Iran’s Long History of Terror in Europe

August 14, 2018 | Matthew Levitt
About the author: Matthew Levitt directs the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard program on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is also the Fromer-Wexler senior fellow. A former U.S. intelligence official, Levitt is the author of Hizballah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.

In June, German and Belgian police—acting on a tip from Israeli intelligence—foiled a plot to bomb a rally being held in France by an Iranian opposition group, which several American public figures were expected to attend. The plot was orchestrated by an Iranian diplomat stationed at Tehran’s embassy in Vienna. This was by no means the first time one of the Islamic Republic’s diplomats has engaged in terrorist activity; the most notorious examples include the hijacking of TWA flight 847, several attempts on the life of Salman Rushdie, and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Matthew Levitt writes:

In June 2018, a [separate] investigation by Dutch intelligence led to the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats based at the Iranian embassy in Amsterdam. . . . This followed the assassination several months earlier of an Iranian Arab activist who was gunned down in the Dutch capital. . . . In January 2018, after weeks of surveillance, German authorities raided several homes tied to Iranian operatives who reportedly were collecting information on possible Israeli and Jewish targets in Germany, including the Israeli embassy and a Jewish kindergarten. . . .

[I]n 2012, four [Iranian] operatives were found trying to attack Israeli targets in Turkey, and another was arrested in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he was conducting surveillance of a local synagogue. . . . The first successful assassination of an Iranian dissident in Western Europe occurred in 1984. . . .

Despite the fact that so much of this activity has occurred on their soil, European countries have been consistently passive in their response:

The most daring and public assassinations Hizballah carried out at the behest of its Iranian masters occurred on September 17, 1992, when operatives gunned down Sadegh Sharafkandi, secretary-general of the PDKI—the largest movement of Iranian Kurdish opposition to Tehran—and three of his colleagues at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. This operation also involved Iranian diplomats. In its findings, a Berlin court ruled that the attack was carried out by a Hizballah cell by order of the Iranian government. . . .

And yet, the German court ruling in the Mykonos case did not translate into durable and tangible action against Iran or Hizballah. . . . Apparently concerned over the diplomatic ramifications, the German ambassador to Iran distanced his government from [any] assertion of Iranian responsibility for the Mykonos attack. While many European nations withdrew their ambassadors from Iran following the ruling, this diplomatic freeze lasted only months. And . . . none of the Iranian leaders identified in the court judgment—[then-President Hashemi] Rafsanjani, [then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar] Velayati, or [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei—was ever held to account for his role in the attack.

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