EU agrees on sanctions against Iranian intelligence services

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen announced the sanctions on Twitter

In this picture released by official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures while speaking during a gathering of thousands of members of the Basij, an all-volunteer force under paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, at the Azadi (Freedom) stadium in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. Khamenei said the Islamic Republic will "slap" the United States by defeating new American sanctions targeting the nation. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
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Iran suffered a rebuke from the European Union on Tuesday when member states agreed to impose sanctions targeting Tehran’s intelligence services for involvement in a series of alleged assassination plots across Europe last year.

The foreign minister of one of the affected countries, Denmark’s Anders Samuelsen revealed the decision on Twitter, proclaiming an "important day for European Foreign Policy". He added the decision is a "strong signal from the EU that we will not accept such behaviour in Europe."

An EU official confirmed to The National that the EU Council “added two persons and one entity“ to the EU terrorist listing. Entry on the list leaves the subject open to targeted measures including freezing of funds and financial assets and measures related to police and judicial cooperation.

Danish authorities named the two individuals as deputy minister and director general of intelligence, Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, and diplomat Assadollah Assadi.

Assadollah Assadi, who worked for Tehran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security in Vienna, was arrested last summer and is in custody in Belgium, where he is facing trial for his role in a bomb plot.

The 2018 plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris was foiled by French police, leading to the arrest of the Assadi.

Three others, including a couple with Iranian roots, are also in custody facing trial over the foiled plot, which French intelligence services said was masterminded by the other sanctioned individual, Saeid Hashemi Moghadam.

Belgian police caught the Iranian couple with half-a-kilogram of powerful explosives and a detonator.

In October, Danish police closed access to Copenhagen from the rest of the nation while they searched for a rental car spotted near the home of an Iranian opposition member. The Danish government accused Iranian intelligence services of planning an assassination plot, recalling its ambassador from Tehran and calling for EU assistance.

Also on Tuesday, the Dutch intelligence service said it has "strong indications that Iran was involved in the assassinations of two Dutch nationals of Iranian origin, in Almere in 2015 and in The Hague in 2017," Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said in a letter to parliament.

"The Netherlands considers it probable that Iran had a hand in the preparation or commissioning of assassinations and attacks on EU territory," the letter said.

Dutch police previously named the two victims as Ali Motamed, 56, who was killed in the central city of Almere in 2015, and Ahmad Molla Nissi, 52, murdered in The Hague in 2017.

Two members of the Iranian embassy in the Hagues were expelled in connection with the murders last summer.

As EU nations appealed publicly for an EU-wide response to recent intelligence encroachments, this latest sanctions action will not be a surprise, said Helle Malmvig, a senior researcher of peace, risk and violence at the Danish Institute for International Studies.

“Some form of punitive response from the EU was very much expected in Tehran,” she told The National.

“There have been official statements from European leaders threatening some form of response since October, and no secret that Denmark and France and some other European countries have worked hard for this.”

Although the sanctions will have little economic effect on Iran as a nation, they send a message, says Axel Hellman, policy fellow at the European Leadership Network, that its activities are unacceptible.

“In economic terms, these targeted measures are not significant. From the European perspective, these new measures are primarily about sending a clear and unified message to Iran.”


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The European Union is still a signatory to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, which limits Iran's nuclear ambitions in return for a lifting of sanctions on Tehran.

However, the deal has been put under immense pressure after the US left the agreement, insisting its allies did the same. The EU has led efforts to ensure that the deal is not cancelled. Observers believe it is unlikely that the set of sanctions announced on Tuesday would jeopardise the deal, says Ms Malmvig.

“Iran and EU have strong shared interest in not jeopardizing the nuclear deal, and the new sanctions are very limited and targeted,” she said.

Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri says he is “hopeful” the EU will keep up its end of the JCPOA, but doubts the union’s ability to stay independent from the US.

“I think that since World War II, Europe has faced a crucial test,” he told Euronews in an interview published Tuesday.

“Can it make decisions independent of the US government, in particular when an administration like Trump's is in office? Can it defend its interests and its international commitments? In reality, we haven’t seen any effective performance from the EU.”

Mr Hellman agrees this is the most urgent challenge facing the 2015 nuclear deal.

“What matters for the survival of the JCPOA is whether Europe can come up with ways to protect sufficient levels of trade with Iran under stringent US sanctions; not these other targeted measures that are imposed outside of the JCPOA,” he said.

“That said, maintaining good diplomatic engagement is of course a prerequisite for that work, and Iranian officials are already frustrated with Europe’s attempts to launch a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for Iran trade. Getting the SPV up and running and delivering tangible results will be the key focus for now.”

The European Council on Foreign Relations took a similar stance in a research note issued last year. “According to one senior Iranian official, unless the remaining JCPOA parties can provide Iran with a meaningful economic package in the coming months, Tehran is likely to re-evaluate its stance on the agreement,” it said.

“In this respect, it is crucial that Europe demonstrates its ability to successfully launch the SPV and, together with China and Russia, takes both economic and political measures to signal that the JCPOA can weather the American sanctions storm.

British officials sought to reassure those worried for the fate of the JCPOA. "We remain committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, for as long as Iran continues to implement it in full," a spokesperson for the UK's Foreign Office said.

"This agreement remains central to international efforts to halt nuclear proliferation and is crucial for the security of the region. But we are clear that this commitment does not preclude us from addressing other hostile and destabilising activities."