Europe’s Iran dilemma

On Sunday, November 4, far-reaching sanctions will be re-imposed on Iran and its oil sector. The European Union is trying to preserve a version of the deal, but the recent incidents in Denmark and France have heightened the tensions. 

Earlier this week, Denmark’s foreign ministry accused Iran of planning an assassination on Danish soil. According to Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen, the plot targeted the leader of Iranian separatist group the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA).

The incident came just a few weeks after the French authorities alleged that Iran’s ministry of intelligence was behind a failed operation to bomb a June rally organised by Paris-based Iranian opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran, also known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

The suspect in the Danish case, a Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent, was arrested on 21 October. The Danish intelligence services allege that he was acting on behalf of the Iranian security apparatus. In the French case, a Vienna-based Iranian diplomat has been arrested along with a Belgian couple of Iranian heritage.

Together, these incidents have created significant tension between Europe and Iran. The downturn in relations could not come at a worse time, given that US secondary sanctions are due to hit Iran’s economy next week. In the coming months, cooperation between Europe and Iran will be critical to sustaining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the economic relationship between the sides.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – the “E3” powers who are party to the nuclear deal – have expressed solidarity with Denmark, while Nordic leaders (who are supporting efforts to sustain the JCPOA) have jointly stated that they “take the matter extremely seriously. Such activities are completely unacceptable.”

Here, two ECFR experts analyse the incidents’ effects on Tehran and European capitals.

Tehran blames JCPOA spoilers

Ellie Geranmayeh

Iran has repeatedly denied the allegations from France and Denmark. Iranian officials view the claims as designed to derail Europe’s efforts to salvage the JCPOA, particularly the planned European economic package for Iran.

Following both the French and Danish incidents, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested that Israel and its foreign intelligence service, Mossad, were behind the operations, calling them “false flags”. He has emphasised that the alleged bomb plot in France was foiled just as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Austria and Switzerland to discuss economic engagement, and that the foiled plot in Denmark came as the EU planned to make an announcement regarding the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), which is designed to help sustain trade with Iran.

While European authorities claim the evidence is strong (which Iran has yet to address), the timing of the incidents has left many Iran watchers with unanswered questions about why Iran would risk damaging its relations with Europe at such an important time. It is claimed that Tehran has little to gain and much to lose from revenge killings of foreign-based opposition figures who have minimal support in the country. Reports that Israel provided intelligence on the planned attack in Denmark has further muddied the public debate in Iran as to who is to blame.

Iran has long classified the MEK as a terrorist organisation (as did the European Union until 2009 and the United States until 2012). Iran also classifies the ASMLA as a terrorist organisation, because it seeks to create an independent Arab state in the Iranian province of Khuzestan. In September 2018, a terrorist attack at a military parade in Khuzestan killed 29 people, including women and children. Both the Islamic State group (ISIS) and Arab separatist organisation the Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement in Ahwaz claimed responsibility for the attack. Shortly after the incident, the Iranian media reported that the government had summoned the Danish, Dutch, and UK envoys in Tehran to demand the extradition of the attack’s “perpetrators and their accomplices” in Europe.

It is difficult to know what motivated the attempted attacks on Danish and French soil. Both Denmark and France are part of the coalition of European countries leading efforts to implement the SPV model. Whatever the motives behind them, the incidents hinder the rapprochement with Europe that Rouhani is keen to advance, potentially dampening Europeans’ political appetite to go the extra mile in supporting Iranian economy.

Europe’s dilemma

Julien Barnes-Dacey

Assuming European countries have verified the intelligence on the alleged assassination plot in Denmark, the incident would be a completely unacceptable operation on European soil. Worse, it would not appear to be an isolated incident, given events in France (as well as Iran’s alleged history of carrying out targeted assassinations abroad during the 1980s and 1990s).

Paris took unilateral action against Tehran – imposing sanctions (including an asset freeze) on the individuals who were allegedly involved and Iran’s ministry of intelligence, while downgrading diplomatic ties by not appointing a new ambassador to the country – but it did not seek a joint EU response. Europe’s strategic interest in protecting the JCPOA appears to have motivated this approach. However, following the Danish incident, Copenhagen has pushed the issue of Iranian extraterritorial operations onto the common European agenda. European states, France included, are rightly lining up behind a joint response.

It is clear that Europeans cannot allow Iran to act with impunity abroad, and a firm response is needed. Indeed, there has been a troubling increase in state-sponsored assassinations and disappearances in third countries this year, as seen in Russia’s attempt to kill former intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in the UK and, most recently, Saudi Arabian operatives’ murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. This demands that Europeans demonstrate firmness and consistency in deterring further acts of this kind.

European countries should now impose common targeted sanctions on individuals and groups involved in these incidents. As part of this, they should make public the evidence implicating Iran, particularly now that Israel has come out as the source of the intelligence in the Danish case – a fact that will fuel the concerns of those who doubt the allegations.

As they consider their reaction to the incident in Denmark, Europeans will need to navigate several dilemmas. The reality is that they have only limited options for punishing Iran. In comparison to the Khashoggi case, EU member states still have a relatively distant relationship with the alleged perpetrator. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has an extremely close political and commercial relationship with Europe – including through extensive arms sales – that provide a range of options for a punitive response to his murder.

Moreover, it remains important for Europeans to preserve some space for dialogue with Tehran at a moment of critical instability in the Middle East. Just as Saudi Arabia is an indispensable actor in charting a path out of regional conflicts – despite a series of problematic policies emanating from Riyadh – Iran is also an important player that needs to be both engaged and pressed to de-escalate regional violence.

If there is clear evidence that both Iranian and Saudi operatives were behind plots on foreign soil, the EU will need to find the right balance on both files. The EU should avoid a scenario in which it fails to adequately respond to Saudi Arabia’s targeted assassination while overreacting to a failed Iranian plot.

Another dilemma relates to the pressure on Europeans to link their response to the JCPOA. The US will be pressing for restrictions on the economic support Europe proposes to offer Iran to keep the deal alive. But Europeans must resist this pressure and continue to separate the JCPOA from wider issues. In addition to targeting sanctions rather than directing them at the entire Iranian economy, the EU should publicly continue to publicly reaffirm its commitment to the JCPOA as it did so today.

If anything, the Danish incident should reinforce European determination to ensure that the agreement remains in place. Efforts to deal with dangerous Iranian operations – whether in Europe or the Middle East – will only become more complicated if the JCPOA breaks down and Iran is freed from the restrictions on its nuclear programme.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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