Is Israel undertaking “psychological warfare” against Iran? That is how Iran describes Israel's campaign to publicize Iran's alleged involvement in terrorism.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he has “unquestionable” evidence that Iran has executed the recent airport terror attack in Bulgaria, which killed five Israelis and wounded 30 others. Meanwhile,Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Israel will be on high alert for terrorist attacks during the London Olympics. A report in the United Kingdom's Sunday Times quoted unnamed sources, saying that Israel has sent teams of Mossad agents to track down Iranian agents.
Iran has said that these accusations are false and part of Israel’s “psychological warfare” against Iran and a Turkish newspaper has called Israel’s comments a global anti-Iran PR campaign. Iran’s foreign minister added that Israel’s accusations were a smokescreen intended to distract from its own terrorist activities against Lebanon. Even more dramatically, Iran’s Press TV quoted 9/11 conspiracy theorist Gordon Duff, as he suggested that Israel orchestrated the attacks itself in order to drive the U.S. to war with Iran. However, while Israel clearly has an adversarial relationship with Iran, the reasons behind the reasons behind its government’s recent statements are far more complex that these descriptions suggest.
The recent attacks do bear many in the hallmarks of Hezbollah, and Hezbollah links to Iran are well documented. But whoever is responsible for the violence in Bulgaria, and whoever might be plotting to disrupt the Olympics, it is worth considering why Israel’s government makes these accusations so swiftly and so insistently.
Whenever there is a national tragedy, whether at an airport in Bulgaria, or a movie theater in Aurora, the government wants to assure its citizens that it knows what happened and is taking steps to punish those responsible. Thus, when Netanyahu threatens “retaliation” against Iran for the attack and Bulgaria, it is not because he wants to start a war, as many Middle East commentators have suggested, but because he needs to show Israelis that he is taking action. Similarly, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has highlighted the precautions Israel’s taking to protect its Olympic team because the emotion attached to the hostage crisis at the Munich Olympics. Israeli counterterrorism expert Boaz Ganor summarized Israel’s attitude for the Olympics and foreign threats in general, saying “There are more groups that want to harm Israeli targets than others.” The Israeli government wants to assure its people that it is working to counter these threats.
Of greater strategic importance is the leverage that these attacks and threats give Israel, so that it can convince its allies to put further pressure on Iran. For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is traveling to Brussels to urge the European Union to add Hezbollah to its terrorist blacklist, brandishing evidence of 20 terrorist attacks that it says Hezbollah has perpetrated with Iran’s support over the past two years. Although on the face of it, it seems unlikely that the EU would blacklist a group that is a significant part of Lebanon’s government, Hezbollah is still on the U.S. Department of State's list of terrorist organizations.
Israel is also calling for greater security at airports throughout Europe and around Israeli and Jewish institutions. Israel seems to be hoping to use European outrage over the Bulgaria attack on its soil to get these measures implemented. Meanwhile, citing threats to its Olympic team, Israel has asked the U.K. to tighten the Olympics’ already formidable security measures. Notably, Israel’s government has strenuously denied the rumor that covert Mossad teams are scouring Europe for threats.
Did Israel undertake this PR and diplomatic campaign just to pursue a vendetta against Hezbollah and Iran, as Iran suggests? I don’t think so. While Israel would certainly welcome any advantage over Iran and its allies, it needs to reassure its citizens and it wants to hammer out some security agreements with Europe. To me this seems less like an evil plan, and more like the sort of diplomatic maneuvering that follows any national tragedy.