On October 14, the British intelligence agency MI5 acknowledged the perception of an increasing overall threat from Iran and other key adversaries of the West. In his first public remarks since being appointed head of the agency, Ken McCallum noted that some of Britain’s greatest current challenges come from the fact that “differing national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors are growing in severity and in complexity – while terrorist threats persist at scale.”
This perception was arguably reinforced by the previous weekend’s news that Albanian authorities had arrested an agent of Iranian intelligence after it was determined that he had been spying on residents of a local compound belonging to the primary Iranian dissident group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). While the arrestee, a former member of the PMOI who had been expelled from the organization, was only accused of cybercrimes and “misuse of equipment,” it is entirely possible that the spying in question was aimed at setting the groundwork for an attack on the PMOI residence.
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Albania already disrupted plans for a previous attack in March 2018, roughly three months before a number of other European authorities participated in disrupting an even larger terror plot in France. In that case, two Iranian operatives were arrested while trying to cross from Belgium into France while carrying 500 grams of TATP explosive. A third operative was arrested after having previously gained access to the intended target venue, the annual gathering of Iranian expatriates under the banner of the PMOI’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The June 2018 terror plot was reportedly overseen by a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi. The erstwhile third counselor of the Iranian embassy in Vienna was arrested while in Germany, beyond the protection of his diplomatic immunity. He is now facing prosecution in Belgium, with his trial scheduled to start on November 27. The PMOI, NCRI, and other opponents of the Iranian regime have been using the approach of that trial as an opportunity to highlight a similar recognition of growing threats as was acknowledged by McCallum on Wednesday.
One such NCRI effort was scheduled to take place virtually on Thursday, and could incidentally amplify McCallum’s message through its inclusion of several British and Irish lawmakers. Those participants were expected to affirm the notion that British and European policies toward the Islamic Republic have been too lax, particularly in the face of terrorist threats that constitute a persistent “global security threat.”
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McCallum and these various lawmakers were afforded new evidence for their conclusions at the end of last week when it was reported that Assadi himself had underscored the persistent terror threat by warning that numerous Iran-backed groups were watching his case from throughout the Middle East, and were prepared to launch new attacks if Belgian authorities proved unwilling to “support them.”
Tehran predictably denied these reports, despite no other representative of the Iranian government being present at Assadi’s interrogations, the transcripts of which formed the basis for last week’s reporting. These denials are further undermined by the fact that Assadi’s supposed threats were not far removed from other Iranian officials’ prior insistence upon Assadi’s release, and the accompanying, thinly-veiled threats. These were repeated in the context of the regime’s latest denials, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh saying that Tehran reserved the right to a “proportionate response” against any and all of the European countries involved in the case.
It was reported on Wednesday that two Americans and the remains of a third were on their way back to the United States after having been released by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militants. In the first place, the story suggests that there may be other outstanding hostage cases that involve Iran and are not yet known to the public, since the capture of these three Americans had not previously been reported on.
In the second place, their release hints at the leverage that Iran could acquire over its foreign adversaries if threats of terrorism and hostage-taking are not forestalled ahead of time. In exchange for allowing two living Americans to go home, the Houthi are reportedly due to receive 200 of their fighters who had previously been barred from returning from Oman after receiving medical treatment there.
Regardless of its implications for direct exchanges between Iran and its Western adversaries, the Yemeni case is arguably the latest significant reminder of Tehran’s efforts to tighten its hold on the entire surrounding region. It comes just days after Saeed Khatibzadeh boasted of Iran’s imminent access to advanced foreign weapons following Sunday’s expiration of a UN arms embargo – a date that the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said would be “the day of U.S. defeat” in the Middle East.
That boastful sentiment was reinforced by Iran-backed militias in Iraq on Sunday when they informed the Iraqi government that they were willing to accept a ceasefire with U.S. forces in the country. In such circumstances, as the Iranian regime loses regional grips, its proxies seemingly are being pushed to shadow.