This article is part of our series that explores Tehran’s terror activities and Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi‘s role in a bombing plot against the opposition rally in Paris in June 2018.
In at least two recent statements, European policymakers have urged their colleagues to take actions that hold the Iranian regime accountable for a terrorist plot that was thwarted on European soil in the summer of 2018.
The statements were issued in anticipation of a verdict in the case against four Iranian operatives who were arrested in connection with that plot. Both of them praise the trial itself as a step in the right direction but accuse Western governments of tending toward “appeasement” in their dealings with the regime as a whole.
That allegation stems in part from the fact that the current trial taking place in Belgium is an unusual one. Although numerous Iranian operatives, including some who operate under diplomatic cover, have been credibly accused of having ties to terrorist activity, few have ever been prosecuted. And until now, none of them have been employees of Iranian consular services.
In some cases, high-profile Iranian assets have actually been released from detention for the sake of preserving normal relations with the Iranian regime. This was the case in 1992 when a French court decided that it would be in the country’s interest to return two individuals to Iran who had been named in an arrest warrant for the killers of Kazem Rajavi, an Iranian expatriate activist who was gunned down near his home in Switzerland two years earlier.
Such incidents now stand in stark contrast to the Belgian government’s willingness to pursue charges against Assadollah Assadi, who was serving as the third counselor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna at the time of his arrest on July 1, 2018.
While Belgian authorities have made it absolutely clear that Assadi was acting upon orders from high in Iran’s political leadership, he is understood to have been the mastermind of the actual plot and to have also played a very hands-on role in attempting to carry it out.
Assadi’s arrest came one day after that of his co-conspirators Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naam. At the time, they were attempting to cross from Belgium into France, en route to the convention space that was hosting the Free Iran rally, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
Assadi had instructed the Saadouni and Naami, a married couple with Belgian citizenship, to smuggle an explosive device into the rally and place it as close as possible to NCRI President Maryam Rajavi, who delivered the keynote address at the event.
Details from the trial reveal that the two would-be bombers received the device in question directly from Assadi, who in turn had smuggled it into Austria on a commercial flight from Iran.
This was made possible by the fact that he was traveling on a diplomatic passport, which allowed him to circumvent normal security screenings. For the authors of the above-mentioned statements responding to Assadi’s case, this is a clear indicator of the danger that Iran’s diplomatic networks could pose to international security.
That is part of the reason why those statements directly advocate for downgrading diplomatic relations between Europe and Iran. One such statement, prepared by the non-profit International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ), pointed to the unique culpability of Iran’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in order to emphasize that no one should be considered immune from close scrutiny of the regime’s activities on Western territory.
Signers of the ISJ statement have separately suggested that Zarif’s movements should be limited and that European governments should avoid hosting him or any other established representative of the Islamic Republic for as long as the threat of Iranian terrorism is believed to persist.
The statement itself declared that “any return to normal diplomatic relations should be subject to Iran giving assurances that it will never engage in terrorism in Europe again.”
Another statement was more reserved in its recommendations regarding the status of diplomatic relations but was more assertive in outlining the conditions that should be imposed upon any return to normality.
“While condemning any policy of appeasement and concessions to the Iranian regime, we call for serious and effective measures,” said the contingent of roughly 40 members of the European Parliament in their open letter to Rik Daems, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly.
The letter proceeded to urge the severance of trade relations and the declaration that commerce would only return to Iran if the terrorist activity on European soil was definitively stopped and there were also noticeable improvements in the human rights situation for the Iranian people.
While these two issues are technically separate, some details of the 2018 terror plot reveal a high degree of overlap between them. This is to say that the decision to move forward with that plot was presumably influenced by the regime’s prior failure to staunch domestic expressions of dissent through the use of political violence.
About six months before the terror plot went into motion, Iran was rocked by a nationwide uprising that featured provocative slogans like “death to the dictator” being chanted in more than 100 cities and towns.
The movement was repressed after about a month, during which time several dozen participants were either shot dead in the streets or killed under torture following their arrest.
All in all, several thousand protesters and other activists were arrested, many of whom are still serving lengthy prison terms on vague “national security” charges.
Convictions in many of those cases were made easy by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s acknowledgment, at the height of the uprising, that the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) had been a driving force behind it.
Simple membership in that organization can be grounds for a death sentence on account of the PMOI/MEK representing a viable democratic alternative to the existing theocratic system. The group also stands at the head of the NCRI coalition and was founded in part by the husband of that coalition’s president, Maryam Rajavi.
The PMOI/MEK’s leadership of the 2018 uprising made it an even more valuable target for the Iranian regime, and this goes a long way toward explaining why that regime was willing to wake up a European sleeper cell and risk exposure for one of its major diplomatic operatives.
Assadi reportedly had contact with assets in at least 11 European countries and had delivered cash payments to many of them in the lead-up to his arrest. Now many of the regime’s critics are wondering whether the collective European response to that incident will lead to the dismantling of this and other such networks, or whether lawmakers will be content to place responsibility onto Assadi alone.
The ISJ statement and the statement from members of the European Parliament are both equally unequivocal in saying that Assadi’s conviction is not sufficient on its own.
“In accordance with a statement by the Council of the European Union dated April 29, 1997, agents and mercenaries of Iran’s intelligence services with diplomatic, journalistic, and economic cover should be tried, punished, and expelled, and centers with a religious or cultural cover promoting terrorism and fundamentalism should be closed,” the letter read.
Assadi’s conviction, scheduled for Thursday, is a starting point in the process of reversing Western habits of appeasement. But it’s only a start.