Iran’s behaviour testing EU’s patience

The hashtags #blacklistMOIS and #ExpelIranDiplomatTerrorists were trending on Twitter following the EU’s meeting and the MEP’s joint letter.
Sunday 25/11/2018
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini speaks to the media in Brussels, on October 18. (Reuters)
Under pressure. European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini speaks to the media in Brussels, on October 18. (Reuters)

LONDON - Iran has come under significant pressure after the European Union (EU) expressed cautious support for new economic sanctions against the country at a time when it is increasingly reliant on European support to prop up a nuclear deal that has already been abandoned by the United States.

The news comes after representatives of Denmark and France briefed EU members on Iran’s role in foiled terrorist attacks in their countries. “The EU held a renewed discussion about common steps against Iran,” Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen told reporters after the November 20 meeting. He did not elaborate on what precise steps were discussed.

The EU has traditionally been in favour of a softer line towards Tehran, including engaging in dialogue and ensuring the survival of the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

However, a number of European countries have become increasingly fed up with Tehran following reports that Iranian intelligence agents were embroiled in foiled terror plots on the continent.

France has already imposed sanctions on Iran’s intelligence service and two Iranians over a terror plot aimed at an anti-government rally near Paris organised by an exiled Iranian opposition group. The plot allegedly involved an Iranian diplomat based in Vienna commissioning a Belgian-Iranian couple to carry out an attack in France on a rally held by the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), including providing them with an explosive device.

Denmark has accused Iran’s intelligence service of plotting to carry out an assassination plot on its soil, targeting activists Tehran believes were involved in a shooting on a military parade in Iran in the city of Ahvaz on September 22. Twenty-five people, including Iranian soldiers, were killed in the attack. The group the activists work for has denied any ties to the Ahvaz attack.

Tehran has also been accused of seeking to target anti-government activists based in Albania, which is not a member of the EU, with two Iranian operatives believed to have been arrested earlier this year on terror charges.

In March, Britain, France and Germany sought to impose sanctions on Iran over its development of ballistic missiles and activities in the Syrian conflict, but the proposal failed to gain support. Following the revelations of Iran’s involvement in foiled attacks in France and Denmark, many more EU member states seem open to imposing sanctions on Tehran.

The NCRI came out strongly in favour of the EU’s potential sanctions on Iran, calling on the bloc to blacklist Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) as a terrorist entity. “Several decades of the appeasement policy towards the religious dictatorship in Iran, and all the economic and political incentives that it has given the regime in these years, has only encouraged the regime to further export terrorism, carry out human rights abuses and attempt to obtain nuclear weapons,” a statement from the group said.

One hundred fifty MEPs from six major political groups in the European Parliament, representing 27 EU member states, signed a joint statement demanding that the bloc hold Tehran accountable for launching a “new wave of terrorism against the democratic opposition activists in Europe and in the United States.”

“The EU’s silence in the face of brutal human rights violations in Iran and lack of any response to the serious terror plots in Europe is unacceptable,” the statement said.

The statement was signed by four vice-presidents of the European Parliament and 14 committee and delegation chairs, highlighting the growing disquiet within the EU towards Iran’s policies on the continent.

“We have seen many terrorist plots by the mullahs’ regime against Iranian activists on European soil. This is totally unacceptable,” said Gerard Deprez, a Belgian MEP and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran committee. “We have called on the EU and the European member states to expel all Iranian intelligence agents from Europe.”

The hashtags #blacklistMOIS and #ExpelIranDiplomatTerrorists were trending on Twitter following the EU’s meeting and the MEP’s joint letter, with many directly tweeting at EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to advocate for the EU to take a tougher stance towards Iran, including potentially dropping plans to assist Tehran in circumventing US sanctions.

Many are perplexed as to why Iran would sanction such intelligence operations in Europe and risk backlash at a time when it is relying on the EU to set up a so-called Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to prop up the JCPOA. The SPV is a mechanism that would act as a clearing house to help match Iranian oil and gas exports to purchases of EU goods, thereby circumventing US sanctions.

“The Europeans are facing a challenge in identifying a country to host the SPV,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif told reporters, expressing impatience with the process. “In reality, some countries who have been suggested as hosts have not accepted this task and the negotiations for identifying a host for the SPV mechanism are continuing.”

Zarif has sought to paint a rosy picture of Iran’s economic future, despite the prospect of US sanctions.

“We will certainly survive. We will not only survive, we will thrive. We have tried to minimise the impact on the population but the ordinary people are going to suffer, the economy is going to suffer,” he said after a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

However, analysts say that without the SPV, US sanctions imposed earlier this month, particularly on Iranian oil exports, will prove debilitating to Tehran, further raising questions about the country’s intransigent posturing in Europe.

“In the medium and long term, then, the latest US sanctions could make things very difficult for Iran,” said Micha’el Tanchum, a fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in an article in Foreign Policy magazine. “As long as Washington can prevent it from obtaining vital enhanced oil recovery technologies, Iran’s economy will become increasingly fragile.”