DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Moments before Iran's president began his speech about claimed nuclear advances, Iranian state TV made sure the secondary message also was clear: showing framed photos of five slain scientists whose deaths Tehran blames on Israel and its allies.
The propaganda-heavy homage — which included Mahmoud Ahmadinejad taking the young daughter of a murdered researcher onto his knee — barely registered amid the reaction to the speech from Western officials. But it offers timely lessons into an apparently growing tally of bloodshed and covert plotting over Iran's nuclear defiance.
From Iran's view — bluntly stated during Wednesday's events in Tehran and elsewhere — it's been the target of clandestine hit squads for more than two years while the West has ignored Iran's claims that the Israeli Mossad spy agency is the mastermind.
It's part of a "huge perception gap" between Iran and its foes that fosters political grandstanding and image-shaping during a suspected shadow war that has stretched from Tehran's street to secret hideouts in Bangkok, said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva.
"Iran's official line is that it's under siege, not the aggressor. This shows up everywhere in Iran's policies and statements," he said. Tehran insists its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes only, not weapons.
Iran has also strongly denied any links to a series of Israel-targeted incidents this week: A bomb defused Monday planted on a car used by the Israeli Embassy in Georgia's capital Tblisi and, on the same day, a blast in New Delhi that wounded four people, including the wife of an Israel diplomat. Israel immediately pointed the finger at Iran.
On Thursday, Thailand's national police chief claimed that three Iranians planned to use a cache of explosives to target Israeli diplomats. The Iranians were detained after accidentally setting off explosives in Bangkok
But Iran's sharp allegations about Israel's link to the scientist slayings — as well as to cyber attacks targeting nuclear equipment — serve to strengthen speculation of a payback campaign directed by Tehran. At home, Iran seeks to build greater national unity around the nuclear program as sanctions hobble the country's economy and banking sector.
The political theater was generously scripted Wednesday as Iran claimed it has made two key steps toward mastering the production of nuclear fuel.
Ahmadinejad spoke on national TV next to photos of five nuclear scientists and researchers killed since 2010. Nearby was a large portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holding the son of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a senior director of Iran's main uranium enrichment facility, who was killed last month after a magnetic bomb tore through his car in Tehran.
During earlier ceremonies to insert domestically made fuel rods at a Tehran research reactor, Ahmadinejad lifted to his knee the daughter of nuclear electronics expert Darioush Rezaeinejad, who was fatally shot last year by a pair of gunmen on motorcycles. Iran's nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, embraced the girl.
The ribbon-cutting was done by the teenage son of slain nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, who was killed in a November 2010 blast that also wounded Abbasi.
"What Iran unveiled was mostly for domestic consumption," said Davood Hermidas Bavand, a prominent political commentator in Tehran. "Iran tries to tell its people that it has achieved its goals and that it has achieved proficiency in the nuclear fuel cycle technology" despite sanctions as well as attacks allegedly linked to Israel.
Israel has not directly commented on Iran's allegations, yet officials have offered tantalizing hints that plots are always possible among Iran's many opponents. The U.S. has urged allies to allow time for sanctions to pressure Iran in attempts to cool calls by Israeli hard-liners for possible military options.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced Thursday that it has added Iran's ministry of intelligence and security to its list of specially designated global terrorists. The largely symbolic step freezes any assets the group may have in U.S. jurisdictions, bars Americans from doing business with it and bans ministry employees from travel to the United States.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said intelligence shows Iran is continuing to enrich uranium but that Tehran has not made a decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon. The former CIA director said the United States is open to negotiations with Iran to find a diplomatic solution, but he said the U.S. keeps all options on the table to ensure that Tehran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
A commentary Wednesday in the Jerusalem-based Israel Hayom newspaper echoed the views of Washington that this week's events suggest Iran is panicked by tightening sanctions on its crucial oil exports. But it offered words of warning that Israel could receive some unsettling blows from Iran's suspected efforts to strike back.
"An optimistic view is that there is a chance that this pressure will push Iran to the edge where it will decide to suspend its nuclear program," wrote Yoav Limor, a prominent defense correspondent for Israel's national TV station. "But there is a second edge, a dangerous and volatile edge, which Iran has been toying with in the past number of days. They are playing a game that could end up costing us dearly."
Such worries are not new.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been accused of orchestrating attacks and plots through its own agents or proxies, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah. In one of the most high-profile cases, prosecutors in Argentina alleged Iranian links to the 1994 truck bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, an attack which killed 85 people. Two years earlier, a bomb blast struck the Israeli Embassy in the same city, claiming 29 lives. Iran has denied the allegations and accused Israel and the United States of trying to use the case to taint Iran's image.
In January — less than two weeks after the Natanz deputy director Roshan was killed — authorities in Azerbaijan claimed they uncovered an Iranian-linked plot to strike at Jewish and Israel targets in the capital, Baku. In the U.S., prosecutors allege agents from Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard were behind a foiled plan to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
In Moscow, Iran's ambassador to Russia, Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi, tried to distance Tehran from the Iranian suspects arrested in Bangkok.
"We don't reciprocate with terror to every terrorist act and we don't reciprocate to killings of our scientists," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Sajjadi as saying. "We'll respond to Israel, but we'll respond by political means."
Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.