NEW DELHI — Israel blamed Iran on Monday for bomb attacks on its diplomats’ cars in India and Georgia, heightening concerns that the Jewish state was moving closer to striking its archenemy.
Iran denied responsibility for the attacks that appeared to mirror the recent killings of Iranian nuclear scientists that Tehran blamed on Israel.
The blast in New Delhi set a car ablaze and injured four people, including an Israeli Embassy driver and a diplomat’s wife; the device in Georgia was discovered and safely defused.
“Iran is behind these attacks and it is the largest terror exporter in the world,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told lawmakers from his Likud Party.
The violence added further tension to one of the globe’s most contentious standoffs. Iran has been accused of developing a nuclear weapons program that Israel says threatens the existence of the Jewish state. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Comments by Israeli officials in recent weeks have raised fears Israel might be preparing to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. While Israel says it hopes that international sanctions can curb Iran’s nuclear program, leaders pointedly note that “all options are on the table” and have warned that as Iran moves closer to weapons capability, time is running out for action. Fearing an Israeli attack could set off a conflict across the region and send oil prices skyrocketing, U.S. and other Western countries have been pressing Israel to give sanctions more time.
Israeli military analyst Reuven Pedatzur said Monday’s action was unlikely to have any bearing on whether Israel attacks Iran, calling it an “isolated incident” with rather low impact.
The attackers in India and Georgia appeared to have used “sticky bombs” attached to cars by magnets, similar to weapons used against Iran’s nuclear officials. Netanyahu said Israel had thwarted attacks in recent months in Azerbaijan and Thailand and unspecified other countries.
“In all those cases, the elements behind these attacks were Iran and its protege, Hezbollah,” Netanyahu said, referring to Iran’s Lebanese proxy. He vowed to “act with a strong hand against international terror.”
Israeli media reported that the government blamed Iran based on prior intelligence and that security officials feared this could be the start of a wave of attacks against Israeli targets overseas.
Iranian officials rejected Netanyahu’s accusation.
“This accusation is within the Zionist regime’s psychological war against Iran,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying.
“The Zionist regime, due to repeated crimes against humanity, is the main party accused of terrorist activities,” he said.The New Delhi attack took place just after 3 p.m. a few hundred yards (meters) from the prime minister’s residence as the diplomat’s wife headed to the American Embassy School to pick up her children, said Delhi Police Commissioner B.K. Gupta.
When the minivan approached a crossing, she noticed a motorcyclist ride up and stick something on it that appeared to be a magnetic device, he said. The car drove a short distance, there was a loud sound and then an explosion, and the car caught fire, he said.
“It was a loud explosion. We realized it’s not a firecracker, but an explosion, and rushed toward the car,” said Ravi Singh, owner of a nearby gas station.
The blast left the vehicle charred and appeared to blow out its rear door.
“The blast was so powerful, the car behind got damaged as well,” said Monu, a high school student who uses only one name.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said the woman, Tal Yehoshua-Koren, the wife of a Defense Ministry official based in New Delhi, suffered moderate shrapnel wounds and was treated at a hospital by Israeli doctors.
Her driver, Manoj Sharma, 42, and two people in a nearby car had minor injuries, Gupta said.
Israeli diplomats in India have been on constant alert since Pakistan-based militants rampaged across the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008, targeting luxury hotels, a train station and the Chabad Jewish community center.
India’s foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, said India would cooperate closely with Israel in the investigation and promised to bring the assailants to justice.
“I have just spoken to the Israeli foreign minister,” he said. “I assured him that the law of the land will take its course.”
Authorities in the former Soviet republic of Georgia said an explosive device was planted on the car of a driver for the Israeli Embassy in the capital of Tbilisi.
Shota Utiashvili, spokesman for the Georgian Interior Ministry, said the driver noticed a package on his car’s undercarriage and called police, who found and defused a grenade.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attacks.
“The United States places a high priority on the safety and security of diplomatic personnel around the world and we stand ready to assist with any investigation of these cowardly actions,” she said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the incidents underscore U.S. concerns about the recent targeting of Israeli interests overseas. He added that Washington does not yet have information on who is responsible for the attack but stands ready to help the investigations.
Iranian lawmaker Javad Jahangirzadeh was quoted by the semiofficial Mehr news agency as saying the Israeli charges were meant to provoke the world against Iran and to undermine upcoming nuclear talks between Tehran and the world powers.
Another lawmaker, Avaz Heidarpour, was quoted by Mehr as saying Netanyahu’s allegations were an attempt by Israel to justify future operations against Iran.
“It’s very likely that the Zionist regime is paving the way to carry out an assassination abroad or hit inside Iran. So, they are making preparations for that,” Mehr quoted him as saying.
Hezbollah and Iran have deep grievances against Israel.
Hezbollah battled Israel in a monthlong war in 2006. On Sunday, the Lebanese guerrilla group marked the anniversary of the 2008 assassination of one of its commanders, Imad Mughniyeh, in a bombing widely believed to have been carried out by Israel. Iran has been widely suspected of looking for payback for the covert plots against its nuclear program it has blamed on Israel’s spy agency Mossad and Western allies.
“There have been all kinds of mysterious things happening in Iran, and it could be an Iranian counterattack,” said Mike Herzog, a retired Israeli general and former top aide to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “It’s no secret that Iran uses Hezbollah globally, and Hezbollah has the capacity to carry out attacks around the globe.”
Iran and Hezbollah also could be trying to divert attention away from ally Syria’s crackdown on protesters.
Were Iran found to be behind the New Delhi attack, it would be a stunning action against one of its more reliable allies.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has resisted U.S. and European Union pressure to curtail trade with Iran over the nuclear issue. Energy-starved India relies heavily on Iranian oil imports, and the two countries are working to find creative ways for India to circumvent banking restrictions to pay for the oil by using rupees and investing in Iranian infrastructure projects.
Israel has urged the international community to consider all means, including military action, to stop Tehran.
Last month, a director of Iran’s main uranium enrichment site was killed in a blast from a magnetic bomb placed on his car, at least the fifth member of Iran’s scientific community killed in apparent targeted attacks in two years.
In a signal Iran could retaliate, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the spokesman for Iran’s Joint Armed Forces Staff, was quoted by the semiofficial news agency ISNA last month as saying that Tehran was “reviewing the punishment” of “behind-the-scene elements” involved in the assassination.
“Iran’s response will be a tormenting one for supporters of state terrorism,” he said. “The enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, Britain and the Zionist regime, or Israel, have to be held responsible for their activities.”
Clinton categorically denied any U.S. link to an “act of violence inside Iran.” Israel has made no direct comments about Iran’s accusations of covert operations, but some officials have made provocative hints that Tehran’s many foes could have an interest in efforts to destabilize its nuclear program.
Iran also has blamed the U.S. and allies for a sophisticated computer virus, known as Stuxnet, that was programmed to disrupt the centrifuges used in uranium enrichment. Iran said the virus was detected in its systems, but added there were no serious setbacks.
In January, a foreign suspect with alleged links to Hezbollah militants led Thai police to a warehouse filled with materials commonly used to make bombs.
In 1992, a bombing at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires killed 29 people. Two years later, a bombing at a Jewish community center there killed 85 people. Argentines have long suspected high-level Iranian diplomats were involved in the 1994 bombing.