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Decoding Iran’s Politics: The Intelligence Ministry’s Alleged Operations in the EU

January 18, 2019
H Rastgoo
7 min read
French officials accused Iran of attempting to bomb an anti-Iranian regime rally held near Paris on June 30, 2018
French officials accused Iran of attempting to bomb an anti-Iranian regime rally held near Paris on June 30, 2018

On January 8, the European Union announced that it planned to impose sanctions on an Iranian intelligence ministry unit and two individuals in connection with alleged assassination plots. The EU accused them of attempting to or carrying out attacks in several European countries — in particular Denmark, France and the Netherlands.

The Iranian government has strongly denied accusations of involvement in these operations. At the same time, responses from some Iranian officials to the recent allegations indicate that they only deny them to a certain degree. 

One example is Kamal Kharrazi's reaction to the allegations. On November 12, ahead of the formal EU announcement, Kharrazi said in an interview with France 24, “Some elements, even inside Iran, may have plotted to disrupt EU-Iran relations." Kharrazi is the chairman of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Policy, the members of which are appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He made the above remarks in response to a question on the possible involvement of "rogue elements" in Iran in the attempted terrorist attacks in France and Denmark. Before Kharrazi’s remarks, Iran Daily, the official journal of Hassan Rouhani's government, had published an article on November 2 about possible links between Iranian agents and an alleged planned terrorist attack in Denmark. "If such links exist” the article read, “it must have definitely been beyond the knowledge of the authorities, thus a serious and decisive action needs to be undertaken to uproot such rogue actions."

Iran Daily then emphasized: "It is neccessary that the government and President Rouhani himself pursue this matter decisively and transparently to the end." This newspaper added: "The experience of the chain murders [in 1998] has proven that, in certain cases, some rogue elements carry out actions that harm the entire government and the authorities." Iran Daily went so far as to announce important information in this regard: “It is understood that the president has made his final decision on this issue and we will see the results in the coming days." The article attracted significant attention because, in 1998, the chain murders of several critics of the Iranian regime turned out to have been carried out by Ministry of Intelligence agents. 

If such an announcement had been made in a media outlet other than Iran Daily, it would be possible to regard it as journalistic speculation or analysis. But the article was published in the official newspaper of the Rouhani government, which led analysts to take it more seriously. Despite what was announced by Iran Daily, the Iranian president took no action in the coming days or weeks. However, it fuelled suspicion that armed operations by the Iranian intelligence ministry in Europe might have started again. 


Post-Mykonos Changes

During the 1980s and 1990s, Iranian intelligence forces or their associates assassinated dozens of opponents of the Islamic Republic in Western countries. In 1992, assailants shot dead a number of Iranian dissidents at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. This terrorist act led to a famous trial in Berlin that began in October 1993. The German court concluded that the act had been ordered by the Iranian authorities, resulting in many European countries summoning their ambassadors from Tehran.

Over the last two decades, many experts believed that after the Mykonos assassination case and the heavy costs the Islamic Republic of Iran endured as a result, Tehran stopped conducting similar operations in Western countries. It cannot be denied that, in the post-Mykonos era, a substantial change took place regarding the Islamic Republic’s operations in Europe. Nevertheless, it appears that even in this era, Iranian agents did not stop killing individuals in Iran’s neighboring countries — and, in particular, those individuals whom the Islamic Republic had accused of conducting "terrorist operations" in Iran.

It was on this basis that over the last two decades, in addition to launching rocket attacks on the bases of armed opposition groups, Iran targeted members of various organizations such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), as well as certain Kurdish and Baluchi armed parties, in its neighboring countries. However, these operations have mostly been carried out by the Revolutionary Guards, rather than the Ministry of Intelligence.

On the other hand, even in the post-Mykonos period, there have been occasional cases where agents have targeted certain individuals who were accused of terrorist acts in countries outside the region. For example, Esmaeil Alavi, Iran’s current Minister of Intelligence, said on December 5, 2014: "A person named Mohammad Bozorghzadeh killed 15 policemen in 2008 and 2009 and then fled to Tanzania and used his wealth to financially support the Jaish al-Adl [a Baluchi armed group]. But he was finally subjected to God's revenge [killed]."

In recent years, there have also been a few fresh allegations regarding Iranian intelligent agents’ efforts to eliminate individuals in Europe, and European governments or courts have followed up on these claims. The murder of Mohammad Reza Kolahi (the perpetrator of a MEK-led terrorist bombing in June 1981 that killed dozens of government officials) on December 15, 2016, and the killing of Ahmad Mola Nisi, one of the leaders of the separatist group the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) on November 8, 2017, were two cases of this kind, and both made headlines in the Netherlands.

Also widely reported was Denmark’s claim that Iranian agents had plotted to murder Habib Jabr al-Kabi, the head of the ASMLA (which was accused of being involved in the September 22, 2018 terrorist attacks in Ahwaz), and France’s insistence that Islamic Republic operatives had attempted to bomb the June 30 MEK summit in Paris.

All four individuals who had allegedly been targets of the Islamic Republic had a significant similarity: Tehran had regarded them as being responsible for carrying out terrorist acts in Iran. 

Given this similarity, the recent operations in Europe suggest a possible substantial shift in the Islamic Republic’s foreign operational tactics in the post-Mykonos period. Specifically, if Iran's Ministry of Intelligence has really been involved in these operations in the Netherlands, France and Denmark, it would mean that the Iranian regime had resumed its operations in Europe with the aim of eliminating those who were accused of conducting terrorist operations in Iran.


Ministry of Intelligence or the IRGC’s Intelligence?

The Ministry of Intelligence and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) intelligence agency are Iran’s two major intelligence bodies. IRGC intelligence is directly under the control of the Supreme Leader. The head of this agency is appointed by, and reports to, the Leader. The Ministry of Intelligence, on the other hand, is officially part of the executive branch, though the president is not free to appoint whoever he wants to lead the ministry. In fact, the president can suggest his nominees to the Supreme Leader, but the Minister of Intelligence is appointed only after the Leader’s approves the nomination, and must act within the framework of the Leader’s views. However, given the fact that the Minister of Intelligence is a member of the executive branch and participates in cabinet meetings, the president is made aware of ministry-related matters. 

Under such circumstances, the Ministry of Intelligence’s alleged involvement in recent terrorist attempts or acts in Europe could signal that a number of the ministry’s agents might have sabotaged a crucial part of Rouhani’s foreign policy. Although the IRGC's intelligence agency has often been opposed to Rouhani's policy of cooperating with Europe, the Ministry of Intelligence has supported Rouhani’s foreign policy and his efforts to maintain Tehran’s relations with the EU. 

In fact, the Rouhani administration’s main priority is to maintain the nuclear deal (JCPOA), because if the deal is destroyed, the administration will be totally discredited and economically bankrupt. In order to keep the nuclear deal alive, president Rouhani must cooperate with the EU, hoping that this cooperation will enable Tehran to resist Washington’s economic pressure.

All of that being said, if it is proven that a part of the Ministry of Intelligence has really plotted to carry out terrorist operations in Europe, it will be a significant sign of decline in President Rouhani’s power, even within his own administration. 


Also in the series: 

Decoding Iran’s Politics: Why Carving up New Counties Can Lead to Crisis

Decoding Iran’s Politics: Khamenei’s Warning for 2019

Decoding Iran's Politics: The Chain Murders of Dissidents




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