Blaming Iran for Bulgaria Bombing: Assertions Before Evidence

Right after news of a suicide bombing attack in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu pointed the finger squarely at Iran. For media outlets that are supposed to evaluate claims based on evidence, this could have been a problem. But many outlets took these claims at face value–and in some cases actually bolstered his case.

“Five Israelis Killed in Bulgaria; Netanyahu Blames Iranians,” read a New York Times headline (7/19/12). There was no evidence to support this, but look at how the Times‘ Nicholas Kulish and Matthew Brunwasser worked to shore up the claims:

Iran had no immediate comment on Israel’s accusations, and no group claimed responsibility for the blast, which the Bulgarian foreign minister said had been caused by a bomb placed in the bus’s luggage compartment. But if the Israeli accusations are confirmed, the Bulgarian blast would be the first successful attempt by Iranian operatives to kill Israelis in attacks abroad after a string of failed bomb plots targeting Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India and Thailand this year.

So we’ve moved from an allegation without evidence to citing previous allegations of Iranian backing for other attacks. But Iran’s role in those incidents remains disputed as well. The Times added that Israeli officials saw another connections, since they noted that

the explosion came on the 18th anniversary of a bombing of an Argentine Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and wounded hundreds, an attack for which Argentine prosecutors have blamed Iran.

Again, allegations are piling up, seemingly in an attempt to bolster Israel’s immediate allegations of Iranian culpability. (There are doubts about the Argentina story, as Gareth Porter reported in the Nation1/18/08.)

Near the end of the piece, Times readers are warned:

Some Iran analysts in Israel counseled caution about assigning responsibility for the Bulgaria blast until more evidence was presented.

But being skeptical should have been the approach all along–not a sentiment tacked on at the end of the article.

The next day (7/20/12), the Times ran another story. Now the finger was being pointed at Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. And this apparently only bolstered the Israeli case:

American officials on Thursday identified the suicide bomber responsible for a deadly attack on Israeli vacationers here as a member of a Hezbollah cell that was operating in Bulgaria and looking for such targets, corroborating Israel’s assertions and making the bombing a new source of tension with Iran.

The added information is coming from anonymous U.S. officials, and should be treated with skepticism. What is unambiguously clear, though, are the two assumptions:

a) Hezbollah is responsible ;

b)  that group acts on behalf of Iran.

There is no way to assess the first assertion; the public evidence is still nonexistent. But is the second assumption solid? William Beeman, an academic who was written about Iran, had a valuable piece in In These Times (8/15/06) arguing that the ties between Iran and Hezbollah are overstated by many analysts:

Iran’s control over Hezbollah has been steadily declining since approximately 1996, during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Money does continue to come “from Iran” to support Hezbollah, but not the Iranian government. Instead, it’s private religious foundations that direct the bulk of support, primarily to Hezbollah’s charitable activities. Nor are the amounts crucial to Hezbollah’s survival; even the high estimate frequently cited in the press–$200 million per annum–is a fraction of Hezbollah’s operating funds.

So at this point we have government officials from the United States and Israel pointing fingers either directly at Iran, or at Hezbollah, which they assert acts as an agent of Iran.  But the evidence for both is either nonexistent or highly debatable.

Salon.com‘s Glenn Greenwald (7/20/12) and Megan Iorio at Just Foreign Policy (7/19/12) both point out that the Washington Post treated the Israeli allegations more skeptically–which they should, as should any reporter.

It is entirely possible that evidence will emerge to substantiate the U.S./Israeli argument. Indeed, given the recent killings of Iranian scientists, one might expect some attack in response. But so far, that evidence has not emerged. One has to wonder how media would treat similarly unsubstantiated allegations if they were coming from a hostile government. Something tells me that you’d see a lot more skepticism.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.