French reaction to alleged Iranian plot more nuanced than US measures

Despite tensions president Macron still hopes to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran

France finally reacted this week to an alleged Iranian plot to bomb a rally by an opposition group outside Paris, more than three months after the plot was foiled.

Two close associates of US president Donald Trump – his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House – attended the rally.

Although the failed attack created tension between Paris and Tehran, and despite the fact that Paris this week imposed limited sanctions, President Emmanuel Macron still hopes to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and has adopted a more nuanced approach than Washington to Iranian actions.

On October 2nd, the French ministries of foreign affairs, finance and the interior announced they were freezing the assets of the directorate of interior security, a unit of the Iranian intelligence ministry, Etala'at.


France is also freezing the assets of Assadollah Asadi, an Iranian arrested in Germany in July. Asadi enjoyed diplomatic status in Austria and was, according to Bavarian authorities, responsible for the surveillance of Iran's adversaries in Europe. He allegedly provided 500 grammes of TATP explosives to a Belgian-Iranian couple: Amir S (38), a former employee at the port of Rotterdam, and his wife (33).

Germany is extraditing Asadi to Belgium, where he will be prosecuted with the couple. A fourth suspect, who has not been identified, was arrested in France and turned over to Belgian authorities.

Freezing assets

France is also freezing the assets of Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, whom it accuses of having planned the attack against the Mujaheddeen el Khalq (MEK), also known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

The MEK participated in the Iranian revolution, then turned against the regime, staging many attacks in Tehran. It is often likened to an Islamo-Marxist cult, and supported Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Gulf war. The US listed the MEK as a terrorist group from 1997 until 2012.

Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, and other US neo-conservatives have supported the MEK in its drive for "regime change" in Iran. Trump acolytes Giuliani and Gingrich were among 25,000 people attending the June 30th rally which was to have been attacked at the Villepinte convention centre between Paris and Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport.

Bahram Qasemi, spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, denied the plot, calling it "a misunderstanding about a thing that does not exist, whether it's a conspiracy perpetrated by others or an error, we [and the French] can sit down and talk about it."

French officials said it took three months to complete the investigation which "shows without doubt the responsibility of Iranian intelligence in the planned attack". Neither Asadi nor Moghadam hold assets in France, according to the New York Times. The sanctions are for six months duration, so the measure is symbolic. It is not known whether the intelligence ministry has assets in France.

US reimposing sanctions

By contrast, since last May, when it unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear accord, the Trump administration has begun reimposing sanctions against all sectors of the Iranian economy, including the central bank, financial institutions, air and sea transport and the hydrocarbons industry. Washington also threatened to punish any foreign company that does business with Iran. The first raft of US sanctions entered into force on August 6th. The second round will take effect on November 4th.

Tehran welcomed a decision by the International Court of Justice on October 3rd condemning US sanctions against medical equipment, food and agricultural products, spare parts and services linked to civil aviation. John Bolton accused ICJ judges of facilitating Iranian “propaganda”. The ICJ cannot force the US to respect its decision.

On October 2nd, the same day sanctions were imposed on the two individuals and the unit of the intelligence ministry, French police raided the Shia Muslim Zahra Centre, considered an outlet for Iran and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah, in Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk.

The raids on the centre and its leaders' homes were meant to be a further signal to Tehran. Three people were held for illegal possession of weapons, including Yahia Gouasmi, an Algerian-born convert to Shia Islam and a former halal butcher in his 60s.

Mutual accusations

Gouasmi supported the Anti-Zionist Party PAS, founded by the comedian Dieudonné and Alain Soral, both notorious anti-Semites. Gouasmi accompanied Dieudonné to Iran in 2009, when they met then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The group fragmented in 2014, amid mutual accusations of misuse of Iranian funds.

French officials say they will not allow Iran to revert to its 1980s habit of assassinating opponents on French territory. But they see the plot as the result of the power struggle between Iranian moderates and hardliners, intended to discredit President Hassan Rohani when he was in Europe to shore up support for salvaging the nuclear agreement. Unlike Washington, Paris believes it is possible to exert pressure on Iran while maintaining dialogue.