Washington, DC - The "Special Cell" of the Delhi police has identified an Iranian, Houshang Afghan Irani, as the man it believes carried out the Feb. 13 car bombing at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi that injured the wife of an embassy official. The police believe three other Iranians were also involved in the plot.
But major questions about the integrity of evidence put forward to prove the existence of an Iranian bomb plot cast doubt on that claim, which is the centrepiece of the Israeli accusation that Iran has been waging a campaign of terrorism against Israelis in as many as 20 countries.
Only Indian journalist Syed Mohammed Ahmad Kazmi has been officially charged in the case, and even the treatment of Irani and the other Iranians as suspects depends very heavily on "disclosure statements" supposedly made by Kazmi but denounced by the journalist as police fabrications.
Although the Special Cell (SC) also claims to have forensic evidence of Irani's link to the bombing, the evidence appears to be tainted by improper police procedures.
A central problem for the SC case is that it has no eyewitness testimony for its contention that Irani planted the bomb on the Israeli embassy car.
A hotel security camera showed that Irani left the hotel the morning of the explosion wearing a black jacket. Irani had also rented a black Honda Karizma. But eyewitness Gopal Krishanan, who was driving the car that was directly behind the embassy car and thus had a clear view of the motorcycle rider when he attached the bomb to the rear of the car, said he was certain the rider had a red motorcycle and was wearing a red helmet and red jacket.
The police were convinced by his testimony. Tal Yehoshua-Koren, who was injured in the attack but was able to get to the Israeli embassy without assistance, later told investigators she thought the attacker had been riding a black motorcycle and wearing a black jacket and helmet. A senior police officer involved in the case told the Indian Express, however, that Yehoshua-Koren could not be certain of the colour of the motorcycle.
The police continued to search for a red motorcycle after obtaining her statement, as was widely reported in the Indian press. Only after the SC decided that Irani was the bomber did the police switch to the position that the bomber had been riding a black motorcycle and wearing a black helmet and jacket.
Irani became a target of the investigation after the SC learned that a phone number associated with Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh, one of the three Iranians staying in a Bangkok house where an explosion occurred Feb. 14, had allegedly contacted the Indian mobile phone number being used by Irani.
The charge sheet does not include documentation for the claim that Irani's phone had been called by that of the accused in the Bangkok explosion. And Irani's receipts shown in the charge sheet for the moped purchased in April 2011 and for the motorcycle rented in early 2012 list Indian mobile phone numbers different from the one cited as having been contacted by Zadeh.
Irani made no effort to hide his identity in either of those transactions, so there would be no reason for him to write a false number on the receipt.
The police claim to have recovered from Irani's hotel room seven items on which the government's Central Forensic Science Laboratory found traces of TNT – the same explosive that the bomb affixed to the embassy car contained.
But the SC violated several police procedures in regard to that evidence, suggesting that it may have been planted by the Special Cell.
It was not until Feb. 29, sixteen days after Irani left the hotel, that the room was sealed by police. Even worse, another two weeks passed before it was actually inspected by the Special Cell on Mar. 13, according to the charge sheet. Ordinarily, the passage of that much time between the date the items were allegedly left behind and their discovery would call into question the authenticity of the evidence.
On Jul. 28, a few days before the charge sheet was made public, the manager of the hotel produced an occupancy chart showing that Irani's room had not been used during the 16 days between his departure and the police order to seal the room.
The chart, which the hotel manager had plenty of time to prepare for the police, makes the highly unlikely claim that Irani's room was not occupied by any guest during the 16-day period. The effort to show that the room had not been altered after Irani left it still fails to address the awkward question of how so much evidence could have been found in Irani's room long after it would have been cleaned up by hotel staff.
The belated occupancy chart only makes the forensic evidence claimed by the police appear even more suspicious.
The Kazmi "disclosures" portray an alleged plot that lacked either clear delineation of responsibility for reconnaissance of the embassy or the communication one would expect between the plotters in Tehran and their one local collaborator in Delhi during the crucial months before the explosion.
At one point in a statement attributed to Kazmi but not signed by him, he is portrayed as having returned to Delhi from a trip to Tehran in January 2011 committed to intensive research on "security arrangements and the movement of vehicles and routes travelled to Israeli Embassy".
In discussing Irani's visit to Delhi in April 2011, however, it does not mention any debriefing of Irani by Kazmi on such reconnaissance. Instead, Irani is said to have carried out the entire reconnaissance operation, with Kazmi's help, all over again.
When Kazmi's disclosure comes to the visit of his Tehran contacts, Seyed Ali Mehdiansadr and Reza Abolghasemi, to Delhi in May and June 2011, it makes no reference to any discussion of the reconnaissance Irani had supposedly already done. The two visitors and Kazmi are said to have repeated the same reconnaissance on the embassy yet again, even noting the licence plate numbers of embassy cars.
An even more dramatic divergence from a coherent account of a terror plot is found in the long final Kazmi statement dated Mar. 23 but unsigned by Kazmi. In describing Kazmi's trip to Tehran in June 2011 the statement says Kazmi's alleged key contact in the plot, Mehdiansadr, "inquired about the progress of the task assigned me".
But the disclosure statement then says the "task" in question was not gathering detailed information on potential Israeli Embassy targets, but sending "reports on the political developments in the Gulf region, like Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, etc".
In July and August, the same disclosure recounts, Kazmi travelled to Dubai and Syria, and when he communicated with his Tehran contacts, it was not about intelligence for a bombing plan but about his Dubai trip.
Kazmi's disclosure asserts, in fact, that he did not report to his Iranian contacts on any intelligence gathered on the Israeli Embassy between June 2011 and January 2012, despite allegedly having been given a mobile phone specifically for that purpose.
The questionable character of the police case that the four Iranians conspired on the Delhi bombing does not rule out the possibility that it was an Iranian government operation, but it does indicate that SC investigators could not find convincing evidence of such an Iranian role.
*This story is the second in a three-part series, "The Delhi Car Bombing: How the Police Built a False Case", in which award-winning investigative journalist Gareth Porter dissects the Delhi police accusation against an Indian journalist and four Iranians of involvement in the Feb. 13 bombing of an Israeli embassy car.