A German newspaper says local police have arrested an Iranian diplomat on a highway in southeastern Germany on suspicion of involvement in a plot to bomb an Iranian opposition event in France.
In a report published Monday, the Bild newspaper named the arrested diplomat as Assadollah A., a 47-year-old working at the Iranian embassy in the Austrian capital, Vienna.
In a phone call with VOA Persian, a Berlin-based journalist who worked on the story said German security officials told Bild that police stopped the diplomat as he was driving a rental car on a highway in the state of Bavaria on Sunday night local time.
The journalist said there were several other people in the car, and their identities were not confirmed. He said German police suspected that the diplomat had explosives in the car, but none were found.
Belgian authorities said Monday the Iranian diplomat, whose name they confirmed, was detained in Germany as a contact of an Iranian-origin married couple arrested earlier by Belgian police in Brussels. They said police officers caught the couple on Saturday in possession of 500 grams of homemade explosive TATP and a detonation device in the couple’s car.
Belgian prosecutors named the husband and wife as 38-year-old Amir S. and 33-year-old Nasimeh N. and said they were suspected of plotting to bomb a Saturday meeting of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in the French town of Villepinte, near Paris. The prosecutors charged the couple with attempted terrorist murder and preparing a terrorist act.
“We are not sure what the Iranian diplomat was doing in Bavaria,” the Bild journalist said. “It is possible that he was in Belgium, meeting with the married couple who were detained there, and was driving back to Austria via Germany.”
A French judicial official told Western news agencies that French police had detained another three people of Iranian origin in connection with the alleged bomb plot, but released two of them on Monday for lack of evidence.
Paris-based Iranian dissident organization NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group that advocates the "overthrow" of "religious dictatorship” in Iran.
Thousands of people attended NCRI’s Saturday gathering at an exhibition center north of Paris. The event featured remarks from prominent Americans who support both MEK and U.S. President Donald Trump, such as his attorney Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor, and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Monday’s news of the arrest of an Iranian diplomat connected to the alleged bomb plot against NCRI coincided with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s arrival in Switzerland at the start of a European tour.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif criticized the revelations of the alleged plot in a tweet posted on Monday, calling them a “sinister false flag ploy.”
"How convenient: Just as we embark on a presidential visit to Europe, an alleged Iranian operation and its 'plotters' arrested," Zarif said.
Rouhani’s European tour also will take him to Austria, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Iran’s Islamist leaders have been pressing European nations to ensure that Tehran will continue to reap economic benefits from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers despite the U.S. withdrawal from that agreement in May.
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told VOA Persian that headlines alleging an Iran-backed plot against Iranian exiles in France are not what Rouhani wants as he begins the visit to Europe.
“He wants to show Europe that Iran is not a bad actor as he tries to counteract the impact of U.S. sanctions,” Vatanka said.
Vatanka also questioned Zarif’s assertion that the alleged plot was a ploy to make Iran look bad.
“If Zarif is right by saying that the plot was staged, it could not have happened without some involvement of European intelligence agencies. But I don’t get a sense from European statements that they have been looking for a way of framing Iran,” he said. “I think it is more likely that another part of Iran’s regime is operating on its own (independently of Rouhani’s administration).”
In a statement issued Monday, NCRI responded to the arrests of the alleged bomb plotters by calling on the EU to close Iranian embassies, expel Iranian diplomats and agents and publish all details of the case.
In another statement posted by NCRI, Giuliani thanked European law enforcement for arresting those involved in the alleged plot to attack the meeting at which he spoke.
“This accentuates the growing sense that the regime that is the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the world is increasingly weakened by constant large demonstrations in over 140 cities," he said.
Iran has seen frequent nationwide protests this year by citizens expressing anger toward local and national officials and business leaders whom they accuse of mismanagement, corruption and oppression.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service.