Julius Nyerere of Tanzania once said that “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. This aphorism fit the Cold War-era spectacle of developing countries becoming unwitting local playgrounds for tugs of war between superpowers. But what if there were a mini-Cold War between two medium-ranked powers? It could also be global, though not as devastating in its potential to cause collateral damage in far-off countries.
This is the common scenario facing geographically scattered theatres in an assassination race between Israel and its foes. Over the last few months, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Thailand, Georgia and India find themselves in odd company as spaces upon which covert actions were plotted against Israeli citizens and Jews — all of which Tel Aviv suggests are the handiwork of Iran and its proxies.
These plans, mostly aborted, are alleged to be Iran’s retaliatory moves after a series of targeted killings of its nuclear scientists inside Iranian territory. The same modus operandi of ‘sticky’ bombs planted on the scientists’ automobiles, a hallmark of Mossad — the Israeli intelligence agency — is now being hurled in reverse direction at Israelis.
Though Iran denies involvement in the recent blasts in Delhi and Bangkok (just as Israel avows innocence in the killings of Iranian atomic physicists), the Iranian defence minister, Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi touts a “strategy of threat against threat” from Israel, which is blessed by none other than Iran’s supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On the day the Delhi ‘magnet bomb’ shattered the serenity of Chanakyapuri, Vahidi vowed more “firm responses to Israel’s acts of hostility” as part of a new approach of “reliable defence and strong deterrence.” In light of such tell-tale doctrinal statements, it is hard to believe the conspiracy theory propounded by Iran’s foreign ministry that Israel is bombing its own embassies “to tarnish Iran’s friendly ties with the host countries.” That Iran has the capacity to counter Mossad’s trademark covert operations through a game of relentlessly violent tit-for-tat is evident.
Israel’s intelligence sources argue that Iran’s ability to hurt Israeli citizens in distant lands is on the upswing since a so-called secret ‘three-way meeting’ in the summer of 2011 among General Vahidi, Syria’s presently besieged President Bashar al-Assad, and the leader of the Shia Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. Since then, the Israeli narrative goes, Iranian agents have been scouting the world for soft as well as high level Israeli targets who can be assassinated through precision attacks. The United States and Saudi Arabia have contributed to this mega-explanation of rising risks from Iran by citing last year’s attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington DC, again attributed to Iranian spies.
The world has changed since the heydays of the Palestinian guerrilla movements making hit lists of Israelis travelling abroad and of Mossad agents ‘taking out’ nomadic Palestinian rebel commanders and their accomplices. Iran has now replaced or subsumed (in the case of its close ally Hamas) the Palestinian militant threat to Israel, and the recent string of pro and anti-Israeli assassination squads roaming the globe has to be seen in this context. This is not a war of saints and sinners, since both sides are using covert methods to undermine each other. In January 2010, a Hamas commander was assassinated in Dubai by an unmistakable Mossad team.
Do such covert wars in foreign locations threaten to blow out into larger armed conflict in West Asia? Israeli counter-intelligence officials warn that twice before — in 1982 and in 2006 — Tel Aviv launched all-out war on the Palestinians in Lebanon and on Hezbollah after provocations of assassinations and kidnappings of Israeli diplomats and soldiers.
With the sanctions and war drums already upbeat in Israeli camp as Iran appears to draw closer to developing a nuclear weapon, could a blast in a city like New Delhi trigger a new war in the Persian Gulf? One cannot rule out this possibility in a presidential election year in the US, where American politicians are expected to pander to Israeli whims owing to campaign financing vulnerabilities.
Countries which are staging grounds against their will for the Israel-Iran Cold War must warn both parties (not only Tehran) to take their enmities away from neutral territory. The recent case of two Israelis being interrogated in Kochi for suspicious behaviour and possible intentions of avenging the killings of Israeli citizens in the26/11 Mumbai terror attacks is a worrisome development. We must send missives to both Tehran and Tel Aviv that New Delhi’s hospitality cannot be misused. India is too big to be the ‘grass’ for trampling.
(Sreeram Chaulia is vice-dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs)
The views expressed by the author are personal