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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Iranian diplomat accused of running web of spies across Europe

Iran's diplomats operate an espionage network that plots assassinations and procures parts for its missiles at the heart of Europe
Gen Qassem Soleimani, center, who heads the elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard attends a graduation ceremony of a group of the guard's officers in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Iran is running a wide-ranging espionage network across Europe with the aim of procuring technology to boost the country’s missile arsenal, disrupt opposition groups and carry out targeted assassinations, intelligence reports and opposition groups have disclosed.

Opposition sources revealed on Wednesday that Asdollah Assadi, the Iranian diplomat arrested in Germany in June for orchestrating a bomb plot against an opposition rally in Paris, headed the Tehran-run European-wide network.

Assadi remains in detention in Germany pending an extradition request from Belgium where the alleged bombers were intercepted.

Activists said the decision to authorise the attack in Paris was taken by Tehran’s Supreme National Security Council in January this year and that the head of Foreign Intelligence and Movements in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), Reza Amiri Moghadam passed control of the plot to Assadi in March.

Half-a-kilo of home-made explosives TATP and a detonator was seized from the car of a married couple who were identified as being residents in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Another alleged facilitator of the plot was arrested and extradited from France to face trial.

Among those who attended the rally of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) on June 30 was Rudy Guiliani, the ex-New York mayor who now serves as Donald Trump’s lawyer, and the former prime minister Stephen Harper of Canada. Some of the politicians who were at the event at Villepinte outside Paris now plan to join the trial as civil complainants, the NCRI said.

German domestic intelligence reports reviewed by The National have revealed Iranian agents are active throughout the country. At least four of the country’s 16 states reported missile proliferation activity by Iranian agents.

The provincial report on foreign espionage in Baden-Württemberg state in 2017 said Iran was actively attempting to penetrate its scientific and military institutions. “The focal points of the current Iranian proliferation-related activities is in the acquisition of vacuum and control technology, measuring instruments and other equipment,” the report seen by The National said.

The intelligence bureau said the focus of Iranian activity appeared to have shifted after the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from nuclear proliferation to rocket and missile technology. The report noted the rapid expansion of Iran’s missile arsenal and the increasing range of its weapons.

“Iran continues its ambitious expansion in rocket and carrier technology, areas that are not included in the agreements. Iran reported in an official statement on September 23, 2017, the successful test of the medium-range rocket, Khorramshahr 12, and thus the country now has at least three missile types with ranges up to 2,000 km.”

Officials in Hamburg also noted the challenge posed by the “ambitious Iranian programme to modernise its missile technology with the aim of further increasing the range”.

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While the reports uniformly state Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA, it is unclear how much of the activity identified is prohibited under international sanctions or Germany’s own security laws.

“The reports confirm that Iran has not stopped proliferation activity even if there may have been a significant decrease in illicit nuclear attempts,” said Benjamin Weinthal, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There must be questions over whether Germany has reported these to the UN committees overseeing both the nuclear deal and rocket development work.”

Meanwhile, seven of the states also reported cyber-attack activity on a significant scale by Iran and six said they were tracking Iranian involvement in Hizbollah networks within their territory. These Hizbollah groups were described as instruments of Iranian governance and influence.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia identified arms procurement activities and recruitment by Hizbollah as issues for the security services. “Germany represents, for the organisation, an operating room, which is dedicated to logistical support services and the generation of finances as well as the recruitment of new members,” its 2017 report said. “For Germany, this would confirm that the possibility of attacks by Hizbollah in the European space are possible.”

A diplomat formerly based at Iran’s Baghdad embassy in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, Assadi arrived in Vienna just as the station emerged as the “nerve-centre” of Iran’s European spy network, according to the NCRI report.

“The station of the MOIS in Vienna, located on the third floor of the embassy, is the headquarters and the coordinator of the MOIS stations and agents in Europe,” the group said. “According to statements of various officials of the regime, the government of Austria and the Iranian regime have extensive, yet low profile relations. This has created a very suitable situation for setting up the main station of the MOIS in Europe.”

It also named the heads of other stations in Berlin and Paris, claiming these were among the “most important” outposts under the supervision of the Vienna bureau.

At a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday, Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the NCRI’s Foreign Affairs Committee said that Iran resumed active terror operations in Europe in 2016.

Iran has rejected the allegations of a plot, claiming the incident was staged to disrupt President Hassan Rouhani’s trip to Switzerland and Austria, which was ongoing as the events unfurled. It has demanded Assadi’s diplomatic immunity be recognised and the third secretary is allowed to return to his post at the embassy. German prosecutors have, however, concluded that Assadi is linked to the MOIS and its efforts to “observe and combat” opposition groups.

According to a report titled Iran’s Deadly Diplomats in the August publication of West Point's Combating Terrorism Centre Sentinel journal published Wednesday, Tehran has increasing used diplomatic cover to carry out assassinations and other terror plots in Europe.

It said two Iranian diplomats were expelled from the Netherlands in June after the assassination of Iranian Arab activist. Albania arrested two Iranian officials in March for allegedly carrying out surveillance on exiles Nowruz (New Year celebrations). There were also police raids on Iranian operatives in Germany in January.

“The Assadi arrest is therefore just the most recent alleged example of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism in which Tehran uses visiting government officials or accredited diplomats to plot,” it said.