More than meets the eye behind Iranian assassin plots in Europe

By Maysam Behravesh

Source: The New Arab

Denmark’s foreign minister says an attack was foiled on Danish soil [Getty]

On Tuesday, 30 October, Finn Borch Andersen, head of Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET), announced that Denmark had thwarted a plot to assassinate Habib Jabor, the Copenhagen-based leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA).

ASMLA – designated as a terrorist group by Iran’s government – is a separatist group that seeks an independent state for ethnic Arabs in Iran’s oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan.

Yacoub Hor Altostari, a spokesperson of the group, claimed – though later denied – responsibility for a terror attack on a military parade in Ahvaz on 22 September, which left 25 people including civilians dead, and around 70 wounded.

On Thursday, Danish police arrested Jabor, his brother and Altostari on suspicion of expressing support for the deadly terrorist assault, before releasing them on the same day.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which lost 12 soldiers in the incident, vowed harsh retaliation. Notably, the armed wing of ASMLA, Mohiuddin al Nasser Martyrs Brigade, had accepted responsibility for several attacks in Iran in the past, including a deadly one against the IRGC in January 2017.

Not unexpectedly, PET pointed the finger of blame at “an Iranian intelligence service”, adding that a Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent had been arrested a few days earlier, on 21 October.  

The timing of the incident, however, was extremely curious.

The same uncertainty applies to the botched assassination plot in Denmark

It came shortly before the resumption of US nuclear sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and banking system – on 5 November – and at a time when Tehran needed every bit of support it could get from Europe.

The European Union had reportedly planned to announce the launch of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) – to safeguard financial transactions and trade with the Islamic Republic by enabling companies to circumvent US sanctions – one day before the news of the foiled plot broke.

Similarly, in early October, France had declared that Tehran was behind attempts by a number of Iranians – including a diplomat – to bomb a meeting of the Paris-based opposition group National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) – also known as Mujahedin-e Khalq (MeK) – outside the French capital in June.

Given these highly sensitive circumstances, the Iranian state’s culpability and proclivity for aggression, as some would like to have us believe, cannot be taken for granted as the sole definitive explanation for these high-profile incidents. “Behind all this was a long, meticulous and detailed investigation by our (intelligence) services that enabled us to reach the conclusion, without any doubt, that responsibility fell on the Iranian intelligence ministry,” a French diplomatic source said.   

In other words, perpetrating such politically costly crimes on European territory at the same time as Iran desperately needs European support against American pressure, simply does not make strategic sense.

The case seems too curious and complicated to take official assessments at face value. It warrants a more nuanced treatment and, accordingly, at least three scenarios are in order.

The conventional explanation, strongly backed by the United States and its allies, is that the assassination and bomb plots in both France and Denmark were deliberately authorised by Iran’s leadership and orchestrated by its intelligence apparatus to target the anti-regime opposition overseas.

The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo posted a tweet shortly after the Danish authorities’ announcement, congratulating them on the arrest of “an Iranian regime assassin”. “For nearly 40 years”, he added, “Europe has been the target of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks.”

Perpetrating such politically costly crimes on European territory at the same time as Iran desperately needs European support against American pressure, simply does not make strategic sense

And indeed the Islamic Republic has tried in the past to violently eliminate opposition figures residing in Europe. Perhaps the most notorious and controversial one was the “Mykonos incident” in September 1992, when leaders of the opposition group Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) were assassinated by Iranian intelligence agents using machine guns at the Mykonos Greek restaurant in Berlin.

A German court verdict over four years later convicted four operatives and, more importantly, implicated top Iranian leadership including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, then president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati as masterminds behind the assassination.

An international arrest warrant was also issued for then minister of intelligence Ali Fallahian. A year earlier, in August 1991, state-affiliated agents had stabbed Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to death at his home in France.

More recently, the December 2015 murder in the Netherlands of Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi – suspected of bombing the Islamic Republic Party headquarters in Tehran in June 1981 – and the November 2017 killing – again in the Netherlands – of Ahmad Mola Nissi, founder of ASMLA, have also been attributed to the Iranian regime.

Yet, the international circumstances were substantially different this summer.

Since President Trump’s decision in May to pull the United States out of the multilateral Iran nuclear deal – also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the centrist government of President Hassan Rouhani has been consistently pushing Europe to stand up to US pressure, but also compensate Iran for the economic consequences of Washington’s withdrawal.

Considerable progress has been made in recent months, so much so that the European Union agreed – to the deep disappointment of Trump administration – to set up a special payment mechanism for Iran, designed to bypass US sanctions against its oil exports and banking sector.

Notably, the foiled bomb plot to attack the 30 June gathering of NCRI near Paris coincidedwith a high-profile official visit by President Rouhani to Switzerland and Austria for negotiations on the EU package to save the nuclear accord.

While Iranian moderates led by Rouhani have, since Trump’s withdrawal decision, moved rightward and narrowed their gaps with the hardliners – not least on adopting a more offensive regional strategy exemplified by missile strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria – it is unlikely that the bomb and assassination plots in France and Denmark had the blessing of the Rouhani administration.

Which leads us to the second scenario: They were orchestrated by a hardline clique within the Ministry of Intelligence or Revolutionary Guards, in an attempt to undermine the Rouhani government and set the stage for a hardline takeover, as the JCPOA – moderates’ landmark foreign policy achievement – faces growing strains and Iran’s economy struggles to absorb the impact of reinstated US sanctions.

The foiled plots on European territory have done a great deal of psychological damage

On Tuesday, German foreign minister Heiko Maas criticised the Trump administration’s economic penalties against Tehran, warning that they could destabilise the country and empower its “radical forces”.

Both these state security institutions have close links to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei and his office, but it is not entirely clear if he or his close circle of confidants had any role in ordering or masterminding the plots.

Echoing a similar uncertainty, French President Emmanuel Macron told France 24 television in a mid-October interview, that “Iran is sometimes divided into different factions and tensions, and so I can’t say today whether the order came from the top or from this (security) service or that division.”

The same uncertainty applies to the botched assassination plot in Denmark. Yet, the idea of top Iranian leaders not being deterred by the extremely costly failure of the first attack on European soil and still pressing ahead with a second one does not make rational sense.

This raises the possibility of a third scenario – which is also Tehran’s official narrative – whereby nemeses of the Islamic Republic, including those bent on sabotaging Iranian-European cooperation over the JCPOA and in the face of US opposition, would hatch a security trap and attribute the consequent “false flag” operations to the Iranian government.

None of the above scenarios have been substantiated with hard evidence and may never be

Shortly after the assassination attempt against ASMLA leader and his two associates in Denmark was disclosed, Israel revealed that its intelligence service, Mossad, had tipped off Danish officials about the unfolding plan.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also indicated during a press conference on 1 November that Israel had exposed the June bomb plot in France as well. The reported infiltration of Israeli agents into the top echelons of Iran’s intelligence and security apparatus over the past decade – which most notoriously culminated in the theft of its gigantic half-a-ton atomic archive earlier this year – buttresses the third explanation.

None of the above scenarios have been substantiated with hard evidence and may never be. 

Nonetheless, there is no escaping the fact that the foiled plots on European territory have done a great deal of psychological damage and exacerbated a mutual sense of mistrust between Iran and Europe. 

The incidents will also arguably help to further the cause of nuclear sanctions and economic pressure against Tehran at a time when it is struggling to contain growing protests and mass strikes at home.

Maysam Behravesh is a multimedia journalist and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Lund University in Sweden.