A diplomatic row has broken out between France and Iran after Paris accused Tehran of plotting to bomb an exiled Iranian opposition group’s rally near Paris in June.
The French government has claimed that Iran’s intelligence ministry was responsible. It follows the arrest of several people in Europe over the alleged plot.
Tehran denies involvement and blames a “misunderstanding”. All this comes as Iran is looking to Europe to save the 2015 nuclear accord after the US pulled out.
French accusations and Iran's response
France said on Tuesday that it was seizing the assets belonging to Tehran’s intelligence services and two Iranian nationals: a diplomat arrested over the alleged plot, Assadollah Asadi, and Saeid Hashemi Moghadam – said by French media to be a senior figure in Iran’s spy agency.
A French diplomatic source quoted by Reuters said that “without any doubt”, they were behind the plot.
“This extremely serious act envisaged on our territory could not go without a response,” the French interior, foreign and economy ministers said in a rare joint statement.
Tehran has denied involvement. Foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi condemned the diplomat’s arrest and called for his release.
However, he later told AFP that if there was a “misunderstanding” the door was open for talks.
Also on Tuesday, French police raided a Shia Muslim centre at Dunkirk in northern France and made several arrests. The authorities said it was an anti-terrorist operation but it is unclear whether there is a link to the alleged plot.
Who is the group said to have been targeted?
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) is an exiled opposition group based in Paris. It supported the 1979 Islamic revolution but before long turned against the Tehran government and its members suffered repression.
Euronews’ Persian team says it helped expose Iran’s nuclear programme in the early 2000s.
It is said to be the political arm of the dissident group Mujahideen-el-Khalq (MEK), which Tehran brands a terrorist organisation – as did the US State Department from 1997 to 2012.
From abroad the NCRI has long tried to galvanise international support, and is popular among US conservatives.
Its rally at Villepinte, northeast of Paris, in June 2017 was attended by thousands of people including Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, two close allies of US President Donald Trump, as well as European and Arab ministers.
How was the alleged plot foiled?
The rally was quickly followed by several arrests in Europe. France, Belgium, Austria, Germany and Luxembourg were all involved.
A Belgian-Iranian husband and wife were arrested in a Brussels suburb and charged with plotting to bomb the rally. Belgian authorities said explosives and a detonator were found in their car.
An alleged accomplice was held in Paris, while an Iranian diplomat was detained in Germany. Assadolah Assadi — who was based in Vienna — is accused of ordering the attack, has been stripped of his diplomatic status, and now faces extradition to Belgium.
How might this affect the Iranian nuclear deal?
Iran and European countries are trying to save the 2015 accord and stand together in the face of renewed American sanctions after the United States withdrew from the deal.
Trump accuses Iran of being a rogue regime, meddling in regional conflicts. By acting against Tehran over the alleged bomb plot, France also appears to believe that Iran is acting with impunity and flouting international norms.
However, there are signs that the French response to the alleged plot did not come out of the blue.
Reports have suggested that Presidents Macron and Rouhani discussed it on the sidelines of the UN meeting last week, and France had warned Tehran to expect a robust response.
A French foreign ministry memo in August warned diplomats not to travel to Iran.
The diplomatic row has stoked tensions between Paris and Tehran, but France is one of the strongest backers of the Iranian nuclear deal — and the political will to save it is likely to remain intact.
Iran is desperate to save its economy which is under serious pressure, and France — as well as other European countries — believe the accord is vital to prevent further deterioration of Iran's relations with the West.