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Thailand Squeezed In Iran-Israel Shadow War


Israel and Iran have been trading accusations of waging shadow warfare through a series of attacks on each other's citizens in several countries. Thailand says that three Iranians arrested this week were planning to assassinate Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, using explosive devices.

The bombs went off on Tuesday wounding one Iranian and four Thais. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Bangkok, that Thailand has unwillingly became the latest battleground in this conflict.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The first of three explosions on Tuesday happened in a quiet alley off Bangkok's Sukhumvit Road where many foreigners and affluent Thais live.

Right now I'm standing outside the house where the explosion took place at about 2:30 in the afternoon on Valentine's Day. Peering through a hole in the fence, I can see a cream-colored leather sofa in the living room covered with debris. The explosion blew the façade off the living room and it blew the roof off the second floor.

Police later searched the house and defused two more bombs. They were made of C-4 explosive packed into radios and they contained magnetic material so that they could be attached to cars. The bombs were similar to ones used in attacks on Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, India and Tbilisi, Georgia.

Chen Kai Conlan(ph) is a 44-year-old motorcycle taxi driver. He saw one of the three Iranian men who walked out of their rented house after the explosion.

CHEN KAI CONLAN: (Through Translator) He looked like a normal guy with a backpack. Walking a bit hurriedly, he tried to hail a cab. He was carrying a box. I thought it looked like a video camera. I had no idea it was a bomb. None of the cabs would stop, so he walked out to a school, but there were police there. He threw the bomb at them. I didn't see it, but I heard the bomb go off.

KUHN: The explosion blew off the Iranian man's leg before police arrested him. Thai police chief Phrewphan Damapong told reporters that the police are certain that the Iranian's original intended target was Israeli diplomats in Bangkok. Iran has denied involvement in the attacks, which it accuses Israel of staging.

Rohan Gunaratna is a counter-terrorism expert at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He says that neither Israel, Iran, or the U.S. want a full-blown confrontation at the moment. So for now, he predicts that a low level conflict by means of targeted killings will continue.

ROHAN GUNARATNA: Both sides have been targeting each other, and of course, states advance their foreign policy interests by using assassination, but conducting such terrorist attacks. So this is a tit for tat.

KUHN: Gunaratna notes that the conflict comes as Iran is announcing advances in its nuclear program, even as it accuses Israel and the U.S. of assassinating several Iranian nuclear scientists.

GUNARATNA: I think the policy of killing Iranian scientists will trigger similar attacks, because Iran believes that this is the type of language that the enemies will understand. So the only way to prevent this kind of tit for tat retaliation is for all parties to sit and talk.

KUHN: Officials in Thailand feel caught in the middle. They emphasize that their country is not the intended target of the attackers and that it's a destination for tourism, not terrorism.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Bangkok.. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.