Iran has bitten off more than it can chew

It is a testament to recklessness of Iranian security establishment that it is willing to alienate France

Some countries just don’t know when to stop. Iran’s military involvement and political interference in the affairs of neighbouring Arab states is well documented. But, Tehran also has a long history of carrying out political assassinations and other clandestine operations in Europe, using its intelligence assets and front organisations. And it has often managed to get away with it.

Not so this time. The French government has imposed sanctions on two Iranian individuals, and Iran’s interior security intelligence service, for an attempted attack against a meeting of an Iranian opposition group near Paris in June. It is a testament to the recklessness of the Iranian security establishment that it is willing to alienate a country that is one of the primary backers of the nuclear deal that Tehran so desperately seeks to save.

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has always adopted a two-pronged approach in its hyperactive role outside its borders, projecting both hard power and its version of ‘soft power’. In pursuit of the former, it operates smuggling rings that fund some of its operations, and carries out bomb attacks and assassinations against political opponents. Iranian operatives in the West also collect information related to weapons technology, which is then used to further Tehran’s formidable weapons development programme.

Its soft power playbook involves the use of front organisations masquerading as social and religious charities, taking undue advantage of the openness of Western societies. One such is the Zahra Centre, which was raided by 200 French police in an anti-terror operation. Eleven people were questioned and three were arrested, including for the illegal possession of firearms.

The importance of what happened in France is twofold: One, it brings into international focus something that governments in the region have been grappling with on a far larger scale for a long time – unwelcome Iranian interference in their internal affairs, and support for terror groups trying to sabotage the state. Two, it could end up toughening French and EU attitudes towards the nuclear deal at a time when Iran is bracing for devastating new US sanctions that are due to come into force in little more than a month.

Iran is a country that is rich in culture and history, with a young and talented population that yearns for the same freedoms and opportunities that others take for granted. Instead of revelling in their country’s role as one of the pariahs on the international stage, the men in charge in Tehran should consider adopting policies that are in line with acceptable norms. They should work towards the betterment of their people, rather than engaging in outrageous actions abroad.

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