New evidence has linked attempts to assassinate Middle Eastern, Israeli and American officials and businessmen to either Iran-backed Hezbollah or Iran-based operatives, The Washington Post reported Monday.
Investigators working in four countries amassed the evidence uncovering plots, which included a probe by intelligence agencies within the United States and Azerbaijan. The investigation found that in November 2011, the Iranian-backed plan was to kill American diplomats working within the U.S. embassy in the small Central Asian country.
“The plot had two strands, U.S. officials learned, one involving snipers with silencer-equipped rifles and the other a car bomb, apparently intended to kill embassy employees or members of their families,” the newspaper reported.
Citing unnamed U.S. and Middle Eastern security officials, the newspaper said the evidence included phone records, forensic tests, coordinated travel arrangements and even cellphone SIM cards purchased in Iran and used by several of the would-be assailants.
The probe found that the Azerbaijan plot was apparently just one of many. Iranian-backed operatives have been linked to attempts to kill foreign diplomats in at least seven countries over a span of 13 months, the paper said.
The targets have included two Saudi officials, a half-dozen Israelis and − in the Azerbaijan case − several Americans, according to the report.
But the U.S. administration “has declined to directly link the Azerbaijan plot to the Iranian government, avoiding what could be an explosive accusation at a time when the two governments are engaged in negotiations on limiting Iran’s nuclear program,” The Post noted.
In March, Iranian officials formally accepted a proposal to resume negotiations with six world powers on proposals to curb its nuclear program.
Strikingly, the attempts halted abruptly in early spring, at a time when Iran began to shift its tone after weeks of bellicose anti-Western rhetoric and threats to shut down vital shipping lanes, The Post said.
“There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to calm things down ahead of the talks,” the paper quotes an unnamed Western diplomat as saying. “What happens if the talks fail -- that’s anyone’s guess.”
It is unknown whether the attempts were ordered by Iranian government officials or carried out with the authorities’ tacit approval by a proxy group such as Hezbollah, The Post noted.
Many U.S. officials and Middle East experts see the incidents as part of an ongoing shadow war, a multi-sided, covert struggle, in which Iran also has been the victim of assassinations, the report said.
Four scientists tied to Iran’s nuclear program have been killed by unknown assailants in the past three years, and the country’s nuclear sites have been hobbled by cyberattacks, the paper noted.
Iran has accused the United States and Israel of killing its scientists, but it has repeatedly denied any role in plots to assassinate foreign diplomats abroad.
Last month, Egyptian security services arrested three Iranians for allegedly plotting to kidnap and murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Cairo, Ahmed Abdel Aziz al-Qattan, three months ago, a legal advisor at the Saudi embassy told Al Arabiya.
Advisor Sami Gamal Eddine said in a telephone interview that Egyptian officials informed Saudi authorities at the time but the Kingdom preferred to stay silent about the incident.
Gamal Eddine said the plot was foiled three months ago and Egypt’s ruling military council offered to tighten security for the Saudi ambassador but that the latter refused any increased protection.