In the Arena

The Terrorists Who Couldn’t Bomb Straight

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There has been some discussion in recent days of moral equivalence, or not, when it comes to the dueling sticky-bombers–the probable Israeli attempts to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, which were successful; and the probable Iranian attempts to respond, which have failed. These arguments are irrelevant. Obviously, if Israel is targeting Iranian scientists, Iran–if it has any military capability at all–is going to try to respond. And obviously, Israel should understand that such responses will be coming. (I mean, if someone started killing Israeli nuclear scientists, the Mossad would be all over it, as it was when someone killed Israel Olympic athletes in 1972.)

The real question is, have we learned anything about Iran’s ability to respond in the past few days?

We don’t know enough about the attacks in Thailand today, except that they succeeded in blowing off the legs of the attempted bomber, who may have been Iranian. Yesterday’s sticky bomb attacks in India and Georgia seem more obviously reciprocal–the same method was used in the most recent assassination of an Iranian scientist. But all these of these attacks have something in common: they failed. An Israeli diplomat’s wife and several staffers were injured in India, which is awful–but also pathetic. The best the Iranians could do, in response to the decimation of the flower of its scientific community, was target the spouse of a diplomat?

If I’m an Israeli, or American, intelligence specialist, I have to draw several conclusions: First, Iranian intelligence–which Israeli experts have assured me over the years is first-rate–isn’t so good, after all. Obviously, it wasn’t good enough to target an Ambassador or a spook or a military attache…or a scientist. It also wasn’t good enough to penetrate Israel itself–remember, the attacks on the Iranian scientists all occurred in Tehran and environs.

Second, Iranian fanaticism isn’t exactly rabid, either. Where are the half-crazed suicide bombers of yesteryear? In truth, the Iranians have never been very big on suicide bombing–that’s mostly a Sunni thing. But these tepid responses, if that’s what they were, show a certain respect for and fear of Israel’s deterrent capabilities. They were a response, not an escalation. A truck bomb blowing up the Israeli embassy in Georgia would, no doubt, have engendered major Israeli retaliation. It seems probable that the Iranians don’t want to risk that.

There are those who say, with some logic, that Iran would be more willing to risk an escalation if it had a nuclear weapon. But Iran d0esn’t–and, right now, the act of “breaking out” (or trying to “sneak out”) and build a nuke is a step most experts are not sure the Iranians are willing to take. It’s possible, perhaps even probable, that Iran’s real intent is to achieve a state similar to Japan’s–the ability to assemble a nuclear weapon on short notice. The cost of actually building a nuke, risking a western military response (or even the long-term continuation of the economic sanctions currently in place), might be too high to for the current, extremely unpopular government to risk.

My calculations in the paragraph above assume an Iran that is truculent and hostile, but not irrational–and, I believe, this week’s puny attempts to respond to the death of its scientists confirm my assumption. I’ll have more about this in my print column on Thursday.