Iran continues plots abroad as new American sanctions kick in

Iranian agents' suspected involvement in a plot to kill members of the country’s diaspora in Europe is throwing a wrench into Tehran’s efforts to get closer to its neighbours and the EU.
Sunday 04/11/2018
A file picture shows Iranians shouting slogans during a protest against President Donald Trump’s decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran. (Reuters)
Toghter noose. A file picture shows Iranians shouting slogans during a protest against President Donald Trump’s decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Iran is battling accusations of plotting assassinations of Iranian dissidents in the European Union at the very moment it is seeking support from Europe and neighbouring countries to cushion the blow of US sanctions targeting Tehran’s oil sector.

Denmark said it suspected an Iranian intelligence service was planning to kill a member of the Iranian Arab opposition in its territory. The charge followed a decision by France to expel an Iranian diplomat over an alleged plot to attack a rally by an exiled Iranian opposition group near Paris.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani tried to display defiance ahead of the impending US measures, telling Washington it would not break Iran’s economy. Rohani, however, admitted the sanctions would make life harder for a population suffering from domestic economic problems.

Rohani spoke as his government braced for US sanctions aimed at reducing Iran’s crucial oil exports to zero.

US President Donald Trump ended the United States’ participation in the 2015 nuclear treaty with Iran in May. He argues that heightened economic pressure on Tehran is needed to force Iran to agree to stricter guidelines preventing it from developing nuclear weapons and to end aggressive policies in the Middle East and beyond.

Iran has been reaching out to neighbouring countries and Europe to counter Trump’s policy. “The cornerstone in Iran’s efforts to skirt US sanctions is its ties with its neighbours,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group in Washington, said via e-mail.

The US administration has found it hard to forge a broad international alliance to stop Iran’s oil exports, which account for 82% of all Iranian exports, said Trading Economics, an economic research company. Big buyers of Iranian crude, such as China, India and Turkey, are reluctant to stop their imports altogether.

That reluctance led the United States to grant waivers to eight importers of Iranian oil, which received permission to keep buying from Tehran without penalty. The Trump administration did not name the countries but reports said India, Turkey, South Korea, Japan and Iraq were on the list.

Iranian First Vice-President Es’haq Jahangiri, however, was quoted by state media as saying the United States would not be able to reduce Iranian oil exports to less than 1 million barrels per day.

EU countries created what is known as a Special Purpose Vehicle designed to shield trade between Europe and Iran from US sanctions.

Given Trump’s problems in cobbling together an anti-Tehran front, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sounded confident.

“The neighbouring countries and European nations have resisted Washington’s unilateral measures,” Zarif said at a meeting with his counterparts from Turkey and Azerbaijan in Istanbul.

Vaez said Iran had improved relations with Iraq and Syria. “These ties won’t mitigate the impact of US sanctions but will provide it with a lifeline under sanctions,” he said.

However, the suspected involvement of Iranian agents in a plot to kill members of the country’s diaspora in Europe is throwing a wrench into Tehran’s efforts to get closer to its neighbours and the European Union.

Denmark is pushing for EU sanctions against Tehran because of the suspected plot by a Norwegian-Iranian national, who is accused of trying to kill the leader of the Danish branch of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz on behalf of an Iranian intelligence service. Iran said the charges were part of a conspiracy aiming “to damage Iranian relations with Europe at this critical time.”

France said Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence was behind a plan to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group. The attack on the meeting in June was prevented by a joint intelligence operation conducted by France, Belgium and Germany.

The European Union has not announced whether it will sanction Iran because of the plots in Denmark and France.

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, accused Europe of downplaying the Iranian threat. “Even as Iranian hit squads are setting up shop across the continent, the European Union is displaying a fundamental lack of seriousness about a country uninterested in distinctions between bombs, missiles and assassinations,” the editorial said.

Some experts do not exclude the likelihood of Iranian foul play continuing in Europe while the United States pursues its pressures. “If I had to bet, all these things will happen — the US will tighten the screws, the Iranians will do more things that are worrying to the Trump administration and the two sides will talk,” Jon Alterman, an expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies told Reuters.

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