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Iran: Domestic Challenges and Foreign Silence Leave the Regime Feeling Vulnerable, but Emboldened

The Suppressive State of Universities in IranBy: Alejo Vidal-Quadras

Serious critics of Iran’s theocratic regime have been warning for many years about the consequences of Western strategies that tend toward appeasement. Such strategies have a long history, dating back at least to the late 1980s when American and European leaders were eager to establish stable relations with an Iranian government that had survived eight years of war with neighboring Iraq. Their reluctance to alienate the Iranian regime ultimately led to all of those Western leaders turning a blind eye to what may have been the late 20th century’s worst crime against humanity – a massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

That massacre and countless smaller-scale crackdowns on dissent over the past 32 years underscore the fact that the Iranian people stand to suffer the worst effects of Western appeasement. However, threats to Iran’s domestic population often go hand-in-hand with threats to the regime’s foreign adversaries. And if appeasement policies remain unchallenged within the halls of Western power, both categories of threat will only continue to get worse.

If this was not clear from Iran’s long history as both the most prolific abuser of the death penalty and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, it should have become clear two years ago when Iranian authorities tried to exploit their perceived impunity and harm the domestic Resistance movement by lashing out at its foreign base of support. While the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) – the main target of the 1988 massacre – continues to operate “Resistance Units” inside Iran, much of its leadership conducts organizing efforts from positions of exile in Albania and in France, where the MEK’s parent coalition held international gatherings of expatriates and political supporters every summer between 2004 and 2018.

In 2019, the National Council of Resistance of Iran moved its annual rally to a new compound in Albania, and in 2020 it was moved online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The latest French rally very nearly ended in tragedy, as Iranian agents hatched a plan to attack it, which was thwarted through the coordination of several European intelligence services. A subsequent French investigation confirmed that the bomb plot had been approved at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. But this came as little surprise, given that the mastermind of that plot turned out to be a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi.

The former third counselor of the Iranian embassy in Vienna, Assadi, was arrested shortly after the three known operatives under his command – an Iranian-Belgian couple to whom he had provided 500 grams of TATP explosive and another individual who had infiltrated the NCRI’s gathering ahead of time. Assadi’s trial is now scheduled to begin in Belgium on November 27 and it will be the first instance of an Iranian diplomat actually being prosecuted for his role in terrorism. However, that role itself is not unique and supporters of the Iranian Resistance are hopeful that the trial will help to convince Western policymakers to reevaluate their approach to Iran and its agents.

Those hopes and the underlying sense of urgency for a change in policy have both grown stronger in recent days. Last week it was revealed that in police interviews, Assadi resorted to threats of further terrorism as part of an effort to blackmail European authorities for his release. Calling attention to Iran’s expansion of regional influence in the face of Western appeasement, the erstwhile diplomat declared that groups in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen were all “watching from the sidelines to see if Belgium would support them or not.”

The MEK responded to this revelation over the weekend and said, “Assadi’s open threats only show how belligerent the Iranian regime has become in face of the appeasement policy of European states and once again remind the need for a firm policy toward the regime’s foreign terrorism.” Such statements constitute sound advice for Western powers in any event, but it is reasonable to assume that the MEK is far more worried about what the regime’s foreign threats could portend for the Iranian people themselves.

Over the past two years, many hundreds of pro-democracy activists have been killed in Iran as the regime struggles to exploit its impunity on the world stage while tightening the reins on domestic unrest. Dozens were fatally shot or tortured to death during one uprising at the beginning of 2018. And when Tehran faced no real consequences for those actions, it dramatically stepped up the repression in response to another uprising in November 2019. Then, 1,500 people were killed in just a matter of days.

Thousands have been arrested through it all and yet the Iranian people continue to call for “death to the dictator” and to signal their desire for an end to the theocratic system and the establishment of a truly democratic system in line with Maryam Rajavi’s “10-point plan” for the future of the country. Inevitably, this persistent unrest will signal to the regime that activism of the MEK and the NCRI abroad remain a severe challenge to their own hold on power and it will strive to lash out again.

The chances of Tehran trying to follow through on that goal may diminish if Assadi is convicted before a plan can take shape. Moreover, they are much more likely to diminish if the international community also takes other, stronger efforts to hold Iran accountable for its attempt to carry out a terrorist attack on European soil. These efforts could include multilateral sanctions or the closure of embassies like the one through which Assadi organized his bomb plot, but almost any change at all would be an improvement over the current tendency toward silence and appeasement.

Such change has only become more imperative in light of the latest revelations about Assadi’s interaction with European investigators. The 2018 terror plot was a threat against Western powers in its own right. Not only was it to take place on French soil, but its potential victims included hundreds of American and European dignitaries and supporters of the NCRI, including Rudy Giuliani, the US president’s personal attorney. Even if Tehran wasn’t further emboldened by a lack of internationally-enforced consequences for that plot, it surely would be so emboldened by a tepid Western response to Assadi’s threat and the entire scenario could play itself out again.

Such threats cannot reasonably be viewed as signs of anything other than impunity or desperation. And considering that Iran in recent years has faced growing challenges from its domestic population, but hardly any from the world community, it is safe to say that Assadi’s threats showcase both impunity and desperation at once.

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)