(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new sanctions on Iranian regime officials ahead of elections on Friday, but as the administration steps up its “maximum pressure” campaign, two of Pompeo’s European counterparts are heading for Tehran for talks with the leadership.
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok is scheduled to meet with President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Friday, shortly before Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg pays a similar visit.
As it happens, both of their governments have in recent years been caught up in Iranian regime terror operations on European soil.
Iran on Friday holds legislative elections which, as customary, have seen the Guardian Council – a small body appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – disqualify a large number of potential candidates.
On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department designated for sanctions five members of the Guardian Council, in response to what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called “the manipulation of elections to favor the regime’s malign agenda.”
Pompeo said in a statement the Guardian Council had barred more than 7,000 candidates from running.
“Many of them were Iranians who questioned the Supreme Leader’s policies,” he said. “This process is a sham.”
The high-level European engagement with the regime comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-Iran relations.
Schallenberg said his trip aims to support E.U. efforts to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. The 2015 agreement is under pressure as a result of President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. and reinstate sanctions, and the regime’s moves away from compliance.
Iran’s total withdrawal from the JCPOA would bring “unforeseeable risks for Europe and for Austria through a nuclear arms race in the region,” the Austria Press Agency quoted him Schallenberg as saying. “Europe needs to show Iran that, despite U.S. sanctions, it remains on its side of the deal and is cooperating with Iran.”
The Dutch foreign ministry said the JCPOA would be high on the agenda during Blok’s visit to Tehran.
“The Netherlands is critical of Iran, but we are looking for cooperation wherever possible,” it quoted Blok as saying. “Only by continuing to talk can we address our concerns.”
Last week the State Department said Pompeo, in a conversation with Blok, had “underscored the need to coordinate our efforts to counter Iran’s malign influence in the region.”
‘Attempted terrorist murder’
As it seeks to persuade allies to take a harder line, the U.S. has repeatedly drawn attention to terror and assassination plots in Europe. Austria and the Netherlands are among a handful of E.U. countries affected by such activities.
In mid-2018 Assadollah Assadi, a diplomat accredited to the Iranian Embassy in Vienna was arrested while driving through Germany, in connection with an alleged plot to bomb a National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) rally near Paris.
A day earlier Belgian police had stopped and arrested a Belgian-Iranian couple, and found in their vehicle a quantity of the powerful homemade explosive TATP and an ignition mechanism. They had been intercepted in a Brussels suburb, a three-hour drive away from the venue of the NCRI rally, held that same day.
The pair were “charged with attempted terrorist murder and the preparation of a terrorist offense.” Belgian investigators suspect Assadi had provided the materials at a rendezvous hours earlier. Among the thousands of attendees at the NCRI’s “Free Iran” event were several high-profile U.S. supporters of the group, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
In Vienna, where the foreign ministry’s list of diplomatic corps listed Assadi as a “third counselor” at Iran’s embassy, authorities informed Tehran they planned to revoke his immunity, citing Belgium’s issuing of a European arrest warrant.
The regime denied the claims, alleging a “false flag” operation designed to upset Iran-European relations. Tehran insisted Assadi had diplomatic immunity and should be sent home.
But a German court ruled otherwise, saying his immunity was not applicable outside of the country where he was accredited.
Assadi was then extradited to Belgium, where the Court of Cassation three months later threw out another appeal claiming diplomatic immunity.
Assadi, the couple, and a fourth suspect – who had been arrested in France – are awaiting trial in Belgium.
Also targeted in both sets of sanctions was a senior Iranian intelligence ministry official, as well as the ministry’s internal security division.
Days after the arrests in Belgium and Germany, news that the Netherlands had expelled two Iranian diplomats came to light.
The Dutch did not at first give reasons for doing so, but in January last year Blok confirmed what had been suspected, telling parliament there was strong evidence Iran was behind the killing of two Iranian-born dissidents, both Dutch citizens, in 2015 and 2017. Iran denied any involvement.
The NCRI’s Paris-based secretariat said Thursday the visits to Tehran by Blok and Schallenberg “will be construed by the mullahs’ regime as a green light to continue and step up crimes against humanity and a lever to justify the massacre of protesters and political prisoners.”
Noting that the visits coincide with the controversial election, the group said that “investing in a regime, whose overthrow is sought by the overwhelming majority of the Iranian people, is doomed to fail and will only arouse the abhorrence of the people of Iran.”