WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) – Tensions have been rising over the past week between Tehran and several European countries after Belgium authorities discovered a plot to bomb an opposition conference in Paris.
Separately, the US is engaged in a war of words with Tehran, after it threatened to block oil exports from other countries if Washington moves to radically reduce Iran’s oil exports.
On Saturday, Belgium police arrested a man and a woman transporting explosives, along with a detonator, in their automobile and charged that the Belgium-Iranian couple intended to attack a conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in Paris.
The following day, Germany arrested an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi.
Assadi is posted to Vienna, and when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived there on Wednesday to discuss how to preserve the nuclear deal, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz demanded a “full clarification.”
A fourth suspect was detained in France: a 54-year-old resident of Belgium of Iranian origin. He has been identified only as Mehrdad A.
On Thursday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Abbas Araghchi, summoned the French, German, and Austrian envoys to Iran to protest Assadi’s treatment, while denouncing the allegations as a “plot aimed at damaging EU-Iranian relations.”
Assadi, nonetheless, remains in German detention, while Mehrdad A. is to appear in a French court on July 11 in preparation for his extradition to Belgium.
Meanwhile, US and Iranian officials have exchanged sharp words over US efforts to reimpose international sanctions.
On Monday, the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning, Brian Hook, reaffirmed to reporters that the US aims to cut Iranian oil exports to zero.
On Tuesday, Rouhani hinted in a posting on his website that if the US were to cut off Iranian oil exports, Iran would respond by blocking oil exports from other countries.
“The Americans have claimed they want to completely stop Iran's oil exports,” Rouhani was quoted as saying on the website, president.ir.
“They don't understand the meaning of this statement, because it is nonsense for Iran’s oil not to be exported, while the region's oil is exported," the quote continued.
On Wednesday, July 4, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force—responsible for “external operations”—of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), lavished praise on the Iranian president.
“I kiss your hand for expressing such wise and timely comments, and I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic,” Soleimani wrote in a letter to Rouhani, published by IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency), Iran’s official state-run news agency.
Notably, the Quds Force is the Iranian organization most closely associated with terrorism.
On Thursday, Mohammed Ali Jafaari, head of the IRGC, warned, "We will make the enemy understand that either all can use the Strait of Hormuz or no one."
Some 20 percent of the world’s oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day.
A CENTCOM (Central Command) spokesman, US Navy Captain Bill Urban, responded to the Iranian threats, affirming that the US and its allies, "stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows.”
However, the threats—coming from the IRGC and the Quds Force—sounded more like the threat of asymmetric warfare, rather than a traditional naval operation.
As The New York Times noted, the IRGC’s naval component “lacks a strong conventional fleet.” Instead, it “has many speed boats and portable anti-ship missile launchers, and can lay mines.”
The possibility also exists of terrorism in oil-producing countries, like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, that neighbor Iraq.
Tehran has established a significant presence within Iraq, in part, through its support of Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), first mobilized in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (IS.)
The most powerful militias are backed by Tehran and answer to Soleimani, rather than to any Iraqi commander. They have now taken on a life of their own.
The head of the PMF, Hadi al-Amiri, heads one such militia, the Badr Organization, and enjoys close ties with Tehran going back to the 1980s. Amiri finished second in Iraq’s recent elections, with the erratic, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the top vote-getter, while the US-backed candidate, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, finished a distant third.
Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and now a Fellow at Soran University, advised Kurdistan 24 that the militias, if backed by Iran, could certainly threaten Kuwaiti and Saudi oil facilities.
“They couldn’t shut them down,” Davis remarked, “but they could do some significant damage.”
Entifadh Qanbar, an Iraqi-American and head of the Future Foundation in Washington DC, noted that one Iranian-backed militia, Asa’ib Ahl Haq, has already threatened Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
The Iranian threats, however, have not intimidated the notoriously skittish Saudis, at least not yet. On Thursday, Aramco announced a cut in crude oil prices, signaling its intent to raise production, in line with US requests.
And despite Tehran’s plot against the NCRI, Rouhani is meeting with Europeans, Russia, and China on Friday to explore whether the nuclear deal can be salvaged, despite the US withdrawal.
Editing by Nadia Riva