EU Considers Sanctioning Iran Over Terror Plots – But Wants the Nuclear Deal Protected

By Patrick Goodenough | November 20, 2018 | 4:39 AM EST

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Conference in 2016. The E.U. is trying to keep the 2015 Iran nuclear deal alive despite the U.S. withdrawal last May. (Photo by Lennart Preiss/Getty Images)

( – An alleged Iranian plot to carry out an assassination in Denmark was “completely unacceptable” and European Union member-states are exploring an appropriate response, but that is a separate issue from the Iran nuclear deal, which the E.U. remains committed to keeping afloat

That was the message given by E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini after a meeting in Brussels Monday of foreign ministers from the 28-member bloc.

The Trump administration has been pressing other countries to act against Iran’s “malign” conduct in the region and beyond, but its repudiation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal has drawn no official support in Europe.

Instead, the E.U. is working on setting up a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate financial transactions with Iran, to allow European companies to continue to do business with the Iranians despite U.S. sanctions which have now been restored.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen went to the meeting in Brussels, eager to get his colleagues’ support for punitive measures against Iran in response to the foiled plot to kill an exiled Iranian dissident on Danish soil.

Danish police have in custody a 38-year-old Norwegian national of Iranian origin, who is charged with providing assistance to espionage efforts in Denmark and for attempted involvement in a killing.

France is also believed to be supportive of new E.U.-wide sanctions. Its government early last month unilaterally imposed sanctions on two Iranian suspected intelligence operatives and a division of the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), in response to another foiled terror attack – a plot to bomb a dissidents’ rally in Paris over the summer.

One of the two men sanctioned by France, an Iranian diplomat posted to its embassy in Vienna, is in custody in Belgium, along with three other suspects of Iranian origin, in connection with the bomb conspiracy.

A decision on imposing retaliatory E.U. sanctions on Iran would have to be unanimous, and previous attempts to put sanctions in place – over the regime’s ballistic missile program and actions in Syria and Yemen – failed because of a lack of consensus.

(That effort, last April, was spearheaded by JCPOA partners Britain, France and Germany in a bid to dissuade President Trump from making good on his threat to withdraw from the deal. After opposition reportedly from Italy, the sanctions were not put in place. Trump exited the agreement in May.)

Speaking to reporters after Monday’s talks, Mogherini stressed that the E.U. was united in support of the JCPOA.

All member-states agreed, she said, that “it is our essential security interest as Europeans to keep the agreement in place.”

But, Mogherini continued, “this doesn’t mean at all that we turn a blind eye on other things that are not covered in any way by an agreement that is, as you know very well, a nuclear agreement.”

She said the ministers had voiced “full solidarity” for Denmark and agreed to support the investigation into an incident that was “completely unacceptable.”


The ministers would also “explore some appropriate targeted responses in light of what has happened in Danish territory,” Mogherini announced.

Samuelsen, the Danish minister, said after the talks the support from other ministers was clear and unambiguous, citing both the incidents in Denmark and France.

Samuelsen said punitive measures against those responsible could be quickly put in place, by placing them on existing E.U. terrorism blacklists.


Responding to the news from Brussels, the opposition group whose rally in Paris was targeted in the bomb plot, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said adopting a firm policy was imperative in combating state terrorism.

“The regime’s diplomat-terrorists and agents must be prosecuted and held accountable,” a spokesman said in a statement. “The MOIS, Revolutionary Guards, and the IRGC Qods Force are today the largest machinery for the export of state terrorism around the world.”

The NCRI called for the MOIS to be designated a terrorist entity, and for the prosecution of its agents involved in the plots in France and Denmark, as well as two others – an alleged bomb plot targeting NCRI exiles in Albania last March, and an alleged plan to spy on NCRI at events in the United States. Two Iranians are in custody in connected with the U.S. case.

This month 150 lawmakers in the European Parliament, representing almost all E.U. member states, signed a document calling on the E.U. to speak out on human rights abuses in Iran and respond to its terror plots in Europe.

It said E.U. governments should expel MOIS operatives from Europe.

Iran’s embassy in Copenhagen told the country’s Jyllands Posten newspaper that everyone posted at the mission were foreign ministry employees, and that there were no members of the IRGC or MOIS present.

Meanwhile the E.U. effort to find ways around U.S. sanctions against the Iranian regime continue, even as many major European companies have already pulled out of the Iranian market.

The E.U. had hoped to have the SPV mechanism in place by this month, but has run into difficulties over finding a member-state willing to host it.

Austria had been considered a likely host, but it has declined, evidently for fear its banks would be exposed to U.S. penalties. E.U. officials say Luxembourg is now under consideration.

Last September Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted to news of the SPV scheme coldly, calling it “one of the most counterproductive measures imaginable for regional and global peace and security,” and said he could picture the “corrupt ayatollahs” and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “laughing.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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