Israeli/Iranian Cold War Heats Up

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

The Israeli-Iranian cold war has gotten hotter, judging from news coming from India, Georgia and Thailand, where Iranian operatives are accused of a series of attacks against Israeli diplomats. The attacks mirror alleged Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, but have been far less effective.  They have left the intended targets injured or unscathed, making it easier to reveal the conspirators alleged to have been involved in the plots.

However, not everyone is convinced that the proof of the Iranian involvement is as watertight as some have suggested. The National’s editorial, for example, urges its readers and policymakers to not “jump to conclusions in the Iran-Israel row…. Iran’s secret services are considered to be sophisticated and capable, but those are not words which could be used about this week’s bombers, nor a murky alleged Iranian plot, exposed last year, to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. It is, in short, very difficult to be certain who is killing, or trying to kill, whom. It is however not difficult to see that this cannot end well if it continues to escalate….The threatening rhetoric only serves the purposes of the assassins planning the attacks.”

Iran has categorically denied any involvement and accuses the U.S. and Israel of attempting to damage Iran’s relations with India and the other countries where the attacks took place. According to the Iranian Mehr News: “Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast dismissed on Tuesday Israeli claims that Iran is behind three explosions that rattled the Thai capital of Bangkok on the same day….Mehmanparast said that the false allegations leveled against Iran by the Zionist regime are meant to damage the ‘friendly’ and ‘historic’ relations between Tehran and Bangkok.”

A similar statement came from Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi who “warned against various plots by enemies against Tehran, saying there is an ongoing all-out war against the Islamic Republic…. The enemy has hatched different plots against the Islamic Republic in almost all fields, Moslehi said on Thursday….He added that as the most important intelligence body in the country, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has so far countered enemies’ countless plots. Moslehi noted that the enemies’ plots have caused threats against the country, but have also created opportunities.”

There have been some that have suspected the involvement of Hezbollah in the attacks. But as the Lebanese The Daily Star reports, “Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah denied Thursday his group was involved in several recent security incidents in India, Georgia and Thailand against Israeli diplomats….Nasrallah also vowed his group would avenge the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, one of Hezbollah’s top security officials who was killed in a mysterious car bomb explosion in Syria in 2008. ‘Our revenge will not be against Israeli soldiers or diplomats; it is actually offensive for Hezbollah to avenge a great leader by killing regular Israelis,’ Nasrallah said.”

Among those who are skeptical about the involvement of Iranian or Hezbollah-affiliated groups is Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, who believes “Iran seems an unlikely culprit for the attacks on Israeli diplomats…. If Iran wanted to target Israeli interests, it has other means at its disposal. It is hard to imagine that the Iranian government would send Iranian operatives to friendly countries, completely equipped with Iranian money and passports — making the case against them as obvious as possible….If the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are as professional, highly trained and politically savvy as we have been told repeatedly by Israeli politicians themselves…then why would they launch such a clumsy and self-defeating operation?…The true answer is that at this stage no one knows for sure who is behind the attacks.”

For many within Israel however, such actions were expected and there is little doubt Iran is behind them. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ronen Bergman argues these attacks are “likely an Iranian attempt to redraw the rules of play against Israel…. In 2008, Hezbollah military chief Imad Mugniyah was assassinated in the heart of Damascus, by Mossad agents and other forces….The latest attacks constitute an Iranian attempt to again redraw the rules of play….In the bottom line, the secret war attributed to Israel against Iran and Hezbollah continues in full force. For the time being, Israel is winning by knockout, but we should not underestimate the other side’s determination and capabilities. What we saw thus far may only be the beginning.”

On the other hand, Gideon Levy, writing for Haaretz, asserts that there isn’t much difference between what Iran is accuses of having done and what Israel has done in the past: “Terror is terror, against diplomats exactly like against scientists, even if the latter are developing nuclear weapons. There is no great difference between an attempt to kill a representative of Israel’s Defense Ministry and a strike on an Iranian nuclear physicist. There are nuclear physicists in Israel too and if, God forbid, someone tried to assassinate them, that would rightly be considered cruel terror. And so anyone who uses these deplorable assassination methods cannot be critical when someone else tries to emulate them….Both kinds of countries should be denounced….Here people are shocked by attempted assassinations by Arabs or Iranians, but divorce them completely from the context of Israeli assassinations.”

Beyond the question of whether Iran is behind the attacks or not, there is the question of what to do about them. The Gulf News editorial cautions against any hasty action that could trigger a war: “Each incident in the ongoing shadow war between Iran and its opponents can very easily slip into a much more dangerous general confrontation, which would be bad for the Gulf and the region as a whole….As confrontation mounts, it is important to remember that only negotiations will provide an end to the crisis. The disturbing lack of interest in talking, and Washington’s refusal to offer Iran a political exit other than humiliation is not helping….Iran is not doing itself any favours by refusing to meet the International Atomic Energy Agency’s demands for free access to substantiate their denial of any interest in nuclear weapons”

Similarly, James Zogby warns in an op-ed on Al Ahram against “exaggerating the threat posed by this regime, [since] by pretending that it is a menace equal to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, the West succeeds only in giving the Iranians what they want most — an inflated sense that they are a real power to be feared….Make no mistake, the regime in Tehran is a meddlesome menace and their aspirations for regional hegemony do pose a threat, not to Israel (which serves more as Iran’s foil than its target, and vice versa), but to the Arab Gulf States whose concerns are rarely, if ever, considered in U.S. political discourse. My concern is that the escalating rhetoric by all sides poses a danger in itself. The region is a tinderbox, and it is as if everyone is too busy playing with matches to think of the consequences of their behaviour.”

There are others though who feel there is no upside to a gentle approach vis-à-vis Iran. Israel Hayom’s Dan Margalit argues for keeping the pressure on Iran: “Iranian terror is a real threat….There is no knowing who has been attacking Iranian scientists and their nuclear facilities, and it is reasonable to assume that Ahmadinejad plans to exact a bloody revenge. But this revenge, as painful as it may be in the near future, worse even than Thailand and India, should not stand in the way of anyone with the means of striking at Iran’s nuclear project.”

Strong words come from one of Israel’s main dailies, The Jerusalem Post, which in its editorial calls for a broader “Western” response to Iran’s alleged actions: “The Islamic Republic and Hezbollah have proven in the past that they are capable of carrying out murderous terror attacks — not just against Israel….It has become abundantly clear that Iran is a menace to the West. The violent rhetoric of the Islamic Republic’s official leaders and their active support for terrorist attacks both in the region and around the world cannot be dismissed merely with empty condemnations….A fierce Western response to these attacks…would send a counter-message to the mullahs in Tehran: Just as tentacles can spread out, they can also be amputated.”

Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top