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The European Union has enacted sanctions of two Iranian officials and a unit within the Iranian Intelligence Ministry following assassinations in the Netherlands and attempted attacks in Denmark and France. The sanctions have placed the intelligence unit and the individuals on the EU terrorism list in addition to freezing their financial assets in the EU. The announcement came via Twitter when Danish Foreign Minister, Anders Samuelsen, tweeted that the EU has enacted sanctions against Iran. The events leading up to the sanctions come after numerous incidents, the first occurring in 2015 where a Dutch national of Iranian origin was killed in the Dutch city of Almere. Similarly, a second assassination occurred in The Hague in 2017. More recently, an assassination was attempted against a member of an Iranian opposition group in Denmark in October 2018. A month later, an attack was foiled, which targeted an Iranian opposition group rally close to Paris. European intelligence agencies have strong indications these incidents were prepared by or commissioned by Iran, which has led to the sanctions.
European Ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium all expressed serious concern with escalating hostile attacks on European soil. The Dutch Foreign Ministry has said the sanctions are an indication from the EU that acts of violence by foreign actors violates the sovereignty of the nations and is unacceptable. Iran in response has denied all accusations and Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, accused the EU of harbouring terrorists. Zarif is referring to members of the People’s Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), which is an exiled opposition group to the government in Tehran.
The recent sanctions counter EU efforts from countries like Britain, France, and Germany that have attempted to preserve ties to Iran since U.S. President, Donald Trump, withdrew from the 2015 Nuclear Deal. Since 2015, the EU has imported a significant share of the bloc’s oil from Iran and European companies have invested heavily into the country. European countries have attempted to circumvent American sanctions through the creation of a special purpose vehicle (SPV) which allows companies to fulfill temporary objectives. However, no EU country has volunteered to host the SPV in fears of U.S. reprisal.
Although Iran has long been suspected of carrying out and supporting acts of violence against dissidents in foreign countries, the EU has traditionally prioritized the EU-Iran relationship over enacting punitive measures. Recent sanctions represent an unusually confrontational response revealing a dichotomy in how the EU now deals with Iran. A firmer EU stance to Iran now falls in line with the U.S. as days later U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, stated that the U.S. sanctions on Iran will only get tougher. EU sanctions are largely unrelated to the U.S. sanctions which have more to do with the Iranian Nuclear Deal and Syria, but this does indicate the West in general is taking a firmer approach since signing the Nuclear Deal four years ago. With sanctions coming into effect, it is plausible to assume that the efforts to preserve the relationship between Iran and the EU will break down. This may lead to more confrontational action from both sides in the future.