France’s Schizophrenic Iran Policy
As Paris freezes assets of Iranians involved in bomb plot, the Macron government is working to circumvent renewed American sanctions on Tehran
The French government appeared to contradict its own policy this week by freezing the assets of an Iranian ministry and two individuals connected to a foiled terrorist attack on a June meeting of a dissident group near Paris. Austria-based Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi was among those arrested for plotting to bomb the event, which, parenthetically, was attended by Trump administration lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The scheme reportedly was masterminded by Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, Iran’s director general of intelligence.
“[Actions of] such extreme seriousness on French territory could not be let go without a response,” a joint statement issued by France’s foreign affairs, interior and economic ministries read in part. “[We have] taken preventive, proportionate and targeted measures…[to] reiterate [our] determination to fight terrorism.”
Notably, the announcement coincided with a massive police operation targeting a Shiite Muslim “club” named the Centre Zahra France, whose leaders are accused of having ties to Tehran’s Lebanese proxy Hizbullah as well as to Iranian sleeper cells in the country.
Thereafter, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suggested that the developments “confirm the need for a tough approach in our relations with Iran.”
Except that France’s decision to sanction Iranian officials—including Assadi, who is set to be extradited to Belgium for prosecution—was made one week after Paris signed off on the creation of a “special purpose vehicle” geared towards circumventing renewed American financial penalties on the Iranian regime. Indeed, the government of President Emmanuel Macron committed to “assist and reassure economic operators pursuing legitimate business with Iran,” possibly by setting up a mechanism to barter European goods for Iranian oil.
This, in turn, came just hours after a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly between Le Drian and his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif, during which Tehran’s direct involvement in the bomb plot was discussed in detail. The two diplomats previously met—in, of all places, Vienna—only days after Assadi was arrested as part of an ongoing effort to salvage the 2015 nuclear agreement. For good measure, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was welcomed in Austria earlier that same week after the news of the unsuccessful attack had already surfaced.
France’s Jekyll-and-Hyde game seemingly reinforces the contention of opponents of the atomic pact that the de-coupling of the nuclear issue from Iran’s other “nefarious” behaviors was bound to embolden the Islamic Republic. While this boomerang effect is only beginning to be felt more broadly in Europe—including as a result of Tehran’s role in creating the migration crisis through its military activities in Syria—the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its allies have over the past three years accelerated their march across the Middle East, leaving a wake of death and destruction.
“The French authorities are blind to reality and for years all governments—Left and Right—have been lax in tackling the growing threat of Muslim fundamentalism,” Christian Malard, a Paris-based political analyst who interviewed former Iranian revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomenei multiple times, opined to The Media Line. “Now, the Iranian regime is playing off the rift between the U.S. and Europe and if the goal is to topple the Ayatollahs then the gaps have to be bridged. This is not the case presently and could lead to a catastrophe.
“There is an incoherence in the French government’s way of dealing with Iran,” he continued, “as the foreign minister is declaring that there needs to be a re-evaluation of the [bi-lateral] relationship but [concurrently] shields Tehran from U.S. sanctions.”
Avi Pazner, a former Israeli ambassador to Paris, likewise sees elements of hypocrisy in France’s position, which “is very lenient when it comes to the nuclear agreement and its economic ramifications even though the government knows exactly what it is dealing with: a state that sponsors terrorism.
“In this respect, [Macron] is not ready to make any concessions as France has been hit hard [by attacks]. But [he] needs to explain how it makes sense to continue doing business with Iran when this obviously helps a terrorist regime. Israel always [pleads with] the Europeans to not allow Iran to use their money to conduct terror. Apparently, economic considerations are more important than moral ones.”
How ironic, then, if reports are true that Israel’s Mossad spy agency provided invaluable intelligence to European security services about the Iranian plan, and then spearheaded the manhunt across the continent to thwart the plot.
On the flip side, supporters of France’s Iran policy note that the country was, initially, the party most skeptical of the atomic deal and in certain instances pushed the Obama administration to strengthen the language of its formulation. More recently, President Macron expressed a willingness to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional adventurism, albeit within an undefined context.
There is thus some common ground with President Donald Trump, although few believe that Paris will fall in line with Washington. As such, perhaps the most probable scenario was encapsulated by an anonymous French source who told the Reuters news agency that, “We hope this matter [of terrorism] is now over. We have taken measures and said what we needed to say.”
The problem is that while France looks willing to forgive and forget, Iran may yet want the last word.