Europe faces a balancing act between security and Iran’s hard-liners.
Iranian intelligence services have long been suspected of actively carrying out operations to target Iranian dissidents in Europe. According to European intelligence agencies, in the past 5 years, Iranian intelligence operatives have successfully carried out at least two assassinations and have attempted many more. The EU is now seeking to employ sanctions to both penalise and prevent Iran’s intelligence agencies from carrying out further operations inside the continent.
In May 2018, US Secretary of State and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was carrying out assassination operations throughout Europe. Such an assertion at the time was viewed with skepticism by civilian security observers throughout Europe. Since then, however, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Denmark have leveled accusations against Tehran for having carried out, or planned assassinations within their borders.
A Blood Soaked Operational History
Operatives from Iran’s two primary intelligence agencies, the Intelligence Organisation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (Vezarat-e Ettela’at Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran, commonly given the acronym VAJA), are believed to have carried out a series of assassination operations. Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi (56), and Ahmad Molla Nissi (52), are among the victims.
Samadi is believed to have been involved in an attack on the Islamic Republic Party’s headquarters in 1981. The attack killed 73 people, including women and children. In 2015, Samadi was killed on a street in Almere, a city east of Amsterdam.
Nissi was founder of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), a separatist movement in the Khuzestan Province of Iran. He was shot in the head while leaving his home in The Hague in 2017.
At the time of their deaths, both Samadi and Nissi had been given sanctuary in the Netherlands, citing security concerns. Their overall active security threat profile was not considered severe enough to warrant further security considerations.
Iran is accused of being behind further operations inside Europe’s mainland. In October, 2018, French authorities announced that operatives from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence were responsible for a failed Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attack in Paris at a gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in June. NCRI is an Iranian political organisation based in France. Present was former New York mayor and present-day lawyer for President Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani.
Found carrying 500 grams of the explosive compound triacetone triperoxide (TATP), a popular home-made explosive produced with commonly available chemicals, and a detonation device, were two individuals, one 38-year-old male (referred to as “Amir S.”) and one 33-year-old female (referred to as “Nasimeh N.”). Believed to be involved in the operation, they were intercepted by Belgian police. Both remain in the custody of Belgian authorities.
NCRI is widely considered to be the political wing of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) movement, an Iranian militant organisation with a history of attacks against government targets inside Iran. EU, Canada and the U.S. formerly listed the MEK as a terrorist organisation. The EU changed this listing in January 2009 followed by the U.S. government in September 2012 and Canada in December 2013. Yet the group remains designated a terrorist organisation by both Iran and Iraq.
In late September 2018, operatives from Iran’s intelligence services are believed to have participated in operations in Copenhagen to assassinate ASMLA members in exile. The threat caused a country-wide manhunt by Danish police and the closing of the nation’s borders. Three individuals from the ASMLA were placed in protective custody where they have since remained. The Danish Security and Intelligence Service (DSIS) stated in December that it believes the threat to remain active.
In October 2018, a Danish-Swedish-Norwegian counterterrorism operation was carried out in Gothenburg, Sweden, resulting in the arrest of one Iranian male carrying Norwegian citizenship. The individual is believed to have been traveling from Denmark and to have been involved in the planning and preparation of the September 2018 Copenhagen operation. The detained individual was turned over to Danish intelligence operatives mere hours after the conclusion of the operation. Sofia Hellqvist, press secretary at the Swedish Security Services (Säkerhetspolisen, or SÄPO), told Lima Charlie News that the suspect remains in the custody of the Danish civilian security services.
Iran has denied any involvement in these operations.
Since then, multiple arrests have occurred against would-be terrorists in Sweden and Norway, the majority of which are not believed to be directly related to Iran, but rather with Central Asia Salafi-Jihadi movements.
Without the Iranian nuclear deal, the West will have few non-military options to attempt to balance Iran’s place in the world.
Sanctions and the JCPOA
It is predicted that EU sanctions may not have any major effect. As of this writing, two government-affiliated individuals specifically targeted are a Deputy Minister, and a former Iranian Ambassador, Asdollah Assadi. Assets registered to these individuals in Europe have been frozen, and their names added to the EU Terror Watch List. Otherwise, the sanctions are very limited in scope, targeting the Iranian Intelligence and Security apparatus.
However, the sanctions may negatively impact the moderate segments of Tehran’s political circles, particularly affecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s moderates are dependent upon Iran successfully joining the world stage in order to facilitate needed reform.
The 2015 JCPOA, otherwise known as the P5+1-agreement (referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US, France, UK, China and Russia, plus Germany), was intended to provide transparency of Iran’s atomic energy programme while preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Access was granted in exchange of the easement of UN sanctions towards Iran.
In May 2018, President Trump announced the withdrawal from the agreement, along with a series of new sanctions. The EU countries that had signed JCPOA, along with Russia and China, stated that they would remain part of the agreement. Since May 2018, the US has pushed the EU to adopt the US line, with little success. The EU has instead continued to work towards circumventing US sanctions to enable the JCPOA. If these efforts were to stop, Iran, which is already facing a faltering economy, would find itself further cut off and would likely withdraw its relatively progressive social reform programs.
A Balancing Act
The EU-sanctions decision highlights the difficult balancing act Europe faces in checking Iranian aggression abroad on the one hand, while maintaining what balance exists. Without the Iranian nuclear deal, the West will have few non-military options to attempt to balance Iran’s place in the world. Politically, the situation is precarious. The nuclear agreement was directly tied, domestically, to the relative moderate rule of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who sold it to Iran as a way to revive the nation’s economy.
If the EU’s relations with Iran falter, and along with it the JCPOA, it would only serve Iran’s hard-liners that staunchly oppose the normalisation of relations with the West.
Iran’s hard-liners appear to face a win-win situation. The success, or failure, of the Iranian operations in Europe is to their advantage. If the operations succeed, it means the removal of meddlesome individuals that threaten Tehran’s political or security might. If the operations fail, it still increases the friction between Tehran and the West. Either way, it provides ammunition to further undermine the credibility of Iran’s moderates.
With President Rouhani already hard-pressed by Iran’s hard-liners, who believe that the JCPOA was a mistake and that Europe is not to be trusted, any move is their move.
[SUGGESTED READING: For more on the history of Iran’s assassinations abroad, as well as an analysis of its operational patterns check out “Analysis: New pattern of Iran-backed assassinations abroad?” by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Ali Alfoneh]
John Sjoholm, Lima Charlie News
[Edited by Anthony A. LoPresti]
John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Lebanon. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC
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