By Alejo Vidal Quadras
On November 27, 2020, four Iranian terrorist operatives will go on trial in Antwerp. Among them is a high-ranking diplomat who was working out of the Iranian embassy in Vienna prior to his arrest on July 1, 2018. That arrest took place one day after the intended date of an attack he had masterminded for the purpose of disrupting an international gathering organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Had the attack been successful, it would have been a rare instance of Iranian terrorism being perpetrated on Western soil without being mediated through a third party such as Hezbollah. Its principal target was evidently Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the NCRI. But the explosives that were to be used in the attack would have certainly resulted in other casualties as well, possibly including any of the hundreds of political dignitaries who had traveled to the Paris suburb of Villepinte for the “Free Iran” rally.
These potential consequences underscore the unique importance of the November 27 trial of Assadollah Assadi. It is of course important that terrorist-diplomat be held accountable for his role in planning terrorism in the heart of Europe. But more than that, it is important for the international community to hold the entire Iranian regime accountable for the same.
A number of people with intimate knowledge of this case have made it clear that it has a significant bearing on future relations between Iran and the West. Jaak Raes, the head of Belgium’s state security service, recently confirmed to the media that “the plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership. It was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative.”
Further evidence for this conclusion can be seen in Tehran’s conduct after the plot was foiled. Far from disavowing Assadi, his subordinates, or their willingness to cause Western casualties on Western soil, Iranian authorities made every effort to block their diplomat’s extradition and to facilitate his escape from justice. Assadi himself even went so far as to threaten further terrorism if Belgian authorities didn’t cooperate with those efforts. In interviews with investigators, he noted that the regime has many proxies who would be watching to see whether or not Europe would “support them.”
The regime as the number one state sponsor of terrorism was behind this terrorist attack and must be held accountable. Furthermore, the European governments should not welcome and allow Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, to step on their soil in Europe, and they should hold Zarif accountable because his diplomat was the main perpetrator of the terrorist act.
The Assadi case could mark a turning point in Europe’s approach to both the Iranian regime and its militant proxies. Some critics of the existing policies have expressed optimism on that point, such as British MP Theresa Villiers, who was among the foreign dignitaries in attendance at the 2018 Free Iran Rally. “If the defendants are convicted in this case,” she said, “this must be a wake-up call for the international community to put more pressure on the tyrannical Iranian regime to end its destabilizing support for terrorist groups around the world.”
No doubt this was exactly the outcome that Tehran was worrying about when it sought to interfere in Assadi’s extradition. Its representatives are still warning against such a shift in international relations even now, as the trial date draws near. Peyman Sadat, the Director-General for Europe in Iran’s Foreign Ministry, recently held a meeting with the Belgian ambassador and described it afterward as underlining the intention of the Iranian Resistance to “tarnish our relationship with Belgium and Europe.”
It is fair to say that in the wake of the 2018 terror plot, the EU’s silence about this case in order not to “tarnish the relationship” with the theoretical regime in Iran is disgraceful and unacceptable. It is also fair to say that the tarnishing of these relationships could only be beneficial to Europe. To reinforce those relationships at this point would be to send the message that Iranian terror threats are an effective strategy for intimidating Europe into silence. Such a message would be incredibly valuable to the Iranian regime in the midst of its current crises.
The 2018 terror plot was sparked by a domestic uprising that presented the mullahs with a serious challenge to their hold on power. After identifying the MEK as a major driving force behind the unrest that January, the regime struggled to regain control over the population, and it quickly set its sights on the center of foreign political support for the country’s “Resistance units.” When that terror plot was disrupted by European authorities, domestic unrest rebounded on an ever larger scale, with protests breaking out in nearly 200 cities and towns in November 2019.
Even after opening fire on those protests and killing approximately 1,500 people, the Iranian government faced another widespread upsurge just two months later. This, as much as anything else, underscored the extent of the Resistance movement’s popularity and organizational strength. Crucially, it is a movement that challenges not just the theocratic makeup of the existing regime but also its antagonistic relationship with Western and Arab nations. In fact, Mrs. Rajavi’s 10-point plan for Iran’s future specifically calls for peaceful relations and disavowal of terrorist proxies alongside the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions.
That is a movement that the international community would be well served to support. And there is perhaps no better opportunity to initiate that support than by securing convictions and appropriate punishment for the defendants of the November 27 trial, then setting sights on a more assertive approach to the regime that supported and directed those aspiring terrorists. Such an approach may entail an increase in terrorism-related sanctions or the closure of embassies through which such terrorism is channeled. But whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: the status quo cannot persist in the wake of such a dire threat as the 2018 Paris terror plot.
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)