Europe-Iran relations complicated by alleged assassination attempts

Europe-Iran relations complicated by alleged assassination attempts

The leaders of the EU, France, Germany and the UK last week released a joint statement expressing Europe’s ongoing support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and their intentions to try to preserve business and trade with Iran, despite newly reimposed US sanctions. However, recent allegations regarding Iranian efforts to assassinate dissidents based in Europe threatens to undermine the continent’s resolve at a particularly sensitive time.

Friday’s statement noted that Europe is trying to implement mechanisms to allow European firms to continue to conduct business in Iran and to continue importing Iranian oil. “Our collective resolve to complete this work is unwavering,” the European leaders said. 

At the same time, the statement contained a warning to Iran, noting that the leaders “expect Iran to play a constructive role” in maintaining the JCPOA. Part of that is a reminder to Tehran that, in exchange for Europe’s efforts to ensure economic benefits for Iran, the regime must continue abiding by the JCPOA’s limitations on its nuclear program. Additionally, the language may also be a warning that Iran needs to be more careful regarding its actions in European countries.

In October, two serious accusations were made against Iran for allegedly attempting to assassinate Iranian dissidents in Europe. The first came early in the month, when French authorities said that Iranian intelligence had plotted to bomb a June gathering in Paris of the political arm of the Mojahedin-e Khalq. Related arrests were made in France and Belgium, and German police arrested an Iranian diplomat who is reportedly the intelligence agent who ordered the attack. 

Later in October, Danish authorities revealed that they believe Iran planned to assassinate members of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) in Denmark. A Norwegian man of Iranian origin was arrested in Sweden in October and is accused of involvement in the plot. 

These cases came at a particularly sensitive time in Iran-Europe relations, but there have been previous cases too. A year ago, ASMLA’s founder, Ahmad Mola Nissi, was killed in the Netherlands, raising suspicions about Iranian involvement. In late 2015, a man was shot in the Netherlands and reports emerged in June this year that the man may have been “Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi, who was accused of planting a bomb that resulted in the deadliest attack in modern Iranian history,” according to the BBC.

For now, Europe is likely to continue trying to preserve relations with Iran and the JCPOA. However, it will be important to follow Denmark’s reaction.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

There are questions about all of these cases. The Iranian government has denied involvement, blaming the allegations on actors that want to disrupt European-Iranian relations. The publicly available evidence so far is weak, especially in the Danish case, leaving observers to rely on European intelligence agencies. There are multiple reports that Israel’s Mossad provided information in the Danish case, and Israel clearly has a strong interest in weakening European support for Iran. However, many European authorities say they feel confident in their information.

It is possible that factions within Iran that oppose the JCPOA are responsible and acted without the knowledge of President Hassan Rouhani. Furthermore, from Iran’s perspective, given ASMLA’s role in attacks within Iran — including a September attack on a military parade in Iran that killed civilians as well as soldiers — Europe has been harboring terrorists; so it might feel justified in trying to assassinate them.

Regardless of the allegations’ accuracy or the motives of anyone behind them, they pose a significant challenge to European-Iranian relations at a critical time. France responded to the alleged Paris plot in a measured way, freezing the assets of two Iranian officials and choosing not to appoint a new ambassador to Iran. Denmark, however, appears to be seeking a more muscular response; it has recalled its ambassador and is talking with other EU countries about how to respond. Several European nations have recently expressed solidarity with Denmark.

Yet, on Friday, Europe appeared united behind its efforts to continue conducting business and trade with Iran in order to preserve the JCPOA. This leaves Europe facing a dilemma: It wants to circumvent US sanctions and do business with Iran in order to preserve the JCPOA, but its strongest tool for responding to Iranian killings on European territory is to impose sanctions.

European leaders believe that the JCPOA is a successful agreement that significantly limits Iran’s nuclear program as a global and regional threat. They believe the approach of international sanctions leading to negotiations and a deal is a good model, and they do not want to undermine it as a potential plan for addressing other global concerns. Also, the pre-JCPOA sanctions on Iran hurt Europe’s economic interests more than they hurt the US’, and European leaders are keen to allow business and trade. Furthermore, Europeans have many reasons to be annoyed with US President Donald Trump and do not want to hand him a win by imposing their own sanctions on Iran. 

For now, Europe is likely to continue trying to preserve relations with Iran and the JCPOA. However, it will be important to follow Denmark’s reaction. If actors within Iran are trying to spoil the JCPOA through assassinations in Europe, more attempts could occur. At a minimum, relations between Europe and Iran are complicated, and much will depend on political outcomes in Iran as well as in Europe. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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