By Edward Carney
It was reported on Monday that the German government had prohibited all further use of its airspace by commercial flights belonging to Iran’s Mahan Air. Some outlets characterized the move as Germany succumbing to US pressure for broader compliance with America’s own assertive strategy concerning Iran. However, UPI noted that the withdrawal of Mahan’s operating permit was accompanied by specific accusations of the airline’s involvement in illegal activities.
A spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying that the ban was intended to “protect Germany's foreign and security policy interests.” It also came not long after German authorities arrested a German-Afghan dual national on the charge of spying for the Iranian government. The unnamed individual in question had performed work for the German military and so is suspected of conveying sensitive military information to his handlers in Tehran.
The revelation of this espionage operation was only one of many plots to be revealed on Western territory over roughly the past year. To the extent that the Mahan ban represents an assertive shift in German policy, it is presumably part of an ongoing response to numerous indicators of Iranian threats.
Germany was one of at least four European countries whose authorities were involved in foiling the June 30 plot to bomb the Iran Freedom rally organized near Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The mastermind of that plot, an Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi, was arrested in Germany after traveling there from Austria, where he was stationed. He and two would-be operatives to whom he had provided explosives are all facing charges in Belgium.
As well as having this direct exposure to Iranian terror threats, Germany has also joined the United Kingdom and France in raising the alarm of the Iranian regime’s ongoing ballistic missile tests, which are considered to be violations of the United Nations Security Council resolution that went into effect at the same time as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The three European countries are a party to that deal, along with the European Union, the United States, Russia, and China. The American push for more assertive Iran policies began in earnest when President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement last May, but the European signatories have repeatedly expressed commitment to upholding the deal and incentivizing Iran to remain within it. In recent months, however, this commitment has been challenged simultaneously by Iran’s own hardline activities and by the similarly hardline American response to them.
Although the former factor provides Germany, for instance, with its own rationale for taking actions like imposing sanctions on Mahan Air, such actions tend to modeled on measures already undertaken by the US. The US Treasury Department imposed its own sanctions on Mahan in October, citing its provisions of material support to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force, which is designated as a terrorist organization.
It remains to be seen if other European states follow Germany’s lead in this area, but there is arguably some recent precedent for them doing so. Initially, following an investigation into the Paris bomb plot, the government of France acted alone in imposing unilateral sanctions on the Iranian intelligence service. But in December, these measures were adopted by the entirety of the EU, potentially signaling a collective move in the direction of the American strategy of maximum pressure applied via multilateral mechanisms.
If the latest efforts to exert pressure on Iranian entities are part of such a pattern, there will soon be an opportunity for the purveyors of those efforts to more closely coordinate their strategy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced that the US would be hosting an international conference on Middle Eastern affairs in Warsaw, Poland, where participants would focus on the destructive influence of the Iranian regime. Pompeo described the central purpose of the meeting as a way to examine how the West might compel the Iranian government to “behave like a normal country.”
Pompeo boasted that the Warsaw conference would include a diverse array of international participants, but the final guest list has yet to be determined for the February 13 to 14 event. On Monday, though, the Associated Press pointed out that two important countries will not be represented: the Islamic Republic itself, and one of its key allies, Russia. Specifically, the report stated that while Russia had been invited but had declined, Iran was not welcome at the event at all. Poland’s Foreign Minister explained that Tehran would have likely impeded the progress of talks, having previously protested the very idea of the conference.
Iran and the US have been engaged in a substantive war of words since President Trump took office, and this no doubt contributes to the likelihood of unproductive dialogue at an event in which both are present. But as indicated above, the European Union has been comparatively more receptive to Iranian messaging. This apparently remains the case, as evidenced by the AP’s claim that the EU had given a “lukewarm” response to Pompeo’s announcement, with foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini indicating that she will not personally be attending.
However, as the National Council of Resistance of Iran pointed out on Monday, Iranian officials had an opportunity to reach out to their European counterparts earlier this month, but squandered it in a way that may only deepen European skepticism about Tehran’s behavior on the world stage.
“Iranian officials abruptly walked out of a meeting with European envoys in Tehran on January 8 and slammed the door behind them in what is being described as an extraordinary break with protocol,” the report begins, before going on to explain that this behavior emerged solely in response to those envoys expressing “serious concerns” about provocative ballistic missile tests and assassination plots targeting Iranian opposition activists on European soil. The angry reaction by Iranian officials may have helped to clear the way for the EU’s adoption of the French sanctions on Iranian intelligence operatives, which took place the very next day.