The presence of Iran’s intelligence and security services in Europe is growing. From the the spies of the Al Quds forces to assassins, European countries are experiencing direct intervention of the Islamic Republic, previously limited to the Middle East. Is Iran growing desperate as it feels the pressure from the protests, or is it emboldened by the silence of the European governments? This article examines the reasons for Iran’s growing interference in the EU.

After a period of relative quiet when Iran surveilled but did not abduct or assassinate its opposition from a variety of ethnic groups abroad, the Islamic Republic has clearly signaled a return to its old methods. In November, Iranian agents assassinated an Ahwazi Arab activist in the Hague. More recently, Iranian agents assassinated the commander of Iranian Kurds in Iraq. Iranian history of assassinating opposition leaders dates back to 1979. There has been over 162 extrajudicial killings in 19 countries over that period of time, documented by Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center. The history of assassinating its Kurdish opposition by the Islamic Republic is particularly noteworthy. The best known case involves the Mykonos restaurant assassinations in Germany,  which got the then-Director of Operations in the Iranian intelligence, Syed Hussein Mousavian, thrown out of Germany and landed him with a plush job at Princeton University in the United States. The incident took place in 1992 and attracted a great deal of attention, primarily due to Iran’s disregard for European soil. 

The era of targeted assassinations in Europe is back. Iran may be following Russia’s lead, and the relative lack of repercussions, in adopting such methods. Russia’s assassinations of its former intelligence officer turned British asset Alexander Litvinenko in UK, following by a number of other suspicious deaths and likely associates related to the investigation into Russian corruption and connection between the oligarchs, the intelligence apparatus, Putin’s own financial assets, and the organized crime machinery, which led to the gruesome murder of the hedge fund manager Bill Browder’s Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, signaled a new disregard for the tacit rules of intelligence which seemed to have been cemented by the Cold War. 

A more recent case involving the poisoning of another Russian ex-spy, and his daughter, who landed in UK as part of an exchange deal some years ago, shows that despite a 10-year break in relations between UK and Russia’s intelligence agencies, Russia has learned little from its previous attacks on British soil and is more concerned about intimidating witnesses than about maintaining a modicum of decent relations with the West.  The disinterest for these relations is so strong that Russia appears to have exercised little caution in the latest attack, potentially endangering hundreds of people. Given the close coordination between Russia’s and Iran’s intelligence agencies, the resurgence of assassination plots may not be coincidental. 

Though Russia and Iran maintain separate interests in a variety of spheres, business dealings and joint involvement in various illegal activities between the two countries is nothing new. Furthermore, Russia’s lead in carrying out attacks on British soil, with limited blowback, emboldens Iran to expand its aggressive tactics beyond killing off environmental activists who may have been on to something big in nuclear investigation. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence activity in Europe is at an all times high, according to a report published in October 2017. Iranian intelligence was caught spying on Israeli targets in Germany, including kindergarten, in January. According to Germany’s Interior Ministry in August of 2017, Iranian intelligence was second most active inside the country. 

And Vienna remains the center of Iranian spy activity in Europe. At its peak during the nuclear deal negotiations, Iranians spies aggressively targeted dissidents, journalists, and anyone else who was deemed part of the opposition. With the US government currently engaged in tense discussion with its European partners over the future of the nuclear deal, Iranian agents and their opponents are coming out of the woodworks in greater numbers, and more openly. This week’s incident involving a knife attacker, who was shot dead outside the Iran envoy’s residence in Vienna is a sign that something bigger than the ordinary information gathering operations and disinformation plots may be afoot in Europe. 

This incident is the second such open sign of Iran related tensions within the week, following a group of “Shirazis” storming the Iran embassy in London in opposition to the Iran’s Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. Are such incidents coincidences? Are they a sign of the Islamic Republic’s weakness? Is Iranian intelligence ramping up its activity in Europe out of sheer desperation? Interestingly enough, in 2016, an Iranian military commander claimed that the Al-Quds force, as well as other units would be infiltrating the US and Europe soon. Destabilizing the enemy from within sounds more like a planned operation than an act of reactionary aggression. 

There may be several reasons for this uptick in activity. 

First, the regime has indeed been under pressure thanks to the combination of prolonged protests (which may have started by the Basiji forces but got out of hand), and recent attacks by Ahwazi activists on its oil fields. Oil has become a weapon in Iran’s expansionist plans, as the regime has confiscated natural resources from the Arab majority provinces and appropriated it to fund terrorism and wars all over the Middle East.  At the same time, the Trump administration threat to withdraw from the JCPOA if the Europeans do not offer much more substantive fixes than they are willing to do at the moment likewise threatens the possibilities for enrichment from lucrative business deals and puts pressure on Iran to do more and faster. 

The Europeans are hedging their bets. Sending a signal that they are ready to implement significant changes too early before the deadline in the US would jeopardize some of the deals already in the works, as well as any leeway side deals they may be negotiating in case the US does pull out. At the same time, they may be counting on US Congress to finally propose some significant changes that would put the ball back in US playing field and postpone the decisionmaking time. It may also be that they are looking to dissuade top Trump officials from allowing Trump to proceed with the withdrawal even in the event that no substantive changes are made before the deadline. Iran, however, is operating from the assumption that it only has a couple of months to play in before US sanctions fall into place. 

Nevertheless, and despite the New Years’ shakeup, Iran is not slowing down elsewhere, but on the contrary, pushing forward. Recently, Iraq has incorporated Iran backed militias into its army, further blurring the lines between collaboration and being a client state. And the assassination of the Kurdish commander in Iraq, which went uninvestigated and unpunished, further shows that at this point Iran views Iraq as its own backyard, not even a pawn.  Baghdad feels the freedom to continue breaking promises to the Kurds, squeezing them by cutting their budget, and overall continuing to engage in punitive and discriminatory actions.  These latest developments threaten the US military stationed in Iraq, as both Baghdad and Iran are working together to push the US troops out.  

With the US increasingly under pressure in Baghdad, Iran is feeling more powerful and more free. Even as the financial pressure may be mounting, Iran’s hands are untied in the Middle East. Its Lebanon proxy Hezbullah may have access to chemical weapons, which may be soon used in Syria, as Iran is developing mid-to-far range missiles. Iran itself has tripled its missiles, and militarily is in an increasingly stronger position. That these missiles may one day be pointed at Europe is one reason the European leadership is eager to maintain good relations and even at the expense of other places around the world, to engage in business with the Islamic Republic, rather than to face its wrath.  Likewise, there may be greater pressure stemming from the incoming Secretary of State Pompeo in the US. However, so long as the United States is the only country to withdraw from the deal, and Europeans do not suffer any repercussions from the Trump administration, Iran will continue to benefit from this arrangement. 

Second, Iran’s growing presence in Europe at this point is less about information gathering and more about active measures and sowing chaos, again, following Russia’s example. Iranian cyber capabilities are not yet strong enough to manage election disruptions and cause too many problems; however, assassinations, propaganda, incitement of local populations, and other disruptive activities are certainly par for the course. The end goal of increasing its visibility in Europe is intimidation and creating a sense of uncertainty. Iran’s reign of terror is successful not only thanks to terrorist attacks by its proxies, and its uncanny ability to “turn” even seemingly adversarial groups, such as Sunni insurgents, to serve its agenda against common enemies, but also due to its skills in creating psychologically disruptive experiences, and inspiring fear through mere presence of sufficient forces. J 

ust as Iranian intelligence surveilled, heckled, and harassed the opposition during the nuclear talks, it can cause similar type of pressure to anyone, anywhere. Large scale Iranian intelligence presence is already visible in Turkey, where Iranian dissidents awaiting departure are regularly surveilled, attacked, and even abducted or assassinated. Creating chaos distracts local authorities, causes panic, and essentially creates the impression that the Iranian intelligence is ubiquitous and infinitely powerful, even if it’s not, and basically utilizes local vulnerabilities against themselves. 

Third, Iran’s goal is to disrupt the national sovereignty of European countries. Divisions along populist lines, coopted by inept, unprincipled, and demagoguic politicians unresponsive to security needs and choosing among adversarial interests, rather than aligning with more traditional classical liberal values and vision of the future of Europe, help the regime to pursue that goal successfully. Russia’s meddling in national elections of various European countries, and alignment with various populist nationalist movements further fuels these divisions and facilitates Iran’s tasks. While the European governrments are busy debating these issues or battling for power or figuring out a response to Russia, Iranian intelligence is making inroads within these communities, infiltrating dissident groups, the media, and politics, and taking advantage of Russia’s successes. 

While European intelligence agencies are focused on Russia, organized crimes, and ISIS-related terror cells, Iranian agents of influence walk around acting reasonable and presentable, preparing the populations with pro-Iran talking points subtly disguised as critiques of the seemingly corrupt dealings with Arab states, or attacks on US foreign policy in the Middle East, or otherwise using Iran’s adversaries as scapegoats, while building up the advantages of preserving stability through peace and cooperation. Increased incidents play out because Europeans have too many other problems on their hands, and are stretched too thin to deal with Iranian assassins on top of everything else. And with the porous European borders, it is easy for Iranian spies in Germany to escape to neighboring countries, and make a clean getaway while the German officials continue expending their resources and hunting for the aggressors. 

Fourth, more muscular tactics speak to Iran’s increased confidence in its own influence and in Europe’s law enforcement’s inability and unwillingness to handle threats. A few people may get arrested, but European countries appear to have no political will in getting into prolonged confrontations with the ayatollahs over extrajudicial killings of dissidents on their soil, or other attacks, because such confrontations may imperil their business deals, and regardless, these dissidents are Iran’s problem and have nothing to do with Europe itself – or so the thinking goes. What to European leaders appears as common sense in prioritizing threats, to the regime is weakness and cowardice. By impugning on European sovereignty by attacking or assassinating individuals opposed to the regime or spying on adversarial targets with a view towards terrorist attacks, Iran gets the message that Europeans are willing to capitulate on the safety of their allies. 

 Iran is also counting on Europeans  to tacitly support their adversaries, so long as their own direct interests remain untouched, and so long as they can somehow profit from this arrangement. In other words, as the regime sees it, Europe has not learned anything since World War II, and will readily cooperate if Iran makes increasingly more aggressive demands. In the meantime, Iran increasingly sees Europe as a version of Iraq with more finesse, essentially, as its own sphere of influence. For that reason, internecine conflicts between different factions, and between the regime and its opponents will continue to play out in various European states, while Iran will continue working towards desensitizing the population towards political violence and coopting politicians and influencers towards serving its agenda in various ways. 

What we can expect regardless of the outcome of the negotiations over the nuclear deal in the next few months is an increase in Iran-backed operations, including extrajudicial killings, relentless hounding of its political enemies, aggressive and enduring campaigns against states Iran perceives as its adversaries, and increasingly greater imposition on Europe and utilization of European states as pawns in its own Great Game. Unless European leaders get their act together, and view Iran as an existential threat to the way of life for European countries and their cultures, Iran will prove to be their undoing even more so than the combined threats of Russia and jihadist groups. 

 Iran has a geopolitical vision, a strategy to pursue it, and an excellent opportunistic ability to take advantage of vulnerabilities of its enemies and the successes of its allies. If Europe does not take care, it will soon be colonized, first through various indirect measures, later through financial dependency and disadvantageous terms, until it is no more than another province with ethnic minorities under the ayatollahs’ watchful eyes, wondering what has gone wrong and how everyone could have been so blind to Iran’s true intentions and seemingly invisible accomplishments. 

 

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