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Originally published February 13, 2012 at 8:52 PM | Page modified February 14, 2012 at 6:11 AM

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Israel and Iran play blame game in bomb plots; new 'shadow war'?

Analysts worry the incidents could mark the latest round of a campaign of covert and possibly state-sponsored, retaliatory violence between Iran and Israel or their proxies.

Los Angeles Times

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JERUSALEM — The technique had a familiar ring.

A motorcyclist speeds toward a government vehicle, attaches a magnetic bomb and buzzes away moments before a fiery explosion.

That's how an Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in Tehran last month. And Indian officials said such an attack injured an Israeli diplomat's wife and three others Monday in a well-guarded neighborhood of New Delhi near the Israeli Embassy.

Israel and Iran are accusing each other of perpetrating the plots. Israel also is blaming Iran for a second embassy vehicle-bombing incident Monday, in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, that caused no injuries.

Meanwhile, analysts expressed concern that the incidents could mark the latest round of a campaign of covert and possibly state-sponsored, retaliatory violence between the two enemies or their proxies. Israeli officials blamed Iran and its Lebanon-based Islamist ally, Hezbollah.

"This is an extension of the shadow war," said Uzi Rabi, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. "We will be seeing more of this."

Israel is believed by many to have initiated a covert assassination campaign to slow down Iran's nuclear-development program, which Israel fears will be used to build nuclear weapons that one day will be used against it. Iran insists its nuclear program is meant for civilian energy purposes only.

To maintain credibility with allies and the Iranian public, analysts say, Iran needs to retaliate for the attacks on its scientists, which it blames on Israel. But closing the Strait of Hormuz or attacking Tel Aviv would be too risky, Rabi said. Even encouraging Hezbollah to resume rocket fire against Israel might lead to a destructive regional war, as it did in 2006.

"So the only recourse left at Iran's disposal is to hit back in the same way it claims it has been hit," Rabi said.

While Israel provided no evidence of Iranian involvement in Monday's attacks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rested the blame with Iran and Hezbollah.

"Iran is behind these attacks. It is the biggest exporter of terror in the world," said the prime minister, who promised a "strong, systematic, yet patient action."

According to Danny Yotam, former head of Israel's spy agency Mossad who left after Israel's botched 1997 assassination attempt against Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, the diplomatic attacks won't likely be a factor in Israel's ongoing debate regarding what it sees as the overarching issue: whether to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

"The nuclear issue is totally separate," he said.

Israel neither has confirmed nor denied the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists. Iranian officials denied involvement in Monday's twin attacks.

"It is a sheer lie of the Zionist regime," said Husain Shaikoleslam, a senior parliament adviser. "Iran is not involved in the assassination of Zionist diplomats."

The New Delhi blast injured Tal Yehoshua Koren, wife of a security official, moments after she dropped off her children.

Amateur video taken outside the embassy showed a Toyota Innova with Israeli diplomatic license plates in flames. The blast also ignited a car behind the Innova, slightly injuring two people.

Police commissioner B.K. Gupta, citing eyewitnesses, said a device was planted by a man on a motorcycle. The victim was hospitalized in stable condition, he said.

In Georgia, a messenger for the Israeli Embassy notified security officials after noticing a suspicious object under his car. A bomb was safely defused with no injuries.

Israel's diplomatic missions around the world already were on heightened alert because of the Feb. 12 anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh. The group blamed Israel for Mughniyeh's 2008 killing and repeatedly has vowed to retaliate.

Analysts said the amateurish nature of the India operation — failing to include enough explosives to prove lethal and targeting a diplomat's wife — suggested it was outsourced to groups that lacked expertise or that it was merely meant as a warning.

Given the strong relations between India and Iran, some analysts questioned whether Iran would carry out an attack on Indian soil, given New Delhi is one of its few allies right now and it needs India to purchase its oil, particularly as Western economic sanctions start to bite.

"I'd be very surprised if Iran participated in this," said K.C. Singh, a former foreign secretary and counterterrorism coordinator.

That could point to alternative perpetrators: Syrian-Hezbollah groups angry at India, which recently voted in favor of a U.N. resolution condemning Syria over its bloody crackdown on dissidents. Or it could have been undertaken, they say, by one of the loosely affiliated Islamic fundamentalist groups extending from Indonesia to Central Asia. Such scenarios, however, would not explain the simultaneous blast Monday in Georgia.

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