By Alejo Vidal Quadras
It has now been several days since a high-ranking Iranian diplomat was convicted of plotting to carry out a major terrorist attack on European soil. One would think that this would be a major source of public commentary in Western policy circles and that this commentary would already be setting the stage for a coordinated political response to the underlying phenomena. Instead, the response from European leaders has been muted at best, raising concerns among critics of the Iranian regime about whether those leaders plan to sweep this entire incident under the rug.
Unfortunately, it isn’t difficult to imagine why certain Western policymakers would be in favor of that outcome. Serious public comment on the recent conviction would undermine longstanding preferences for ordinary diplomatic dialogue and conciliatory relations with the Iranian regime. Such policies keep the door open for commerce and the purchase of Iranian oil, and they shunt aside the complicated political goal of confronting and mitigating state-backed terrorism.
Of course, every time the decision is made to downplay or disregard these issues, the European Union is gambling with its own security. This is more apparent now than it has been in years, following last Thursday’s conviction of Assadollah Assadi, who until July 2018 served as the third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna. Assadi went on trial in Belgium last November following a two and a half year investigation into his role as the mastermind of a plot to blow up the annual gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The trial established that Assadi had personally smuggled 500 grams of the high explosive TATP into Europe on a commercial flight. He was able to do this because his diplomatic passport entitled him to the circumvention of ordinary security screenings. Afterwards, he conveyed the explosives along with a detonator to a meeting in Luxembourg, where he handed them off to an Iranian-Belgian couple who had apparently lived in Europe for many years as a sleeper cell.
That couple, Nasimeh Naami and Amir Saadouni, was tried and convicted alongside Assadi and received 18 and 15 years in prison, respectively. A third accomplice was sentenced to 17 years while Assadi himself received the statutory maximum of 20 years. The outcome was roundly praised by the Iranian regime’s critics, especially given that Assadi was the first Iranian diplomat to so much as face charges in connection with terrorism. He was not, however, the first to fall under suspicion of the same.
In 2018 alone, diplomats were expelled from France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Albania following the discovery of plots targeting either individual activists or entire groups advocating for the democratic overthrow of Iran’s theocratic regime. In Assadi’s case, the prime target was the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi, but it is understood that the bomb would have killed hundreds of participants in the NCRI gathering, which took place just outside Paris and was attended by a politically diverse array of European and American dignitaries representing the fields of politics, law, foreign affairs scholarship, and security.
The potential for casualties among this group is an undeniable indicator of the threat that Iranian state terrorism poses to the security of Western nations. That threat is further underscored by other revelations from the investigation and trial that concluded last week. Documents that were recovered from Assadi’s vehicle at the time of his arrest in Germany showed that he had been in touch with hundreds of apparent assets spanning at least 11 European countries and that he had provided many of them with cash payments for unknown services. Assadi had also taken notes on various points of interest including some that have been under observation by European authorities as possible sources of financing and support for Islamic terrorist groups.
These details of the Assadi case go a long way toward explaining the urgency of appeals coming from some Western policymakers who oppose the status quo that is a conciliatory approach to the Iranian regime. Dozens of those policymakers issued statements along these lines even before Assadi’s conviction, and their appeals are sure to grow more intense in the days to come.
One of the statements in question was prepared by the International Committee in Search of Justice and it urged the European Union and its member states to recognize that Assadi’s actions point to the possibility that there could be more of the same, and to the fact that culpability extends to higher Iranian authorities including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. “In this respect,” the statement said, “the activities of Iran’s embassies, religious and cultural centers need to be scrutinized and the diplomatic relations with Iran need to be downgraded and return to normal diplomatic relations [must] be subject to Iran packing up its terrorist apparatus in Europe and giving assurances that it will never engage in terrorism in Europe again.”
Unfortunately, even in the wake of Assadi’s conviction this may be a hard sell, since it represents a dramatic reversal of conciliatory policies that have been in place for many years throughout the West. However, there is practically no way for those policies advocates’ to actually defend them in the face of all that has been revealed. The best they can do is hope to remain silent, but as long as that silence continues to be challenged by serious critics of the Iranian regime, the EU’s leadership will soon have no viable choice other than to change its policies and hold the entire Iranian regime accountable for its terrorism.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)