The Israeli government has wasted little time in blaming Iran and its Lebanese ally, militant Shiite Hezbollah, for yesterday's bus bomb blast that killed eight people, including five Israelis, in Bulgaria.
“For over a year, Iran, along with its protégé Hezbollah, has been waging an international terror campaign,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in a televised statement today. He called Iran “the world’s No. 1 exporter of terror” and Hezbollah its “long arm.”
But the attack by a suspected suicide bomber bore little resemblance to past bomb spectaculars pinned on Hezbollah that left hundreds dead and in 2002 earned the organization the tag “the A-team of terrorists” from a Bush administration official.
Both Iran and Hezbollah have denied any involvement in the attack.
“We will not seek revenge over the death of Imad Mughniyah by harming tourists,” a Hezbollah spokesman told Lebanese media channels last night. Mr. Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s top military commander, was assassinated in a car-bomb explosion in Damascus in February 2008. Hezbollah blamed Israel for Mughniyah’s killing and vowed to take revenge.
Still, Israel’s accusations are based on a series of foiled or bungled bomb and assassination plots over the past two years that have spanned the globe, from India to Turkey, Azerbaijan, Thailand, Georgia, Kenya, and Cyprus. Some of the perpetrators of the planned attacks have been linked to Iran and to Hezbollah.
If Hezbollah were involved in any of these attempted attacks, it almost certainly had nothing to do with avenging Mughniyah, but was connected to the covert war presently being waged by Iran and Israel. Several Iranian scientists involved with Iran’s nuclear program have been murdered in the past two years and computers at Iranian nuclear facilities have been struck by highly sophisticated viruses. Iran has accused Israel of the assassinations and cyber attacks, raising the possibility that it is seeking to effect a form of deterrence through limited attacks of its own against vulnerable Israeli targets.
From Hezbollah’s perspective, avenging Mughniyah requires selecting a target with reciprocal value, such as a high-profile political or military figure in Israel. However, one reason for the lack of retaliation 4-1/2 years after Mughniyah’s death is the possibility that it could spark a fresh, and in all likelihood, highly destructive war between Hezbollah and Israel, an outcome that neither seems to desire at the present time.
Certainly, Hezbollah has acquired a reputation for honoring its promises of vengeance. A month after Israeli helicopter gunships killed Hezbollah leader Sheikh Abbas Mussawi in February 1992, the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was blown up, killing 29 people. Two years later, a Jewish center also in Buenos Aires was destroyed in a bomb blast that left 85 people dead. The bombing came six weeks after Israeli jets and helicopters killed more than 40 Hezbollah recruits at a training camp in eastern Lebanon.
In the 1980s, Hezbollah was accused of mounting massive bomb attacks against US Marines in Lebanon and twice against the American embassy in Beirut. Those attacks collectively left more than 300 people dead.
Hezbollah has consistently denied involvement in the attacks of the 1980s and the two Buenos Aires operations, and for the past decade and a half appears to have abandoned major international attacks against Israeli or Western targets. Indeed, the last large-scale attack against a Western target in which Hezbollah was accused of playing a role – which it also denied – was the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which left 19 US servicemen dead.