that Iran would respond to an attack on their nuclear facilities with terrorism. These fears are not unfounded, but the multitude of failures on Iran’s part may have emboldened western powers. Indeed, even many analysts have questioned the modern state of Iran’s covert capabilities. If this is truly the case it would explain why Iran felt the need to launch a risky attack in India, a nation that hasn’t signed on to many of the sanctions, and why Tehran has issued so many threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. If these attacks were designed to give its adversaries pause, it has likely failed. Instead, this will likely force Iran to escalate matters further to enhance its position in any political negotiations. It doesn’t appear to be an accident that these attacks occurred so close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offering to reopen nuclear negotiations. Today’s attacks, along with the political jockeying, are just a small part of a more complex picture.

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