In his speech Monday outlining the Trump administration’s new Iran strategy at the Heritage Foundation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rattled off the now-familiar litany of Iranian misbehavior in recent years, from its ballistic missile testing to its support for Hezbollah, that he argued proved the folly of the 2015 nuclear deal. But for those listening closely, one charge stood out. “Today, the Iranian Quds Force conducts covert assassination operations in the heart of Europe,” Pompeo said, referring to the foreign special operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He didn’t elaborate, and it’s not clear what operations he was talking about. A State Department spokesperson told Slate he had nothing to add to the secretary’s remarks.
Iran was widely accused of carrying out assassinations in Europe during the 1980s, and 1990s. Most notably, in 1997, a German court concluded that Tehran had ordered the killing of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin five years earlier. The U.S. also accused the Quds force of involvement in a botched 2011 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States with the help of a Mexican drug cartel member (who was actually a Drug Enforcement Administration agent).
But there have been no widely reported Quds assassination plots in Europe in recent years, and several Iran watchers told Slate on background that they could not recall any. The Guardian similarly reports that security experts and Iranian exiles are baffled by Pompeo’s accusation.
One possible basis of the claim is the 2017 killing of activist Ahmad Mola Nissi in Amsterdam. Mola Nissa was the exiled founder of a nationalist group seeking an independent state for the Ahwazi Arab minority within Iran. Mola Nissi’s daughter compared his killing to the assassinations in the ’90s, telling Reuters, “The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not confined to the Middle East. It is spreading into Europe.” (Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia has supported the Ahwazi cause.) The Guardian notes that the Dutch investigation into the killing “has not publicly blamed the IRGC.”
Last November, opposition news site Amadnews, which is run by a Paris-based exile and was controversially kicked off the messaging app Telegram during the recent anti-government protests, quoted an anonymous source within the IRGC claiming that Mola Nissi was killed by the Quds force to undermine Saudi policy against Iran. The Clarion Project, a controversial far-right think tank devoted to “challenging radical Islam,” picked up Amadnews’ item, publishing it under the headline, “Quds Force Assassinates Iranian Dissident in Europe.”
Pompeo may also have been talking about January’s raids on the homes of 10 suspected Iranian spies in Germany. The German-language magazine FOCUS reported that the men had been members of the Quds force and had been spying on Israeli and German targets. According to Israel’s Kan public broadcaster, they had been working to recruit a cell to carry out attacks in Europe. The German Federal Prosecutor’s office acknowledged that authorities suspected the men of spying “on behalf of an entity associated with Iran” but did not comment on media reports that they were targeting Jews. No arrests were made.
The assassination claim wasn’t the only quesitonable charge in Pompeo’s speech. He also noted Iran’s “firing of missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” presumably referring to missiles fired by the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis have launched dozens of missiles into Saudi Arabia, causing little damage, but what about the UAE? Twice last year, the Houthis claimed to have fired missiles toward the UAE, most recently toward a nuclear power plant in December. But the Houthis presented no evidence of a strike, no missiles were reported entering UAE territory, and the Emiratis denied it.
It appears that the secretary, who was CIA director until a month ago, was either revealing some classified information or relying on some fairly sketchy reports in his charges against Iran. Given the stakes of this conflict, he should reveal what evidence he’s relying on.