By Alejo Vidal-Quadras
The date is fast approaching when the international community will have a unique opportunity to demand accountability from the Iranian regime for its role in the global spread of terrorism. On November 27, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat will face terrorism charges in Belgium, where he recruited two Iranian sleeper agents to carry explosives across the border into France in June 2018. Their intended destination was an international gathering of Iranian expatriates and their political supporters, but fortunately the plan was foiled before it could be carried out.
Had it been successful, the bomb plot might have killed hundreds, including any number of the high-profile dignitaries who had traveled to the convention space near Paris in order to participate in the event. There is little question that the main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
That outcome seems more feasible than many Western policymakers would be inclined to admit. In fact, it was apparently on the basis of widespread concerns about a new revolution that the regime ordered its diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, to spearhead an operation intended to deliver a devastating blow to the Resistance movement. Those concerns, in turn, stem from the reality of large-scale protests that have rocked Iran under the mullahs’ rule throughout much of its existence, but especially in the past three years.
In the final days of 2017, an economic protest in the city of Mashhad became the spark for a nationwide uprising that encompassed roughly 150 cities and towns. As it spread, the movement took on a much broader political tone, culminating in ubiquitous chants of “death to the dictator” and other slogans that clarified the popular desire for regime change and the lack of belief in any promises of reform coming from the political mainstream.
This is a sentiment that needs to be more widely recognized within the international community. Furthermore, it is a sentiment that European policymakers desperately need to adopt for themselves. If they fail to do so, they will inevitably open themselves up to the danger of further Iranian terror plots like the one that was foiled in 2018.
As it stands, there is still a strong impulse among those policymakers to sweep some of Iran’s terrorist activity and human rights abuses under the rug. It is to the credit of the Belgian government and the European Union that the Assadi case in moving through prosecution, but it will take more than a single guilty verdict and prison sentence to make up for the effects of a set of policies that many critics have characterized as appeasement.
This was the word used by British MP Bob Blackman, among others, in a recent online conference organized by the NCRI for the express purpose of interrogating Western responses to Iran’s terrorism and related malign activities. “We must end the appeasement policy and the illusion that moderates will emerge from the theocratic dictatorship,” said at that event, which emphasized the fact that the 2018 terror plot had been ordered from the highest levels of the clerical regime.
This observation about the origins of Iranian terrorism was confirmed by both French and Belgian authorities in the context of investigating Assadi’s actions. It was also confirmed in advance by Iranian Resistance activists who have long advocated for assertive Western policies while insisting that “moderation” is a fantasy.
The NCRI was quick to criticize American and European leaders on this point in the wake of Hassan Rouhani’s election as president of the regime in 2013. Many of them publicly embraced that development. But the NCRI understood that Rouhani’s progressive-sounding promises were little more than window dressing, intended to create a false distinction between his political faction and the “hardliners” associated with Supreme Leader Khamenei.
The collective Western decision to ignore this warning ended up being a significant contributor to the conditions that ultimately led to Iran attempting a terrorist attack on European soil. More specifically, it helped to reinforce the Iranian regime’s expectation that it would be able to take such provocative action, even at the risk of implicating one of its high-ranking diplomats and still avoid facing any serious consequences.
Maryam Rajavi emphasized this point in another recent NCRI-organized video conference, this one featuring fellow speakers from the US, the UK, and continental Europe. The NCRI President-elect also tied recent Western permissiveness to a long pattern of decisions that even included turning a blind eye to a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, the 30,000 victims of which were mostly members of the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
“The policy of appeasement has greatly emboldened the regime over the past 40 years,” Mrs. Rajavi said, “to the extent that their diplomat, who is arrested, makes threats of more terrorist operations even from inside prison.”
She was referring to recent revelations from the transcript of interviews between Assadi and Belgian investigators. When it became clear that the Iranian government was having no success in its effort to halt the terrorist-diplomat’s prosecution, Assadi highlighted the Iranian regime’s growing influence over surrounding regions and declared that a number of terrorist proxies were watching from Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere to see whether or not the Belgian government would “support them.”
The clear implication of Assadi’s comments was that if he were actually sentenced to prison for his actions, Europe would face another attack, and likely one that directly targeted Western nationals rather than just accepting them as collateral damage. On one hand, such blatant threats are indicative of a strong expectation of impunity. But on the other hand, they are also easily interpreted as a mark of desperation – desperation that has been increasing ever since the uprising that seemingly made the NCRI into an even more vital target for the Iranian regime than it had been prior to 2018.
That uprising was not the only one of its kind. In fact, Mrs. Rajavi’s speeches identify four others in less than three years, including the nationwide protests in November 2019 that encompassed an even larger number of localities and a more diverse array of demographics than its predecessor. The overall trend has left Iranian authorities noticeably shaken, with officials including the supreme leader warning one another about the potential for further unrest, specifically coordinated protest actions under the banner of the democratic opposition, MEK.
If Iran believed that attacking the MEK’s foreign base of support was worth the associated risk in 2018, there is no telling how much more they could be willing to risk in the days ahead. Sadly, some Western policymakers may conclude that this is just further reason for appeasement. But they should be called out for not only turning their backs on the Iranian people, but also putting their own colleagues and compatriots at elevated risk to be attacked by the regime’s terrorists.
More sensible politicians should quickly recognize that Assadi’s threats and all the underlying circumstances are the greatest reasons so far for dramatically altering Western policy and turning from appeasement to something akin to “maximum pressure” plus formal support for the democratic Resistance movement. The signals indicating the necessity of this new strategy are too strong and too many to be ignored.
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)