By Alejo Vidal Quadras
Next month, a Belgian federal court will mostly likely hand down a conviction for four participants in an Iranian terror plot. The defendants, one of whom is a high-ranking diplomat with longstanding ties to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, will the receive sentences of between five and 20 years each. Whatever the exact outcome, the international community must be prepared to take action when it is announced and that action must demonstrate that the consequences of Iranian terrorism will not be borne exclusively by the individual agents who attempted to perpetrate that terrorism.
Even before the trial began on Friday, investigators and eyewitnesses had made it absolutely clear that the plot which was thwarted in June 2018 was not the product of rogue action or personal initiative by its diplomat mastermind or any of his co-conspirators. Rather, the outline of that plot had been handed down from the regime’s leadership as part of a larger strategy for stamping out dissent at a time of increasingly popular unrest inside the Islamic Republic.
Throughout the previous January, Iranian cities and towns were rocked by protests in which citizens from all walks of life chanted slogans like “death to the dictator” and expressed overwhelming contempt for the entire theocratic system. At the time, the nationwide uprising was recognized as perhaps the most significant outpouring of dissent since the mullahs’ originally consolidated power in the 1980s. The threat to the regime was made even more apparent when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged that the unrest had been channeled and directed largely by the pro-democracy opposition group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
Although the unified nationwide protests were disrupted by the end of January following dozens of killings and thousands of arrests, the underlying movement remained untouched. Soon, NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi called for a “year full of uprisings,” and protests began to break out again, albeit in a more disparate and less coordinated fashion. This nonetheless justified the extreme anxiety that had been evident in Khamenei’s acknowledgement of the PMOI, a group that regime authorities had long sought to portray as small, disorganized, and lacking in serious popular support.
The 2018 plot was clearly intended to help bring reality more closely into line with that propaganda, by sowing chaos within the Resistance movement. Though headquartered abroad, the coalition that organized that year’s expatriate gathering is led by the PMOI, with Mrs. Rajavi as its designee to lead a transitional government following the overthrow of the clerical regime. The June 2018 rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran featured a keynote address by Mrs. Rajavi herself, plus participation from other leading NCRI officials as well as hundreds of political dignitaries who traveled to Paris from throughout the world to show support for the coalition.
Such foreign support for the NCRI and the PMOI has grown steadily over the years. This is significant not only because it affirms the legitimacy of the Resistance movement and its democratic platform, but also because it helps to counter the influence that Iranian propaganda has wielded over Western policy for the better part of four decades. In the past, the authors of that propaganda even managed to convince some Western governments to designate the PMOI as a terrorist group, when in fact its membership had long since become one of the greatest victims of the regime’s own terrorist activity.
This mistake was corrected everywhere by 2012, but there are lingering effects of the Western impulse to take Iranian propaganda seriously when it comes to the Resistance movement. The Belgian terror trial is presently shining new light on that impulse by revealing the otherwise inexplicable reluctance of Western leaders to hold Tehran accountable for actions carried out in its name and with its blessing.
To date, no one has announced new plans to exert pressure on the Islamic Republic over its support of terrorism or its violations of human rights. However, the evidence presented at the trial makes it clear that both of these features of the Iranian regime have grown worse in the wake of the recent unrest. And considering that that unrest reemerged several times over the past two and a half years, sparking an even larger nationwide uprising in 2019, there is good reason to believe that the trend of escalation will continue unless it is countered from abroad.
The international community could accomplish this aim by adopting multilateral sanctions and effectively expanding the current American strategy of “maximum pressure,” while focusing it more explicitly on human rights issues. Western powers could also promote the further isolation of Iran’s terrorist regime and it should be easy for them to do so in light of the fact that the mastermind of the 2018 terror plot and one of the four defendants in the Belgian terror case, Assadollah Assadi, was serving as the third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna right up until his arrest.
If there is any serious obstacle to the promotion of these strategies, it will surely come from those Western policymakers who are still under the influence of Iranian propaganda. While that propaganda is not capable of convincing anyone that the regime is innocent or undeserving of financial and diplomatic penalties, it is quite capable of raising doubts about the potential payoff from implementing those measures.
Certain long-serving Western politicians have been trained to believe that there is no serious alternative to the Iranian regime and that the only way forward for Iran policy consists of negotiating with the existing leadership structure, even when doing so increases the possibility of further terrorism.
The trial over the 2018 terror plot should counter those assumptions on two fronts. Firstly, it should demonstrate that the potential death toll among Western personnel and innocent civilians makes the status quo too costly to preserve. And secondly, by revealing the depth of the regime’s anxiety over an international display of organized Resistance, it should make it clear that there is a potential payoff for putting serious pressure on the Islamist regime and it is nothing less than that regime’s overthrow at the hands of its own people.
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)