ISTANBUL - International pressure on Iran is rising as European countries opt for a tougher line against Tehran and oil exports drop under pressure from US sanctions.
EU powerhouse Germany stripped private Iranian carrier Mahan Air of landing rights, accusing the airline of transporting military equipment and personnel to Syria and other Middle East war zones.
The move came a week after German federal police arrested a 50-year-old German-Afghan interpreter for a cyberwarfare branch of the German military who is suspected of having spied for Iran. Tehran has also been accused of organising terror plots in Europe.
Following US President Donald Trump’s decision last May to withdraw from the international nuclear deal with Iran, Germany and other EU countries vowed to keep the treaty alive but reports of illicit Iranian activities in Europe are burdening political relations between the European Union and the government of Iranian President Hassan Rohani.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said the alleged Iranian plots could point to a power struggle in Tehran. “One way to read this is that there is a struggle between different wings of the regime with some groups using intelligence action abroad to sabotage Rohani’s policy of opening Iran up to the outside world but it is impossible to say for sure from outside,” Fathollah-Nejad said
Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, explicitly referred to “terrorist activities” by the Tehran regime in Europe when he announced the ban on Mahan Air. The United States imposed sanctions on Mahan Air in 2011, saying it provided financial and other support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Germany expressed concern about suspected Iranian espionage activities. News reports said the army interpreter had access to information relating to German troops in Afghanistan. Iran dismissed the accusations.
US Secretary Mike Pompeo welcomed Germany’s decision against Mahan Air. “The airline transports weapons and fighters across the Middle East, supporting the Iranian regime’s destructive ambitions around the region,” Pompeo posted on Twitter. “We encourage all our allies to follow suit.”
Fathollah-Nejad said one aspect of the Mahan Air decision was a signal by Germany designed to counter a US accusation that Europe was “naive” in dealing with Iran. Germany was also telling Iran that “espionage activities will not be tolerated.”
Seibert denied that the ban against Mahan Air, which means the airline is no longer allowed to fly to and from Dusseldorf and Munich, was the result of US pressure.
“The German decision is based on considerations of our security needs,” he said. “It cannot be ruled out that this airline could also transport cargo to Germany that threatens our security. This is based on knowledge of past terrorist activities by Iran in Europe.”
The European Union earlier imposed fresh sanctions against Iran over accusations of acts of terrorism. The decision marked the first time since 2015 that the European Union has enacted sanctions on Iran and reflected growing alarm in the bloc about suspected Iranian terrorist activities on EU soil.
The Dutch government said its secret service had strong indications that Iran was involved in assassinations of two Dutch nationals of Iranian origin in 2015 and 2017. France arrested two suspected Iranian agents over an alleged plot to bomb a conference by the exile opposition group People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MEK) last June near Paris.
Denmark accused Iran in October of planning to kill a member of an Ahvazi opposition group, which Tehran has blamed for an attack in Iran that killed 25 people last September. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to the tougher EU line by accusing Europeans of harbouring “terrorists,” a reference to MEK.
Wolfgang Ischinger, a former high-ranking German diplomat and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, said Iran was “shooting itself in the foot” by burdening the political mood around the nuclear deal. Iran’s actions in Germany and elsewhere were overshadowing efforts to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive, Ischinger was quoted as saying in news reports.
Fathollah-Nejad said Europe’s interest in keeping the nuclear agreement alive was likely to remain intact despite the current problems. “Europe still wants good relations with the Islamic Republic,” he said.
As political tensions simmer, Iran’s economic position worsens under the weight of US sanctions. Trade between Iran and the European Union was down approximately 66% in November 2018 from November 2017, stated the Financial Tribune, an Iranian economic daily.
Iran failed to find any buyers to sell oil to private companies for export on the energy exchange, in a setback to Tehran’s efforts to bypass US measures, Reuters reported.
Zarif will be one of more than 100 heads of state and other senior officials at the Munich Security Conference February 15-17 in Munich, Ischinger said. Leaders planning to attend include Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as well as senior officials including Pompeo, Saudi State Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Before the Munich conference, Poland and the United States are hosting an international meeting in Warsaw on Iran’s activities in the Middle East. The plan for the meeting has met a lukewarm response. Russia said it will not attend and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will also stay away. Iran has not been invited.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.