July 3, 2018 / 11:25 AM / 15 days ago

Iran says Belgium arrests are a plot to sabotage Rouhani Europe visit

DUBAI/VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran said on Tuesday it could show it had nothing to do with an alleged plot to bomb an Iranian opposition meeting in France, as Austria said it was stripping an Iranian of his diplomatic status after he was arrested in Germany as part of the case.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said two suspects in Belgium were in fact members of the People’s Mujahideen, part of an umbrella bloc of opposition groups in exile that seek an end to Shi’ite Muslim clerical rule in Iran.

“The detainees in Belgium are known members of this terrorist organization and Iranian authorities ... are prepared to provide the necessary documentation to clarify the dimensions of this scenario,” said Qasemi, quoted by the state news agency IRNA

Two suspects in Belgium were intercepted by Belgian police on Saturday with 500 grams of the homemade explosive TATP and a detonation device found in their car, Belgian authorities said.

Qasemi accused the People’s Mujahideen, the main component of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) whose Paris meeting was allegedly targeted, of “carrying out a scenario to affect the European visit (of President Hassan Rouhani) and harm Iran’s position in the European public opinion.”

French officials have declined to comment on the case saying the nature of the incident is unclear and extremely sensitive.

After the withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, its European signatories Britain, France and Germany have vowed to save the agreement despite U.S. pushing them to pullout.

DIPLOMATIC STATUS REVOKED

Any sign Iranian authorities were behind the plot in France would make it politically complicated for leaders, especially President Emmanuel Macron, to continue to back the deal.

In Switzerland on Tuesday, Rouhani appeared to threaten to disrupt oil shipments from neighbouring countries if Washington presses ahead with its goal of forcing all countries to stop buying Iranian oil. He was due to visit Austria after Switzerland.

The Austrian Foreign Ministry said earlier on Tuesday it was stripping the diplomatic status of 46-year-old Iranian diplomat, Assadollah A, who was arrested in Germany, suspected of having been in contact with the two arrested in Belgium.

Qasemi rejected as baseless the allegations against the diplomat.

Three other people were also arrested in France in connection with the case, two of whom were released.

“The Iranian diplomat will be denied diplomatic status within 48 hours because of the existence of a European arrest warrant,” Austria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador on Monday to help clarify the situation around the diplomat’s arrest, it said.

The NCRI said in a statement on Tuesday that it believed that the diplomat had been head of Iranian intelligence at the embassy since 2014. According to an Austrian government website, he was third consul at the embassy.

The NCRI said the couple arrested in Belgium had pretended to be supporters of the People’s Mujahideen.

Iran earlier denied a plot to blow up the opposition meeting and called the arrests a “false flag ploy”.

Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani as well as former European and Arab ministers attended last weekend’s meeting of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) - an umbrella organisation of opposition groups in exile that seek an end to Shi’ite Muslim clerical rule in Iran.

The Mujahideen, also known by its Persian name Mujahideen-e-Khalq, was once listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union but is no longer.

Tehran has long called for a crackdown on the NCRI in Paris, Riyadh, and Washington. The group is regularly criticised in state media.

Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Francois Murphy in Vienna, and John Irish in Paris, Editing by William Maclean

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