x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A war for US public opinion as Israel alleges Iranian terrorism

Benjamin Netanyahu is on a public relations offensive, hoping to convince America to do his dirty work.

When Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his Fox News interview last Sunday, offering condolences to the victims of the Colorado cinema massacre, he added: "I think if any people on Earth that empathise with the Americans at this time, it's the Israelis because we've been through so much of this." Cynics may have wondered whether the Israeli leader was going to blame the Batman-movie shooting on Iran, too.

After all, the reason he had scheduled a round of interviews with the US talk shows was to talk about the horrific terror attack the previous week on a bus in the Bulgarian resort town of Burgas, which killed five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver. Their bodies were hardly cold before Mr Netanyahu was insisting that the attack was "unquestionably" the work of Iran.

The evidence was rock-solid and incontrovertible, Israeli spokesmen insisted, although they didn't provide any, sticking to their guns even when Bulgarian authorities suggested the perpetrator may have been a Swedish national who had spent time in Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan and later in the US prison facility at Guantanamo - a claim denied by Sweden.

The investigation into the bombing is continuing and is as yet inconclusive, but that hasn't stopped Mr Netanyahu. Yet by the time the Israeli prime minister had done his rounds of US talk shows on Sunday, the claim had been modified - the Burgas attack was now the work of Hizbollah, acting as Iran's proxy. And that, said Mr Netanyahu, was "a reminder that the world's most dangerous regime must not be allowed to have the world's most dangerous weapons".

The latter statement, of course, appeared to reflect Mr Netanyahu's real purpose: to use the terror attack as a platform from which to turn up pressure on President Barack Obama to confront Iran over its nuclear programme.

Mr Netanyahu had first promised harsh retaliation against the perpetrators, whose street address he essentially claimed to know. But thus far, the only action he seems to have taken was directed at shaping US public opinion - which hardly needs convincing on the Iran issue. The purpose was probably to suggest that not enough was being done to challenge Iran.

Needless to say, the effort fell a little flat after the Colorado shootings, and growing concerns over what would happen to chemical weapons stockpiled by the Syrian regime should President Bashar Al Assad be driven from power. (That's an especially difficult conundrum for the Iran-obsessed Netanyahu government, since Israeli leaders acknowledge that the Tehran-backed Assad regime is, in fact, acting responsibly to secure its chemical weapons.)

It may be that Iran was responsible for the Burgas terrorism, seeing an attack on Israeli civilians abroad as retaliation for the steady stream of assassinations in Iran targeting scientists and security officers, in which Israel is the prime suspect. But there would also be reasons why Tehran might see a brutal terror strike as a reckless option at a moment when Iran was still hoping to maintain delicate diplomatic negotiations with western powers and ease sanctions.

And, of course, if the perpetrator was actually Hizbollah, the motivations might be quite different. Hizballoh is allied with Iran, and might well carry out operations on its behalf, but it also has an independent agenda, its own setbacks to avenge and its own history with Israel. It's quite possible that the Lebanese Shia movement might seek to avenge the 2008 assassination of longtime operational mastermind Imad Mughniyeh. (Hizbollah says it doesn't go after tourists, for the record.) It's worth remembering, also, that Al Qaeda has targeted Israeli tourists abroad, such as in the 2002 attacks in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.

Some saw Mr Netanyahu's focus on Iran as preparing the way for an escalation of Israel's covert war against the Islamic Republic. Referring to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and other covert actions, Iran analyst Trita Parsi wrote: "US officials have privately expressed concern that one of the purposes of Israeli attacks in Iran has been to generate an Iranian response that could serve as a casus belli for Israel."

Parsi argued that it was precisely for this reason that the US publicly condemned the most recent assassination of an Iranian scientist, while other powers pressed Iran to refrain from retaliating by warning that this would play into Israel's plan for war.

Despite the relentless speculation about an imminent Israeli air strike - the one, remember, that's been "imminent" for the past three years - and despite the obvious failure of negotiations with Iran as long as western powers echo Israel's demands on Iranian uranium enrichment, Mr Netanyahu's turn on the US television suggests he's no closer to bombing Iran.

With the world economy poised on the brink of recession, the crisis in Syria potentially rewriting the Middle East geopolitical map, and his own generals repeatedly warning of the limited effect of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities - and of the likelihood that such a strike would more likely prompt Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to opt for a nuclear deterrent - Mr Netanyahu doesn't seem poised to start a war for an operation whose risk may be inversely proportional to its rewards. The reason he headed for American TV studios was obvious: he still hopes to persuade Washington to do the job for him.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron