Is Russia's New Cultural Center In Paris Used For Spying?

Since the inauguration of the Orthodox cathedral and the Russian cultural center in the French capital on Oct. 19, questions about the use of the site for more sinister purposes have been raised.

A view on the Orthodox cathedral in Paris
A view on the Orthodox cathedral in Paris
Richard Werly

PARIS â€" When a Russian orthodox church and cultural center opened its doors Oct. 19 in Paris, Vladimir Putin was supposed to cut the ribbon himself. But after French President Francois Hollande demanded talks on Syria, the Russian president chose to skip the event. The church and center were still inaugurated. Located near the Eiffel Tower and France’s foreign ministry, the complex covers an area of nearly 4000 square meters and is topped by five golden domes.

Before construction of the largest Russian Orthodox cultural center in western Europe began in 2012, this area held the headquarters of the French weather office. But now it could hold more sinister purposes, some claim.

A former ambassador to Moscow said in a note to the Elysee Palace that he or she is "certain" that Russian spy services use the premises, where cultural conferences have already started to be organized. "Under these conditions, we recommend reinforcing the anti-spy security at the Quai d’Orsay," the author wrote, citing the complex’s proximity to the National Assembly and the office of the defense minister.

Le Temps also learned that German ambassador Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut who doesn’t live far from the site, has already taken measures against espionage this summer. The Swiss ambassador is also possibly concerned. There are apartments used by the presidency on Quai Branly just a few meters from the complex which houses, among others, the diplomatic advisor and the chief of personal staff to the head of state.

"All the services concerned there were, at the time, trying to dissuade (then president) Nicolas Sarkozy from accepting the project. I saw many confidential notes of defense pass through there," says a former advisor to the Elysee Palace. But starting in 2008, after the conflict in Georgia, the president’s priority was to build trust with the then Russian president Dmitri Medvedev.

Alexandre Orlov, an influential Russian ambassador to France, strongly denies rumors of espionage, attributing them to "networks of anti-Moscow oligarchs."

"Accusing Russia of wanting to transform this orthodox culture center in the heart of Paris into a monitoring station, feeds into unnecessary and damaging fantasies," says François Fillon, a conservative candidate in the 2017 French presidential election and a former prime minister during the beginning of the Russian Cultural Center project in 2007.

Fillon, who defends a strategic alliance between Paris and Moscow, made the remarks in Geneva in May at a seminar about Russia.

But others are more cautious about the center. "We are talking about a Russian site with diplomatic immunity, located a few hundred meters from the Quai d’Orsay and the Elysee," says a former diplomat from Central Asia. "Asking questions about its use and the risks that it may preset, are the least of the problems."

The initial choice for the church was Seguin Island, the former site of Renault in Boulogne, far from the Elysee Palace. That’s where the Pinault Foundation finished its work on a future museum. "Do you also suspect Washington of using the American church for two purposes?" says an employee of the Russian embassy. "Don’t forget that the American embassy is right next to the Elysee Palace. In 2015, the press spoke about NSA surveillance systems that were installed there."

In his book "The Russian France", journalist Nicolas Hénin said the site contained real risks of espionage along with Moscow’s desire to use the cultural center as a hidden place of propaganda and soft power in the heart of Paris. "They are left in a Cold War type of configuration," he wrote. For now, no one has denied it.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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