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French terror plot raids clash with efforts to save Iran nuclear deal

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Police at the raid on Centre Zahra France on Tuesday morning AFP

Observers have accused France of employing a contradictory policy on Iran, after authorities froze Iranian assets and raided a Muslim centre with links to Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian movement Hamas, while trying to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.


"Relations between Paris and Tehran have weathered worse storms than this," Mitchell Belfer, director of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre in Rome, told RFI after French authorities froze the financial assets of Iran’s intelligence services and two Iranian men, in response to an alleged bomb plot in June.

A senior French official told the Reuters news agency that Paris had no doubt that elements of the Iranian state were behind the bomb plot and that it was likely to have been hatched by hardliners looking to undermine President Hassan Rouhani.

"These episodes create a degree of tension and then it's back to business as normal," comments Belfer, for whom "Iran is a good opportunity" for Paris.

"France has been willing to overlook some of the excesses of Iranian operations abroad even if it means potentially hurting French citizens because what they see is an area where the US is not very present," he says.

US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May and has since ratcheted up a war of words with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, threatening a new batch of sanctions next month.

"With the Trump administration increasing pressure on Tehran, France is trying to carve out a niche for itself in that country," says Belfer.

But not at the expense of its war on terror, insists Interior Minister Gérard Collomb.

Iran attacks on France not new

He issued a statement Tuesday saying he remained "determined to stamp out any form of terrorism, wherever it may come from", even as his future in the government of Emmanuel Macron remains in doubt.

France, along with Britain, Germany, Russia and China, continues to support the Iran nuclear deal but that "doesn't give Iranian authorities the green light to do whatever they want", reckons part Karim Lahidji, president of the Iranian League, an opposition group in exile in Paris.

"None of this is new, you know, this has been happening for years, especially in the 1980s, we saw attacks from Iran in France," continues Lahidji, referring to bombings by a group calling itself the Committee for Solidarity With Arab and Middle Eastern Political Prisoners, which is alleged to have been Hezbollah acting on behalf of Iran.

Lahidji says the attacks aimed to pressure French authorities into ending arms sales to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

"Various governments adopted the same strategy: on the one hand, they maintain diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, but at the same time they have to ensure a robust response to terror attacks on home soil. When you're faced with a state where there is no rule of law, it's very difficult to have a coherent policy," he told RFI.

In a further sign of this paradox, the head of France's armed forces Florence Parly blasted Iran's anti-ballistic missiles as a threat in a conference Tuesday with US Defence Secretary Jim Matthis, casting doubt on France's commitment to the Iran nuclear deal.

Hezbollah influence unchecked

The fact that France has blocked all diplomatic travel to Iran and still has not nominated its ambassador to Tehran since the foiled bomb blot of June has also raised questions.

For Belfer, the nuclear deal could unravel altogether.

"France has been in a paradoxical situation for a long time and it continues to play this very awkard position between the secular forces and counter-terrorism approaches that France tries to build in Europe, but at the same time it doesn't do much to address Hezbollah in Europe," he says.

The Shia-Muslim group's influence on the continent "remains stronger than ever," according to Belfer, "much of it because when many in Europe and particularly in France address Islamic fundamentalism, they always look at Sunni groups: Al Qaeda, Daesh, but they always overlook the potency of the Shia groups, Hezbollah."

There were more than 8,000 active Hezbollah sympathisers in Germany in 2007, according to an interior ministry investigation.

Belfer reckons that the longer they go unchecked in Europe, the more devastating the pressure will be from Iran via Hezbollah. This pressure could persuade European countries which are still supporting the Iran deal to back out, and follow US President Donald Trump in imposing sanctions on Tehran.