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Licence to Kill: How Europe allows Iran and Russia to eliminate regime undesirables with impunity


On a balmy September evening last year, an Azeri man carrying a Russian passport crossed the border from northern Cyprus into southern Cyprus. He traveled light: a pistol, a handful of bullets and a silencer.

It was going to be the perfect hit job. 

Then, just as the man was about to step into a rental car and carry out his mission — which prosecutors say was to gun down five Jewish businessmen, including an Israeli billionaire — the police surrounded him. 

The failed attack was just one of at least a dozen in Europe in recent years, some successful, others not, that have involved what security officials call “soft” targets, involving murder, abduction, or both. The operations were broadly similar in conception, typically relying on local hired guns.

The most significant connection, intelligence officials say, is that the attacks were commissioned by the same contractor: the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

In Cyprus, authorities believe Iran, which blames Israel for a series of assassinations of nuclear specialists working on the Iranian nuclear program, was trying to signal that it could strike back where Israel least expects it. 

“This is a regime that bases its rule on intimidation and violence and espouses violence as a legitimate measure,” David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said in rare public remarks in September, describing what he said was a recent uptick in violent plots. “It is not spontaneous. It is planned, systematic, state terrorism — strategic terrorism.” 

He left out one important detail: It’s working. 

That success has come in large part because Europe — the staging ground for most Iranian operations in recent years — has been afraid to make Tehran pay. Since 2015, Iran has carried out about a dozen operations in Europe, killing at least three people and abducting several others, security officials say. 

“The Europeans have not just been soft on the Islamic Republic, they’ve been cooperating with them, working with them, legitimizing the killers,” Masih Alinejad, the Iranian-American author and women’s rights activist said, highlighting the continuing willingness of European heads of state to meet with Iran’s leaders.

Masih Alinejad

Whether such operations succeed or not, the countries behind them can be sure of one thing: They won’t be made to pay for trying.

Over the years, the Russian and Iranian regimes have eliminated countless dissidents, traitors and assorted other enemies (real and perceived) on the streets of Paris, Berlin and even Washington, often in broad daylight. Others have been quietly abducted and sent home, where they faced sham trials and were then hanged for treason. 

While there’s no shortage of criticism in the West in the wake of these crimes, there are rarely real consequences. That’s especially true in Europe, where leaders have looked the other way in the face of a variety of abuses in the hopes of reviving a deal to rein in Tehran’s nuclear weapons program and renewing business ties. 

Unlike the U.S. and Israel, which have taken a hard line on Iran ever since the mullahs came to power in 1979, Europe has been more open to the regime. Many EU officials make no secret of their ennui with America’s hard-line stance vis-à-vis Iran. 

Method of first resort 

Assassination has been the sharpest instrument in the policy toolbox ever since Brutus and his co-conspirators stabbed Julius Caesar repeatedly. Over the millennia, it’s also proved risky, often triggering disastrous unintended consequences (see the Roman Empire after Caesar’s killing or Europe after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo).  

And yet, for both rogue states like Iran, Russia and North Korea, and democracies such as the United States and Israel — the attraction of solving a problem by removing it often proves irresistible. 

Even so, there’s a fundamental difference between the two spheres: In the West, assassination remains a last resort (think Osama bin Laden); in authoritarian states, it’s the first (who can forget the 2017 assassination by nerve agent of Kim Jong-nam, the playboy half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, upon his arrival in Kuala Lumpur?).

For rogue states, even if the murder plots are thwarted, the regimes still win by instilling fear in their enemies’ hearts and minds. 

That helps explain the recent frequency. Over the course of a few months last year, Iran undertook a flurry of attacks from Latin America to Africa.

In Colombia, police arrested two men in Bogotá on suspicion they were plotting to assassinate a group of Americans and a former Israeli intelligence officer for $100,000; a similar scene played out in Africa, as authorities in Tanzania, Ghana and Senegal arrested five men on suspicion they were planning attacks on Israeli targets, including tourists on safari; in February of this year, Turkish police disrupted an intricate Iranian plot to kill a 75-year-old Turkish-Israeli who owns a local aerospace company; and in November, authorities in Georgia said they foiled a plan hatched by Iran’s Quds Force to murder a 62-year-old Israeli-Georgian businessman in Tbilisi.

“Iran wants to wipe out Israel, nothing new about that,” the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told POLITICO in 2019 when he was still Spanish foreign minister. “You have to live with it.” 

History of assassinations 

There’s also nothing new about Iran’s love of assassination. 

Indeed, many scholars trace the word “assassin” to Hasan-i Sabbah, a 12th-century Persian missionary who founded the “Order of Assassins,” a brutal force known for quietly eliminating adversaries.

Hasan’s spirit lived on in the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the hardline cleric who led Iran’s Islamic revolution and took power in 1979. One of his first victims as supreme leader was Shahriar Shafiq, a former captain in the Iranian navy and the nephew of the country’s exiled shah. He was shot twice in the head in December 1979 by a masked gunman outside his mother’s home on Rue Pergolèse in Paris’ fashionable 16th arrondissement. 

In the years that followed, Iranian death squads took out members and supporters of the shah and other opponents across Europe, from France to Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. In most instances, the culprits were never caught. Not that the authorities really needed to look. 

In 1989, for example, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, a leader of Iran’s Kurdish minority who supported autonomy for his people, was gunned down along with two associates by Iranian assassins in an apartment in Vienna.

The gunmen took refuge in the Iranian embassy. They were allowed to leave Austria after Iran’s ambassador to Vienna hinted to the government that Austrians in his country might be in danger if the killers were arrested. One of the men alleged to have participated in the Vienna operation would later become one of his country’s most prominent figures: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president from 2005 until 2013. 

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Photo: Hadi Mizban / Reuters

Kremlin’s killings 

Some hope the growing outrage in Western societies over Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protestors could be the spark that convinces Europe to get tough on Iran. But Europe’s handling of its other favorite rogue actor — Russia — suggests otherwise. 

Long before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, much less its all-out war against Ukraine, Moscow, similar to Iran, undertook an aggressive campaign against its enemies abroad and made little effort to hide it. 

The most prominent victim was Alexander Litvinenko. A former KGB officer like Vladimir Putin, Litvinenko had defected to the U.K., where he joined other exiles opposed to Putin. In 2006, he was poisoned in London by Russian intelligence with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope that investigators concluded was mixed into his tea. The daring operation signaled Moscow’s return to the Soviet-era practice of artful assassination. 

Litvinenko died a painful death within weeks, but not before he blamed Putin for killing him, calling the Russian president “barbaric.” 

Alexander Litvinenko
Photo: Reuters

“You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price,” Litvinenko said from his deathbed. 

In the end, however, the only one who really paid a price was Litvinenko. Putin continued as before and despite deep tensions in the U.K.’s relationship with Russia over the assassination, it did nothing to halt the transformation of the British capital into what has come to be known as “Londongrad,” a playground and second home for Russia’s Kremlin-backed oligarchs, who critics say use the British financial and legal systems to hide and launder their money. 

Litvinenko’s killing was remarkable both for its brutality and audacity. If Putin was willing to take out an enemy on British soil with a radioactive element, what else was he capable of? 

It didn’t take long to find out. In the months and years that followed, the bodies started to pile up. Critical journalists, political opponents and irksome oligarchs in the prime of life began dropping like flies. 

Europe didn’t blink

Angela Merkel, then German chancellor, visited Putin in his vacation residence in Sochi just weeks after the murders of Litvinenko and investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and said … nothing. 

Even after there was no denying Putin’s campaign to eradicate anyone who challenged him, European leaders kept coming in the hope of deepening economic ties. 

Neither the assassination of prominent Putin critic Boris Nemtsov just steps away from the Kremlin in 2015, nor the poisoning of a KGB defector and his daughter in the U.K. in 2018 and of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020 with nerve agents disabused European leaders of the notion that Putin was someone they could do business with and, more importantly, control. 

Boris Nemtsov

Just how comfortable Russia felt about using Europe as a killing field became clear in the summer of 2019. Around noon on a sunny August day, a Russian assassin approached Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Chechen with Georgian nationality, and shot him twice in the head with a 9mm pistol. The murder took place in a park located just a few hundred meters from Germany’s interior ministry and several witnesses saw the killer flee. He was nabbed within minutes as he was changing his clothes and trying to dispose of his weapon and bike in a nearby canal.

It later emerged that Khangoshvili, a Chechen fighter who had sought asylum in Germany, was on a Russian kill list. Russian authorities considered him a terrorist and accused him of participating in a 2010 attack on the Moscow subway that killed nearly 40 people.

In December of 2019, Putin denied involvement in Khangoshvili’s killing. Sort of. Sitting next to French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy following a round of talks aimed at resolving the conflict in Ukraine, the Russian referred to him as a “very barbaric man with blood on his hands.”

“I don’t know what happened to him,” Putin said. “Those are opaque criminal structures where anything can happen.”

Lessons from war in Ukraine

Though Germany, with its thirst for Russian gas, is often criticized in that regard, it was far from alone in Europe. Europe’s insistence on giving Putin the benefit of the doubt over the years in the face of his crimes convinced him that he would face few consequences in the West for his invasion of Ukraine. That’s turned out to be wrong; but who could blame the Russian leader for thinking it? 

Iran presents Europe with an opportunity to learn from that history and confront Tehran before it’s too late. But there are few signs it’s prepared to really get tough. EU officials say they are “considering” following Washington’s lead and designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a vast military organization that also controls much of the Iran’s economy, as a terror organization.

Last week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spearheaded an effort at the United Nations to launch a formal investigation into Iran’s brutal crackdown against the ongoing protests in the country.

Yet even as the regime in Tehran snuffs out enemies and races to fulfil its goal of building both nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach any point on the Continent, some EU leaders appear blind to the wider context as they pursue the elusive renewal of the nuclear accord. 

“It is still there,” Borrell said recently of the deal he has taken a leading role in trying to resurrect. “It has nothing to do with other issues, which certainly concern us.” 

In other words, let the killing continue.


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Source - Reuters

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Source - AP

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