The French government says it has seized assets belonging to Iran’s intelligence services in response to an alleged attempt to bomb a meeting of an influential Iranian exile group in June. A senior French official tells Reuters that Paris has little doubt that elements of the Iranian state were behind the plot, likely hardliners looking to undermine President Hassan Rouhani. Also, French police launched an anti-terrorism raid on a Shiite Muslim association near Dunkirk, arresting three people on weapons charges. The founder of the center has spoken in support of Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, according to French media reports. It’s not clear if the two moves are related.
The June bomb plot targeted a conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group dominated by the Mujahideen-e Khalq, an extremely controversial opposition group that was itself listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. until 2012.* The organization, which advocates the overthrow of the Iranian regime, has become enormously influential in Washington. Rudy Giuliani was a speaker at the June conference in Paris, and national security adviser John Bolton has spoken at other events the group sponsored. The plot to bomb the conference was reportedly foiled when two Belgian nationals were caught carrying explosives and a detonator. Israel’s Mossad claims to have given European governments intelligence that led to the arrests. An Iranian diplomat based in Austria is also accused of involvement in the plot and was arrested in Germany, where he’s currently facing extradition to Belgium. (It’s complicated.) In response to the incident, Paris in August restricted nonessential travel by diplomats to Iran. The Iranian government has denied any involvement in what it calls a “false flag” operation and has also accused France—where Mujahideen-e Khalq leaders have lived since fleeing Iran after the 1979 revolution—of backing the group.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been one of the leading proponents of salvaging the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, unsuccessfully lobbying President Trump last spring to try to keep the U.S. in the agreement. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week, Macron criticized the U.S. for creating a crisis by pulling out of the deal and defended the Iranian government, saying it was “abiding by its nuclear obligation.” He also met with Rouhani and called for addressing Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East through “dialogue and multilateralism” rather than military force. Presumably whatever intelligence prompted this week’s actions from the French authorities was available last week as well, so it seems unlikely the French government will dramatically reverse its stance on engaging Iran, but this certainly complicates the diplomatic picture.
The latest charges against Iran are also interesting to consider in light of comments made in a speech on Iran strategy by Mike Pompeo last May, in which the secretary of state accused the Iranian regime of plotting “assassination operations in the heart of Europe.” The remark raised eyebrows at the time as it was unclear what operations Pompeo was referring to; Iran was widely accused of carrying out assassinations against enemies of the regime in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s, but there have been few such reports recently. Just a little over a month later, the alleged attack on the National Council of Resistance of Iran was foiled.
Correction, Oct. 2, 2018: This piece originally misspelled the name of the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq.