It was reported on Tuesday that the Iranian judiciary may be preparing to implement the death sentence for Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish medical doctor who is one of several Dual nationals to be detained in recent years on spurious accusations of espionage against the regime. In response to this news, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde reached out to her Iranian counterpart with an appeal to spare the prisoner’s life. A spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry promptly rejected this appeal in a public statement.
Mot bakgrund av uppgifter om att Iran eventuellt planerat att verkställa dödstraff mot den svenske medborgaren Djalali har jag idag pratat med Irans utrikesminister Zarif. Sverige fördömer dödsstraff och verkar för att domen mot Djalali inte ska verkställas.
— Ann Linde (@AnnLinde) November 24, 2020
The initial outreach seems to reflect a widespread perception among Western officials that Zarif, an American-educated diplomat, is some sort of moderating influence within the hardline regime. But the Ministry’s response underscores equally longstanding allegations that all of Iran’s so-called moderate officials are actually loyal servants of the theocratic system and its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Zarif’s office seemed intent on preserving his moderate credentials by using familiar talking points regarding the “independence” of the Iranian judiciary. Of course, it is ridiculous to suggest that neither the Foreign Minister nor any other representative of Iran’s executive branch could wield influence over decisions regarding the implementation of judicial sentences, especially when they involve foreign nationals. In reality, the Ministry’s rejection of Linde’s appeal is just further affirmation of its support for the regime’s belligerent posture and terrorist nature of the regime.
The alignment between “moderates” and “hardliners” on this matter has been increasingly difficult for Tehran to conceal, thanks in part to slogans taken up by the general population of Iran in recent years. In January 2018, Iranians from all walks of life took part in a nationwide uprising that spanned well over 100 cities and towns. After beginning with a focus on economic mismanagement, the protests took on a much more general anti-government tone, with slogans that evoked a demand for regime change.
Among those slogans was at least one that name-checked the moderates and hardliners, or “reformists” and “principlists,” in order to declare “the game is over.” The clear implication was that those two factions tend to operate with a unity of purpose. This is seen as much in the crackdown on dissent inside Iran as it is in the regime’s foreign policy – a policy that was arguably defined by the regime’s current President Hassan Rouhani when he was filling an earlier role as a chief negotiator over Iran’s nuclear program.
At the time, Rouhani boasted to his colleagues about creating a “calm environment” with false concessions, secure in the knowledge that it would provide the regime with the opportunity to pursue advancements in aspects of its nuclear program that were not then under discussion. This duplicity is still visible in the nuclear sphere and on a larger scale. Djalali’s case is arguably one example, in that Western reactions to the threat on his life may be tempered by prior instances in which Tehran released Western hostages.
But those seemingly moderate gestures were invariably undertaken as part of prisoner swaps or in exchange for other concessions from Western adversaries. They should not lead Western policymakers to believe that there is any meaningful trend toward moderation with Iran’s ruling system. And if anyone is tempted to draw this conclusion, they need only pay attention to the court proceedings that will be taking place in Antwerp on Friday.
The trial in question can be expected to demonstrate that attacks on Western nationals are endorsed and enabled not only by “moderate” officials but also by Iran’s entire diplomatic infrastructure, from the foreign minister Zarif down to individual diplomats. The case involves a planned attack on an Iranian expatriate gathering outside Paris, and the four defendants include an Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi, who was reportedly the mastermind behind the plot.
In addition to leading the operation and recruiting his three co-conspirators, Assadi personally obtained the explosive material that was to be used in the bombing, then transferred it to two of his agents in Luxembourg with instructions on how and where to detonate it. Had the bomb not been intercepted by Belgian police before the couple crossed into France, it would have almost certainly killed hundreds, if not thousands, of the participants in the annual “Free Iran” rally.
Crucially, the list of casualties from that attack would have also most likely included some of the international dignitaries who were in attendance and were seated near the principal target, the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi. Among those dignitaries were a number of British and European lawmakers, a former US ambassador to the UN, and former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani.
Assadi was certainly aware of the prospective make-up of the crowd when he began plotting the attack. Many of the same dignitaries had attended similar rallies for years in support of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). And regardless of their presence, common sense dictates that any attack on such a rally could be considered an act of war simply by virtue of its location in France. Assadi understood this but attempted to follow through on the plot anyway. More to the point, his handlers in Tehran understood it and they signed off on the attack as well.
This has been confirmed by investigations undertaken by multiple European authorities. In recent comments to the media, the head of Belgian state security said, “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.”
Those who were privy to the terror plot include avowed hardliners like Supreme Leader Khamenei and the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). But they also include so-called reformists like President Hassan Rouhani, who holds a prominent position in the regime’s Supreme National Security Council. And since the plot was conveyed through Assadi’s post at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, there is absolutely no doubt that Zarif, as the regime’s top diplomat, was a party to it as well.
This fact ought to be highlighted in Assadi’s forthcoming trial, and Western policymakers ought to be reminded of it in the aftermath, especially at times when they indulge the impulse to give Zarif credit for “moderation,” or to reach out to him for help with matters involving the lives of Western nationals. The most he can be expected to do is insist that it is out of his hands. But in fact, he, like virtually every high-ranking Iranian official, has a direct role to play in the persecution and killing of Americans and Europeans.
Indeed, the Assadi case reveals that maintaining normal diplomacy with the regime is more likely to cause the deaths of Western nationals than to prevent them. For that reason, in the wake of Friday’s trial, European governments must seriously consider closing down Iranian embassies or making diplomatic relations conditional on meaningful changes in the regime’s foreign policy.
One way or another, those governments must place themselves in a greater position of strength in their dealings with the regime. Tehran has consistently demonstrated that friendly overtures will be rejected, whereas strength alone elicits respect.