Europe should be wary of Iran’s intentions
The collapse of the Iran nuclear deal presents an opportunity for Europe to reflect on what it should seek from any replacement. It should lead to a sharper focus on the regional turmoil Iran's paramilitary proxies are involved in: A strategy driven by a religious political ideology, designed to drive conflict where its revolutionary creed takes hold.
As an uncertain Europe pauses, Iran continues to provide ample evidence that it is not a responsible participant in the global order, threatening global oil supplies via the Strait of Hormuz.
The curious story of the arrest of an Iranian diplomat last week also had dark undertones. In a cross-Europe operation, the Austria-based diplomat was held in Germany, while three men of Iranian origin were arrested in France and Belgium, allegedly with half a kilogram of explosives in their car.
All four men are accused of involvement in a plot to bomb a Paris rally organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an anti-government Iranian organization (itself with past unsavory links) that is based in France. It is not surprising that Iran has denied all knowledge, but the nature of its denial raises suspicions. Iran claimed that it was a “false flag” operation: The orchestration of an attack on oneself as a pretext for some other action.
False flag allegations are a favorite of conspiracy theorists, perhaps because they are so hard to conclusively disprove. They do happen but they are not common and, in the age of the citizen journalist, they are harder to keep secret than ever. More commonly, governments use them to muddy the waters in an age that disputes the claims of authority. For example, take Russia’s allegation that the attacks in Salisbury on Sergei Skripal were carried out by the British security services.
The situation in Belgium is unclear. At this stage, there are only arrests and allegations. There may not have been Iranian government involvement; we will have to wait and see. But, if Iran was not involved, it would have been better not to immediately accuse the targets of the plot of conducting it themselves.
Defenders of Iran like to point out that it is no worse a government than many others. But the threat to global security is not what happens inside the country (as bad as that can be for its citizens), but rather what Iran does elsewhere. The West’s joy at the election of Hassan Rouhani, the “moderate” who rules at the behest of the clerics, betrayed its deep lack of awareness of how little power the president of Iran has when its other great institutions are not with him.
The response of Qassem Soleimani, the ubiquitous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, to Rouhani’s apparent threat to oil supplies last week shows where the real power lies: “I kiss your hand for… such comments, and I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic.” In what well-ordered government would a mere general give such a qualified response to a President’s statement?
But the IRGC doesn’t serve the president. It serves Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with a mission to preserve and advance the country’s Islamist revolutionary ideology. Revolutionary Iran’s first supreme leader called it the “army of the guardians of the Islamic revolution.” That qualifier in Soleimani’s statement (“any policy that serves the Islamic republic”) shows it to consider itself above the government.
The IRGC shows scant regard for international norms. Its Quds Force operates freely, well outside the bounds of the laws of war, supporting terrorist groups and even conducting terrorist activity.
We must wait to see the results of the criminal proceedings in Belgium but, if there are connections to Iran, it would not be the first time. The Iranian government appears to think it is in a position to threaten the world. But its threats are those of gangsters, not neighbors.
The IRGC also shows scant regard for international norms. Its Quds Force operates freely, well outside the bounds of the laws of war, supporting terrorist groups and even conducting terrorist activity. It was the IRGC that provided many of the arms that turned Iraq into a bloodbath after 2003. It was even behind a plot to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir, now the Saudi Foreign Minister, when he was Ambassador to the US in 2011.
It is present in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Its proxies, most notably Hezbollah, have carried out atrocities and set up criminal enterprises in five continents. It is an active participant in South America’s drugs trade. Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused it of carrying out assassination operations in Europe. While it isn’t clear what he was referring to, it has certainly done so in the past.
What is the purpose of these activities? In part, they are probably pretentions of being a great power. But it all comes back to the Iranian state ideology developed by Ruhollah Khomeini, with its combination of divine right and continuing revolution. The Iranian boast of controlling four capitals is not mere colonialism; it bears more similarity to the USSR’s domination of the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The client states there were serving the revolution; in Iran’s case, they are supposed to be serving the establishment of proper, divine government, led by religious scholars. This is a universalist ideology: It is not meant to be limited to Iran.
It’s this universalism that is particularly dangerous, and leads to the sponsoring of criminal and terrorist activities abroad. Perhaps as Europe wrestles with how to continue its trade with Iran, it will take notice that Iran wants the benefits of international support, without its costs.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics. Twitter: @pdcwelby