Analysis

With or Without Israel's Help, Foiled Iran Terror Plot Puts Europe in a Nuclear Bind

Allegedly exposing the planned attack in Denmark plays into Israel's hands. Now Europe must decide whether it’s worth separating the war on terror from the importance of the nuclear agreement

Mourners attend the funeral held for those killed in a military parade shooting in the southwest Iranian city of Ahvaz, September, 2018.
TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/Reuters

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev may have been impressed by the beauty of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, but she had a much better reason to cheer. Only eight years after Israel allegedly assassinated senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in the U.A.E.’s largest city, Dubai, she was being received in that country with respect that included the playing of “Hatikva.”

Only a few days after this celebration, Iran apparently was planning to assassinate its own “Mabhouh.” According to reports by Danish intelligence, the target of the attack was the head of the Danish branch of an organization called the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (an Iranian city), which was founded in 1999. A year ago, one of the founders, Ahmad Mola Nisi, was shot to death outside his home in The Hague. He is suspected of having planned a series of attacks in Iran, including fatal attacks in Ahvaz and other cities.

>>As Iran sanctions kick in again, EU scrambles to protect interests | Analysis ■ Israel and Iran will both lose if they go to war | Opinion ■ Iran's economy isn't ready for sanctions' impact, but Tehran won't fold over nuclear issue | Analysis 

According to reports from Iran, this organization was responsible for the September 22 attack on a military parade that killed dozens of people, including members of the Revolutionary Guards. Responsibility for that attack was claimed by a group called the Ahvaz National Resistance, which was a faction of the Arab Struggle Movement. Although the Arab Struggle Movement denied any connection to the attack and claimed that the resistance group had been removed from its ranks, it seems the link between the two organizations still exists. Following that attack, Iran fired missiles into eastern Syria, where the Islamic State, which also took credit for the attack, still maintains a presence.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaks during a parliament open session in Tehran, Iran, October 27, 2018.
AFP

Iran is not the only country trying to eliminate political opponents in other countries. Alongside Israel, Russia also carries out such assassinations, Saudi Arabia murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil, and the CIA’s history is filled with assassination attempts, some successful, others not.

But the assassination plan in Denmark is notable for two reasons. One is the publication of the Mossad’s role in helping foil the attack and the second is its timing. The Mossad does not usually make its successes public, especially when it comes to operations in other countries. Ordinarily it allows leaks and denials to do the job. One might therefore suspect that the revelation of the Mossad’s role is time-related.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to announce additional sanctions on Iran. These will be much heavier than those imposed on Iran shortly after America withdrew from the Iranian nuclear agreement in May. But Trump’s decision has forged a rival front that includes China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union. The EU even drew up a banking plan that would allow Iran to transfer funds while bypassing the U.S. banking system, and some EU countries have announced they will pass new laws that would punish companies that comply with U.S. sanctions. Israel, which was working with the United States to persuade the EU countries to join the sanctions, reached a dead end when these countries made it clear that the sanctions would hurt their economies more than they would change the policies of Iran, which until now has adhered to the nuclear agreement.

Thus, exposing the planned attack in Denmark plays into Israel’s hands, though there was no certainty the attack was planned for the near future. It has already changed the position of Denmark, which has joined the call to impose sanctions on Iran and recalled its ambassador from Tehran.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen speaks during a news conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, October 30, 2018.
Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix/via REUTERS

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Denmark’s response has created a dilemma for the rest of Europe, which must now decide whether the planned attack requires them to freeze their struggle against the sanctions, or whether it’s worth separating the war on terror from the importance of the nuclear agreement. The very emergence of this dilemma is an achievement for Israel, which lacks the leverage to influence the position of European countries. Publicizing the Mossad’s role therefore informs Iran that Israel can undermine its status even without killing scientists or bombing Iranian targets in Syria. At the same time, Israeli involvement may backfire if the EU decides that Israel is exploiting intelligence cooperation to dictate its policy toward Iran.

The timing of the revelation raises another question about the logic of the planned Iranian attack. It’s doubtful that the heads of the Iranian regime, including President Hassan Rohani, would approve an attack of this type so close to when the American administration was planning to impose new sanctions, as senior Iranian envoys were working with the EU to formulate a plan that would allow Tehran to circumvent some of these penalties.

So it seems that within Iranian intelligence, rather, there are enough elements willing to put the nuclear agreement at risk with a not-very-urgent attack on European soil. Senior Iranian officials have been accusing Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia of making up the whole story about the planned assassination, but Iran must try to ascertain who among its ranks planned and ordered this attack at this time.