Why Europe is again a battlefield for Iran’s internal wars

Why We Wrote This

Under increasing pressure from the U.S. and regional rivals, the Islamic Republic feels like it is fighting for its survival. One result appears to be the revival of a long-dormant covert war against insurgents based in Europe.

Tasnim News Agency/Reuters
Members of an honor guard line a street in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz during a Sept. 24, 2018 funeral for the victims of an assault that killed 25 people, the deadliest attack in Iran in nearly a decade.

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Last fall, a Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent was found conducting reconnaissance outside the Denmark home of the leader of an Iranian separatist group. “There is sufficient basis to conclude that an Iranian intelligence service has been planning the assassination of an individual living in Denmark,” the country's security service said. Denmark isn’t an isolated case. European officials also accuse Iran of a Paris bomb plot against an opposition rally last year as well as two assassinations in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017.

Iran denies the charges. But top Iranian officials also say their intelligence agencies have shifted from defensive to offensive operations amid an American campaign imposing ever-tougher sanctions and a renewed covert war with the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Iran suspects its enemies of backing ethnic separatists and other regime opponents who have been stepping up attacks inside Iran.

“Right now the Islamic Republic is under huge pressure,” says an Iran expert at the University of Tennessee. “They are thinking about survival, so they have to undermine, they have to kill the enemies ... to create fear among dissidents.”

The attack in southwestern Iran last September was the most lethal assault the country had seen in nearly a decade.

On Sept. 22, in the city of Ahvaz, five gunmen opened fire on a military parade commemorating the start of the Iran-Iraq war. Twenty-five soldiers and civilians were killed, among them 12 members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The desire for revenge was palpable: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to “severely punish” those behind the attack, whom he said were paid by arch-foes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

One claim of responsibility, hailing a “heroic” act, came from a splinter group of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA). The European-based separatists, with a history of bombing civilians and blowing up pipelines in Iran, have reportedly received Saudi cash.

Like clockwork, days later in Denmark, a Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent was found conducting reconnaissance near the residence of the ASMLA leader, who goes by the name Habib Jabor.

“There is sufficient basis to conclude that an Iranian intelligence service has been planning the assassination of an individual living in Denmark,” the Danish Security and Intelligence Service said in October.

(The ASMLA later distanced itself from initial claims for the Ahvaz attack. Ironically, the Islamic State made a more convincing claim, and Iran within days launched missiles at an ISIS base in Syria, portraying the strike as revenge.)

Denmark isn’t an isolated case. European officials also accuse Iran of a Paris bomb plot against an opposition rally last year – for which an Iranian diplomat who purportedly provided explosives is now in custody – as well as two assassinations in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017.

The alleged bomb plot and assassinations recall the first two decades after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, when an estimated 160 dissidents were killed by Iranian agents abroad, more than a third in Europe.

Covert support for separatists

Iran denies all the recent charges. But top Iranian officials also say their intelligence agencies have shifted from defensive to offensive operations amid an American “maximum pressure” campaign that imposes ever-tougher sanctions and a renewed covert war with the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Making its threat perception more acute, Iran suspects its arch foes of backing ethnic minority Arab, Kurd, and Baluch separatist groups, as well as regime opponents like the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a cult-like group once on the U.S. terrorism list. Such groups have been stepping up anti-regime actions, including a mid-February suicide attack that killed 27 IRGC troops in southeast Iran and was claimed by Baluch militants of Jaish al-Adl, or Army of Justice.

Without providing a timeline or locations, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi claimed April 18 that Iran had disrupted 116 teams linked to the MEK, 114 ISIS cells, and neutralized 188 plots, all while exposing scores of CIA sources.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP/File
Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, in front of a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attends a press conference at the Interior Ministry in Tehran, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015.

The uptick of lethal action and thwarted plots in Europe, analysts say, is a direct response to Iran’s evolving threat perception. The aim of Iran’s intelligence services, they add, is to show those officially deemed to be “terrorists” that the Islamic Republic can and will exact revenge, anywhere, and to remind those opponents newly flush with foreign cash and other covert support that Iran can thwart them.

“The security environment for Iran has changed, in terms of the regional and global security threat, and they have to respond to that,” says Saeid Golkar, an Iran expert at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“Right now the Islamic Republic is under huge pressure,” says Mr. Golkar. “They are thinking about survival, so they have to undermine, they have to kill the enemies. Not all of the enemies, of course, but the more outspoken, the more active enemies, to create fear among dissidents.”

Ayatollah Khamenei set the tone a year ago, when he told Ministry of Intelligence staff that “the enemy is waging a widespread and complicated intelligence war” and that “we need offensive measures.” Indeed, the published budget of the ministry’s new Foreign Intelligence Organization saw a doubling of funding last year.

Awkward time for diplomats

The accusations against Iran bolster the Trump administration’s stance as it pressures European nations to sever ties with Iran and makes no secret of its wish for regime change in Tehran.

But if Europe is again becoming an external battlefield for Iran, it’s at an awkward time for European diplomats trying to save the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal. European leaders who oppose the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the deal have sought to sidestep some U.S. sanctions to ensure continued Iranian compliance.

“The Europeans are in a very awkward position today, because they want to see the deal preserved, but they have so many of their own deep frustrations with Iran that, in order to keep the deal, they have to compromise and accept embarrassing situations,” says Sanam Vakil, an Iran specialist at Chatham House in London.

And it’s no less awkward for the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, which says the allegations against Iran aim to damage EU-Iran relations.

“There is deep, deep paranoia inside Iran among hard-liners, stemming from Mr. Khamenei himself, about opposition groups, about all of this pressure against Iran,” says Ms. Vakil. “We’ve seen patterns of irrational behavior so many times in the past. This isn’t a surprise, just a surprise that it comes now.”

In Belgium, for example, authorities last June stopped a pair of would-be bombers on their way to the annual MEK rally, near Paris, which was addressed by President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

The Iranian-Belgian couple carried a pound of high explosives, allegedly given to them by an Iranian diplomat based in Vienna, Asadollah Asadi, who was arrested in Germany.

The European Union in January sanctioned the diplomat, a deputy intelligence chief in Tehran – Saeid Hashemi-Moghaddam – and Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence itself.

But while Iran paid a diplomatic price, the alleged plot also sent a message to the MEK, which has seen its rising star accelerate during the Trump era.

The MEK was removed from the U.S. terrorism list in 2012, in no small part due to a campaign by dozens of former senior U.S. officials, who received tens of thousands of dollars in speaker’s fees that experts say were secretly bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Pro-MEK speakers included Mr. Giuliani and John Bolton, now Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, who has frequently called for regime change in Iran and addressed the Paris MEK meeting eight times.

Internal rivals ...

Analysts point to another possible reason for the surge in attacks in Europe: institutional and political rivalries in Iran. In 2009, after widespread protests that followed Iran’s disputed presidential election that year, Iran undertook a reorganization of rival intelligence agencies. Some top security officials complained that the Ministry of Intelligence was sympathetic back then to what hard-liners called the “sedition.” 

“In 2009 the Ministry of Intelligence, which failed to prevent the uprisings, was publicly humiliated as Ayatollah Khamenei personally intervened to purge the ministry” and inserted several IRGC intelligence officers, says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“Reactivation of the assassination program may perhaps be the Intelligence Ministry’s attempt at demonstrating its usefulness to the regime,” says Mr. Alfoneh, author of a book on the IRGC. By contrast, he says, IRGC intelligence staged operations further afield in Georgia, Thailand, and India years earlier that “tended to be less successful.”

The MEK bomb plot “does not follow the pattern of IRGC acting reckless and the Intelligence Ministry being more professional,” says Mr. Alfoneh.

Still, he says, European services “managed to track communications between those arrested all the way to a specific office in the Ministry of Intelligence, and not the IRGC Intelligence Organization.”

European officials also accuse Iran of “probable involvement” in the 2015 contract killing by Dutch criminals of Mohammad Reza Kolahi. The former MEK member, living as an electrician under an assumed name in the Netherlands, was believed responsible for a 1981 bombing of a Revolutionary Council meeting in Tehran that killed 73.

Likewise, in late 2017, the founder of the separatist ASMLA, Ahmad Molla Nissi, was gunned down outside his home in The Hague. His daughter told Reuters the assassination showed that “conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran … is spreading to Europe.”

... and ‘rogues’

Adding another variable, Iran’s former ambassador to Germany, Ali Majedi, suggested in January that rogue elements might have been behind the actions in Europe – as freelancing hard-liners have acted in the past, without official knowledge or approval.

Europe is “facing a dual policy from Iran. They have presented some evidence which we cannot easily disprove,” Mr. Majedi told the ISNA news agency. “Domestically, we are faced with such an issue as rogue operations. Can we deny that outside the country these actions also take place?”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry quickly distanced itself from the comments.

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