Analysis: Is Iran planning European terror campaign?

Iran may be planning to unleash a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Europe, the US media has reported.

The fears have been sparked by the arrest of a senior Iranian diplomat, accused of helping to prepare an attack on a rally of dissidents in Paris. The foiled plot, suggested the Washington Post, has led to “growing anxiety in France, Germany and several other countries, including the United States and Israel, that Iran is planning audacious terrorist attacks and has stepped up its intelligence operations around the world”.

The report comes as the regime in Tehran faces huge domestic challenges as the US reimposes sanctions following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year.

This week, Israeli television also revealed the existence of a deal between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Tehran in order to help Iran evade the new American sanctions.

Following a series of interviews with US, Middle Eastern, Israeli and European officials and analysts, the Washington Post concluded that Iran is utilising different units and organisations to spy on opposition figures and Jewish and Israeli organisations in both Europe and the United States.

There had been, according to one, “a definite uptick” in the activities of Iranian operatives in recent months. The Iranians are said to be “preparing themselves for the possibility of conflict” and drawing up “target files” of specific groups and individuals they may wish to attack.

Assadollah Assadi, who was based in the Iranian embassy in Vienna and is suspected of being the station chief for the Ministry of Intelligence, was arrested by German police earlier in the summer. They suspected the rented van he was travelling in was carrying explosives. Assadi was then extradited to Belgium, where police had already arrested a couple who were believed to be planning an attack on a Paris rally by MEK, a dissident group which supports regime change.

The couple, who are of Iranian descent, told police that the Iranian diplomat gave them a pound of explosive material and a detonator. Trump’s lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, was intending to attend the rally.

MEK has been described as “cult-like” and is alleged to provoke “revulsion even among reform-minded Iranians”; it was also considered a terrorist group in both Europe and America until recently.

Iran claims the alleged plot has been fabricated. France has publicly accused the Ministry of Intelligence of planning “this extremely serious act”.

In August, two Iranian men were arrested in the United States accused of spying on behalf of Iran. They are said to have been conducting surveillance on a Jewish organisation in Chicago and MEK rallies in New York and Washington.

Last year German courts sentenced a Pakistani man to four years in prison for helping to identify potential targets with links to Israeli or Jewish organisations. The man was working for the foreign-service wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the Quds Force. Iran is believed to recruit Pakistanis, as well as people from Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Afghanistan and North African in order to help shield its own involvement in espionage.

Some have questioned why Iran might be stepping up its activities in Europe at a time when the regime is desperate for the assistance of France, Germany and the UK to help salvage the nuclear deal.

However, such an analysis ignores the extent to which the Iranian leadership may not be fully in control of its own intelligence operatives. Moreover, the regime is deeply split between hardliners led by Ayatollah Khamenei (pictured) – who were always sceptical of the nuclear deal and have used the cash it provided to fund a more aggressive, expansionist regional policy, including propping up the Assad regime in Syria – and more moderate elements. Those relative moderates, such as President Hassan Rouhani, want to see a less provocative stance towards the West, although a surge in executions in recent years – including of child offenders – suggest they have little desire to liberalise the regime.

On Sunday, Israeli television revealed that a report by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has warned that Iran and Russia signed a deal last month to help Tehran circumvent sanctions on its oil industry which the US will impose early next month.

Under the agreement, which was concluded by Putin and Rouhani at a summit in Tehran, Iran will export crude oil to Russia across the Caspian Sea. It will then be refined in Russia and exported globally. The deal is deemed “very significant” and a potential means “to breach the US sanctions wall”. European states, the MFA document suggests, have also tacitly agreed to allow Iran to continue selling oil in Asia.

The US hopes that renewed sanctions will force Tehran back to the negotiating table, allowing Trump to toughen the nuclear deal, which he criticised strenuously during the 2016 presidential campaign. The MFA report says the Russian and European actions are designed to “avert the collapse of the Iranian economy” and “to prevent Iran from withdrawing” from the nuclear agreement.

However, Russia also has key common strategic interests with Iran; the two countries have been closely allied in recent years in assisting the Assad regime in Syria. Their efforts have brought President Assad to the brink of victory after the country’s seven-year civil war; maintained an important Middle East ally of Moscow in power; and helped Iran to build a land bridge from its own territory to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s presence in Syria has also allowed its proxy army, Hezbollah, to further enhance its arsenal and strengthen its position on Israel’s northern border.

Rouhani has argued on a number of occasions that the US is “not capable of bringing our oil exports to zero”, as Trump has suggested. He may well be right: between 2011-14 Iranian oil exports fell by 58 per cent, but that was a result of a carefully crafted US-led effort, which had strong international backing. By contrast, Trump has derided US allies and done little to build a coalition of support.

Beyond the EU, which has told European firms not to comply with US sanctions, countries like Turkey have also said they will ignore Washington. That’s not to say, however, that the sanctions will not bite and Tehran still faces multiple challenges. The Americans are warning those trading with Iran will not be allowed to do business with the US. Many foreign investors have pulled out of Iran and a French-owned state bank has ditched its plan to finance exports to Iran. Total is said to be on the verge of dropping a $2bn deal to develop a major Iranian gas field. Likewise, Airbus is believed to be planning to halt delivery of 100 passenger jets. Boeing has already lost a $20bn contract and left Iran.

Iran’s economy, rife with corruption and dominated by “bloated quasi-state enterprises”, is already under increasing strain. Iran’s currency, the rial, has slid by 70 per cent this year, decimating savings, boosting inflation and fuelling shortages. Increasing prices have hit not just consumer goods, such as imported mobile phones, but also some staples, like milk. The IMF has suggested that the economy will contract by 1.5 per cent this year, and 3.6 per cent in 2019 before slowly recovering. Inflation is predicted to rise 34 per cent next year, a level not seen since 2013.

One risk analyst at London’s Betamatrix consultancy suggested to Reuters that Iran was heading for a period of austerity which would match that endured by the country during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Unsurprisingly, this year has seen a wave of public protests and criticism of the government. These demonstrations are, in part, the result of a phenomenon – growing inequality and the ostentatious display of wealth on the part of the elite few – which was barely visible three decades ago.

“Resentment has grown at the wide gap between Iran’s very rich who flaunt their wealth and the majority of Iranians, whose struggle to get by has become more daunting by the day. Many of the very rich are part of the regime, or are offspring of the well-connected, known by the derogatory term aghazadehs, which means ‘born to a nobleman’,” noted a report in the Christian Science Monitor which appeared last week.

The ayatollahs have survived by relying on their base among the rural poor, while ignoring the calls for reform made by the urban middle classes. Tehran’s meddling across the Middle East – and the Americans’ determination to resist it – may now put that loyalty to the test.