Marco Werman: Israel is again pointing an accusatory finger at Iran today. Yesterday Israeli officials blamed Iran for a bombing in India and an attempted bombing in Georgia. Both attacks targeted the cars of Israeli diplomats. Today it appears to be a case of a bomb plot gone wrong in Thailand. An Iranian man carrying grenades ended up blowing off his own legs and injuring a number of other people. Israeli officials suggest Iran is trying to retaliate for the killing of several Iranian nuclear scientists, killings that Tehran blames on Israel. Paul Pillar is former National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asia. He is now at the Center for Peace and Security at Georgetown University. Mr. Pillar, can you tell what's going on here?
Paul Pillar: Well of course everyone denies everything but the Iranian's reaction to these most recent incidents in India and Georgia has been total denial. They have accused, very implausibly in my view, the Israelis themselves of doing these things to blacken the Iranian's name. We should look even more at the historical context here. There is a long record of Iran and its clients, in particular, Lebanese Hezbollah retaliating directly and explicitly for previously Israeli actions. The two big Hezbollah bombings in Buenos Aires back in the 1990s against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center were clear retaliation for actions that the Israelis had taken in each case about a month earlier up in Lebanon in the Middle East. I think for this to be seen as Iranian retaliation for the assassinations of the scientists is both very plausible- and fits a previous pattern.
Werman: I'm wondering is there a sense within the Obama administration right now that if this is the case and Israeli financed terror group inside Iran, are they concerned that it might hijack White House strategy on Iran and re-script its scenario into an unpredictable and dangerous direction?
Pillar: Oh, there's a lot of unpredictability and danger here that I'm sure the White House is very concerned about. The United States has sent some emissaries to Israel recently, most recently General Dempsey, the senior U.S. military official, and I'm sure part of that message was to cool it. But I think the White House also recognizes that it's unrealistic to expect the Israelis or at least this Israeli government to back off from the methods they are using in trying to target what they see as a dangerous Iranian nuclear program.
Werman: So the government of Iran is saying that these attacks are being carried out by an organization called the People's Mujahedin of Iran but apparently they're being funded by Israel. I'm wondering, the U.S. considers People's Mujahedin of Iran a terrorist organization even though their actions right now might actually net some kind of benefit for the U.S. agenda.
Pillar: I don't think that you can see what the Mujahedin is doing as in an way beneficial to the United States. This covert war of neutral assassinations is only bad news for U.S. interests and I would say ultimately bad news for Israeli interests because it increases the chance of things spiraling out of control and before you know it we have a war on our hands.
Werman: Did it strike you as kind of curious, the similarity between the car bomb that attaches magnetically that have been used to carry out some of these assassinations of nuclear scientists and the one that was detonated in Deli yesterday on a car of an Israeli Embassy official? I mean what are your thoughts about that?
Pillar: I expect that the Iranians, if they were indeed responsible as I think they were, chose these methods deliberately to make the point that this was retaliation for what the Israelis have been doing to their own scientists back in Iran. So yes, the choice of tactic I think was quite significant.
Werman: What does killing nuclear scientists actually do to Iran's nuclear program? I mean it is an educated country. Do they have a lot of nuclear engineers in waiting or have the targets been essentially irreplaceable scientists?
Pillar: No one's irreplaceable and the program has progressed far enough that it is highly unlikely that the killing of so far four or five scientists would make any appreciable or noticeable dent in the program. In fact, the Iranians have trumpeted the fact that they continue to get many scientific graduates as recruits into the nuclear program. So I think it's simply unrealistic to believe that this is going to set back the Iranian nuclear program.
Werman: Mr. Pillar, what worries you most about this dynamic, this tit and tat between Israel and Iran right now, if that is in fact what is going on?
Pillar: What worries me most is this is exactly the kind of thing that can get out of control and lead to an overt war and not just a covert war which nobody may want. So I'm afraid that we are in danger, more danger now, of leading into an overt armed conflict involving the U.S. and Iran and perhaps Israel than we have been any time in the last couple of years.
Werman: Former National Intelligence Paul Pillar. Thank you very much indeed.
Pillar: My pleasure.