Following a wave of terror plots on European soil, the EU has finally woken up to the growing threat Iran poses to global security. Last week, it announced new measures against Tehran — yet when compared with the robust sanctions regime Washington has implemented in recent months, Brussels’ response is hardly likely to cause the Iranian clerics any sleepless nights.
The sanctions come after a series of Iranian-sponsored plots that have been uncovered in Europe since the signing of the controversial nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015. Apart from resolving the long-standing controversy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the deal, brokered by Barack Obama, was supposed to encourage the regime to adopt a more constructive attitude towards international relations.
Instead, it appears to have emboldened the regime to expand its terrorist operations from their usual domain in the Middle East to the heart of Europe.
In 2015 — shortly after the nuclear deal was signed — 56-year-old Iranian opposition activist Ali Motamed was assassinated in the Dutch city of Almere. This was followed by the murder of Ahmad Molla Nissi, another critic of the Iranian regime, in The Hague in 2017. The Dutch intelligence service has publicly stated that it has “strong indications that Iran was involved in the assassinations of two Dutch nationals”.
Then there was last summer’s failed plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris, which was attended by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. A Belgian couple of Iranian origin were caught with half a kilogram of powerful explosives and a detonator when they were apprehended by French security officials in a plot that Paris believes was organised by Assadollah Assadi, a senior member in Iran’s intelligence ministry. The couple are now awaiting trial in Belgium on terrorism charges.
In September, Danish police successfully foiled a plot to assassinate an Iranian activist in Copenhagen, which required them to seal off all road routes to the city. The Danish government has blamed Iranian intelligence for planning the attack and has recalled its ambassador from Tehran.
The spike in Iranian terrorist activity is by no means confined to Europe. Before Christmas, Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, provided a damning dossier of Iran’s increased activity in the Arab world, presenting a selection of Iranian-made weapons that have been used in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Hook made special reference to activity aimed at overthrowing the rulers of the Kingdom of Bahrain, a particularly troubling development for Britain, which has just opened a naval base there, to be used by the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers. The threat is certainly not being underestimated by British intelligence officials, who tell me that in 2019 Iran is likely to be their main focus in the Middle East, taking precedence over threats such as Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Al Qaida.
Circumventing US sanctions
By contrast, the EU’s response to the compelling evidence regarding the recent upsurge in Iranian-sponsored terrorism has been decidedly underwhelming. The measures announced last week consisted merely of freezing the assets of two Iranian intelligence officers implicated in the recent plots, as well as Iran’s ministry of intelligence and security.
The US government, by contrast, is implementing a wide-ranging sanctions regime against Tehran in an effort to force the Iranians to mend their ways. The lucrative trade ties that many European countries, particularly Germany, France and Italy, have developed with Iran since the nuclear deal was signed mean they are reluctant to support the implementation of serious measures against Iran.
Indeed, not content with opposing the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, the EU is now attempting to circumvent US sanctions through the establishment of the Special Purpose Vehicle, a measure designed to allow European companies to continue trading with Iran without attracting punitive measures from the US.
The EU’s approach is unlikely to win many friends in Washington. But even when provided with clear proof of Iranian terrorist activity on its own soil, it has shown that it is more interested in preserving trade ties with Tehran than safeguarding European security.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.