Agencies revealed only this week that the operation probably had prevented what they say was a plan to kill a member of the Arab separatist movement ASMLA, which advocates for carving out an independent Arab state from Iran. A suspect of Iranian origin was arrested two weeks ago.
The arrest could play into the hands of President Trump, who unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal but has struggled to persuade European allies to follow suit. The killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 further complicated Trump’s plans to isolate Tehran, as the Saudis are a key ally in those efforts. Despite the setbacks, U.S. sanctions on Iran are expected to have fully begun by Monday.
In a darkly ironic twist, Iran has condemned the Saudi killing of dissident Khashoggi even as it has a long track record of pursuing operations against opponents living abroad itself. President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous murder” and suggested that the United States was complicit.
Iran is portraying the Danish incident as an effort to harm European-Iranian relations at a time when they are under mounting pressure from the United States.
Europe has continued to back the original nuclear deal and sought to uphold it without U.S. support, with Denmark being a key force behind that commitment. At the end of last year, the Danish Export Credit Agency had approved eight Iranian banks for credit lines or guarantees and vowed to resist U.S. pressure to dismantle those ties. “If snapback [sanctions] make it illegal to transfer money out of Iran, we would cover their losses. We offer banks this risk,” said the agency’s director, Jørn Fredsgaard Sørensen.
This week’s revelations appear to have created a far different momentum. Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen has called the incident “totally unacceptable” and ordered his Foreign Ministry to summon the Iranian ambassador. “Further actions against Iran will be discussed in the E.U.,” Rasmussen wrote on Twitter. It is unclear whether any of those sanctions would have an effect on the future of the Iran nuclear deal, and E.U. officials refrained from lashing out at Iran in public this week.
“Sanctions could be done in a delicate way in which individuals are targeted rather than the country itself,” said Sanam Vakil, a fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
“But this incident makes it harder for the E.U. and the E3 [Britain, France and Germany] to make their case to defend the deal. It puts them into an uncomfortable position: They will have to put out a strong message to Iran whilst at the same time trying to keep the nuclear deal alive,” Vakil said.
But tensions have been on the rise for a while, especially after the Iranian regime lashed out at Denmark, among other European countries, for providing safe harbor to Iranian opposition members. Tehran stepped up its criticism after more than two dozen Revolutionary Guard members were killed in an attack during a military parade last month claimed by ASMLA.
In Europe, governments have grown increasingly concerned that the accusations are to justify Iranian state-led terror plots, with the aim of silencing opposition groups. European authorities already prevented a bomb attack on Iranian dissidents in Paris earlier this year and have spotted a broader uptick in Iranian surveillance operations targeting opposition figures in Europe and the United States.
The pattern has reminded some European intelligence figures of the early days of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader, when dozens of dissidents were killed across Europe in the 1980s.
But curiously, Europe’s response has still been far more muted than in response to other foreign terrorism plots. After the foiled Paris attack plot, French authorities seized Iranian assets and publicly blamed the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, while the regime in Tehran rejected any responsibility as “categorically false.”
Although some European intelligence members suspect that Europe’s lack of response to prior attacks may have encouraged larger-scale operations, others caution that various factions within the Iranian regime are fighting for dominance. To them, it is unclear why Iran would have pursued an attack that almost inevitably would have disrupted a deal that has opened up Iran to foreign investment and trade in recent years. The struggle between hard-liners and more moderate reformers, they argue, is increasingly fought out on the streets of Europe.
That’s certainly not how the Trump administration is interpreting the recent plots, however. “For nearly 40 years, Europe has been the target of #Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Tuesday. “We call on our allies and partners to confront the full range of Iran’s threats to peace and security,” he added.