By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Until the Belgian Government gives us solid reasons to conclude otherwise, we must, unfortunately, assume that each passing day brings us closer to releasing a duly convicted Iranian terrorist from custody. We must also assume that Iranian authorities are looking forward to that outcome every bit as much as we are dreading it and that their expectations are already guiding their actions and future plans.
The signing of the treaty for “Transfer of Sentenced Persons” was one of the most shameful incidents in Belgium’s recent history, exceeded only by that treaty’s ratification along party lines. The resulting national shame will be compounded beyond measure if the treaty is actually implemented for the purpose of freeing Assadollah Assadi, the former Iranian diplomat who was caught red-handed in 2018, leading a plot to bomb an international gathering of Iranian activists and sympathetic Western dignitaries.
Some might argue that Assadi’s release is a moral compromise worth making if it means saving even one European national from protracted suffering and possible death inside Iran’s inhumane prison system. Such arguments are painfully short-sighted insofar as they ignore the long-term impact that the treaty will surely have on other Western nationals, global security, and Western interests as a whole.
It is generally expected that if Assadi is released, it will be as part of a prisoner swap also involving the Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who was apparently taken hostage by Iranian authorities in February, almost exactly a year after Assadi was convicted of conspiracy to commit terrorism and mass murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It remains to be seen what other concessions might accompany this swap, but the Iranian regime has a long history of demanding and receiving outsized rewards for simply suspending its torture of Western hostages.
This is to say that Tehran has already been given ample reason to believe that hostage-taking constitutes an effective and lucrative strategy for dealing with foreign adversaries. That is why the regime currently holds at least 20 European and American citizens and permanent residents in detention on unsubstantiated or demonstrably false charges.
Up to this point, the expectation has been that these people could be used as bargaining chips to secure the release of Iranians convicted abroad for sanctions violations or petty crimes. However, Assad’s release would give Tehran a whole new set of incentives for hostage-taking by revealing that that practice can actually encourage Western policymakers to look the other way on serious terrorist activities.
Treaty With Mullahs Encourages Further Terrorism and Hostage-taking
Iranian Resistance Will Continue Examining All Political and Legal Avenues and Options To Prevent Extradition of Terrorist-diplomat to #Iran#DontFreeTerrorists #No2Appeasementhttps://t.co/rYgIXQ5hxF
— Mohammad Mohaddessin (@Mohaddessin) July 21, 2022
Defenders of the “Transfer of Sentenced Persons” might dismiss this warning as an overstatement. After all, Assadi did not succeed in his attempt to bomb the Free Iran World Summit while it was being held at an exhibition center near Paris, but this response, also, is short-sighted. It glosses over the fact that the details of Assadi’s plot reveal it had the potential to be the worst terrorist attack on European soil to date and that the former third counselor at the regime’s embassy in Vienna had utilized his diplomatic privileges to evade normal security procedures and smuggle high explosives into Europe on a commercial flight.
These facts are not rendered inconsequential simply because the would-be bombers were arrested, and nobody actually died. The potential loss of life warranted serious punishment in itself, as the Antwerp court correctly ruled last year. Assad’s 20-year sentence warrants being implemented in its entirety, both for the sake of legal punishment and for the sake of deterring those Iranian operatives who might be willing to follow in his footsteps if they believe their failure would carry limited or no consequences.
We already know that such operatives are already in place across the European continent. Assadi’s arrest yielded documentary evidence of his meetings with dozens of agents in several different countries, many of whom received payment for services unknown. Although we may optimistically assume that that evidence is currently helping European law enforcement track and disrupt Iranian terrorist networks, we cannot solely rely on those agencies to keep the people of Europe safe when political and legal tools exist which could minimize the threat.
Full implementation of Assadi’s sentence is only one such tool. Others include the expansion of existing sanctions regimes and the closure of Iranian embassies and foundations that are very likely to provide cover for spies and terrorist operatives.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Spanish professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is currently president of the Brussels- based International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ)