By Alejo Vidal Quadras
Five years after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was implemented and two and a half years after the US pulled out of it, the Iran nuclear deal continues to overshadow a range of issues that are equally important. That single-minded focus has unfortunately led many Western policymakers to advocate for policies that not only give into Iran’s recent ultimatums but also let the theocratic regime off the hook for a variety of other malign activities.
French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian recently complained of the US “maximum pressure” campaign and implied that the new US administration should pull out of it immediately. “This has to stop because Iran and – I say this clearly – is in the process of acquiring nuclear [weapons] capacity,” he told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper. And while Le Drian is quite correct about the nature of the threat that Iran poses, he is absolutely wrong in suggesting that the appropriate way of addressing that threat is by removing pressure from the Iranian regime and hoping for its reciprocation in the form of renewed compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.
Ever since the new US administration took office, Tehran has been insisting that it is the responsibility of the United States to suspend all the sanctions that Trump had re-imposed and expanded. The new administration has taken the opposite position – that the Iranians must first downsize their nuclear stockpiles and scale back their uranium enrichment activities once again, in order to earn good will from the new administration. But Europeans remain unfortunately adversarial to that idea.
The problem with their stance is twofold. In the first place, it sends Iran the message that its various provocations and looming threats are on the verge of paying off. If the new US administration gives into the pressure and suspends sanctions in one fell swoop, the mullahs will come away from the encounter believing that they won by threatening to move much closer to nuclear weapons capability, and it will incentivize them to do the same in the future. But what is even worse is that it will most likely incentivize them to take a similar approach in other areas, and generally to go on believing that violent threats are the most effective means of dealing with the West.
Perhaps European policymakers are not generally aware of this broader risk, but it is only because their attention has been so narrowly focused on the JCPOA in recent years. That has apparently made it possible for them to overlook the upsurge in other threats emanating from the Iranian regime. But whether intentional or not, by supporting un-earned relief from economic sanctions, those policymakers are essentially offering to reward Iran for all of its recent malign behaviors.
This would be a troubling position under the best of circumstances, but it is downright shocking in light of the fact that at this very moment, there is an Iranian operative sitting in jail in Belgium awaiting a verdict in the trial stemming from his effort to set off a bomb in the heart of Europe. Prosecutors in the case against Assadollah Assadi have made it very clear that the defendant, a high-ranking official at the regime’s embassy in Vienna, was acting under direction from and in the name of leading authorities in the Iranian regime.
Fortunately, the June 2018 bomb plot was thwarted by law enforcement. But before any arrests were made, Assadi personally smuggled explosives into Europe while traveling on a diplomatic passport, then handed them off to two co-conspirators with instructions to infiltrate the Free Iran rally being held at Villepinte, France, and place the device as close as possible to the keynote speaker, Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi.
When the bomb was confiscated in Belgium, it was detonated by a police robot but still managed to wound an officer who was standing outside the security perimeter. Affidavits in the Assadi case affirm that the explosion and ensuing stampede would have surely killed hundreds of attendees at the event. And given that Mrs. Rajavi was the prime target, it is all but certain that the death toll would have included some of the hundreds of political dignitaries from the Europe, the US, and various other regions who were seated near the NCRI leadership throughout the event, to show their support for the cause of replacing Iran’s dictatorship with a genuine democracy.
One wonders whether the successful completion of Assadi’s task would have changed the European attitudes that persist to this day. Would policymakers still be as narrowly focused on the nuclear deal if some of their own colleagues had been killed by Iranian terrorists operating under the direction of a diplomat with close ties to the regime’s leadership? Would they still be urging the United States to throw away all the leverage it has acquired through “maximum pressure,” thereby giving into the regime’s threats and ultimatums?
If the answer to either these questions is no, then why should European policymakers remain mired in the status quo just because Tehran failed in its earnest attempt to kill their colleagues? This is something they should carefully consider as in the few days remaining before the verdict is due in Assadi’s case. It is all but certain that he will be found guilty, and it seems likely that his sentence will approach the requested maximum of 20 years in prison. But will those who are responsible for setting Western policy toward Iran be satisfied with accountability only for those who personally handled the bomb?
If Tehran itself faces no consequences either for the 2018 terror plot or for systematic violations of the nuclear deal, the regime will surely come to the conclusion that it enjoys impunity in both of these areas and therefore stands to benefit by applying the same tactics in the future. While European policymakers may be urging conciliation in hopes that it will push the regime toward moderation, the real trend will most likely be in the opposite direction. Over the long term, this could mean a nuclear-capable Iran, but even before then it could mean that the next Iranian terror plot is not disrupted before it results in the deaths of Western personnel.
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)