On Tuesday, a special tribunal in The Hague finally brought some resolution to a 15-year-old terrorism case. The trial had been dogged by a variety of complications and obstructions, many of which were orchestrated by the Iranian regime in an effort to avoid accountability for its most longstanding foreign terrorist proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah.
The court’s decision ultimately left no doubt about the Lebanese militant group’s responsibility for the suicide bombing that killed the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 21 others. A formal conviction was handed down for one member of the cell that carried out the attack, but the implications of the case are much broader, and they include a stark reminder of the threat still posed to the entire world by the Iranian regime and its various terrorist affiliates.
Putting aside the long delays in the 11-year case, its conclusion comes at a fortuitous time. It arguably strikes a small blow against the impunity that certain violent entities have many years. And in so doing, it sets the stage for the international community to chip away at that impunity through other cases, especially where the regime of Iran is concerned.
As the proceedings in The Hague were coming to a close, others in Brussels were just getting underway. It is there that a prominent Iranian diplomat and two agents in his employ are currently facing charges in connection with a plot to blow up a gathering of Iranian expatriates that had been organized, in 2018, by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Had that plot been successful, the death toll could have been many orders of magnitude greater than that of the Beirut bombing that killed Hariri. It could have also matched or exceeded the political significance of the earlier incident, given the status of political conflict between the Iranian regime and the Iranian Resistance. That conflict has seen numerous prominent figures offer support for the NCRI on the world stage, and as such the 2018 gathering was attended by American and European lawmakers, and dignitaries.
The ultimate failure of the bomb plot is no reason why its mastermind, Assadollah Assadi, should be anything less than an example of how effectively the world has moved past the era of Iran’s impunity. This role is especially important in light of the fact that the Vienna-based diplomat was reportedly operating on orders from the highest ranks of the Iranian regime when he ordered his operatives to carry 500 grams of high-explosive to the gathering outside Paris.
A French investigation into the plot confirmed that it had been approved by the likes of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. This underscores the fact that Tehran remains committed to the use of terrorism as a form of state craft, just as it had been in 2005 at the time of Hariri’s assassination, and at the time of wide-ranging assassinations across Europe in the 1980s and 90s.
The international community’s ineffectual response to these sorts of incidents is a key reason why there is such a prominent risk of them recurring in the near future. Tuesday’s judgement against Hezbollah points the legal and political infrastructure in the right direction, but even that will ultimately prove ineffectual if it doesn’t lead to a broader, more concerted effort to demand accountability not only for the perpetrators but also for the planners of Iran-backed terrorist incidents.
Almost invariably, those planners include leading Iranian officials. Even when the actual operations are carried out by third-party groups, as in Lebanon, it is rare for serious measures to be undertaken without the endorsement of the supreme leader, who is considered the ultimate authority in all matters of Iran policy, and also in all religious matters among his fundamentalist followers.
“The obvious fact is that the assassination of Rafik Hariri was ordered by Khamenei himself and was planned by Qassem Soleimani and was part of the clerical regime’s overall plan to exert complete control over Lebanon,” said the NCRI’s statement to Tuesday’s ruling. “The court ruling shows once again that the only solution to the Lebanese crisis is to expel the Iranian regime from Lebanon and to cut off the tentacles of the IRGC and its mercenaries like Lebanese Hezbollah from Lebanon.”
But Tehran’s destructive influence reaches much farther than that. Its proxies include the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, similar Shiite militant groups in Syria, the Houthi rebels that ousted Yemen’s legitimate president in 2015, and many others. Serious opponents of Iranian terrorism have long advocated for international measures to oust regime operatives from all of these areas. Many have also urged the closure of Iranian embassies like the one in Vienna that served as a staging ground for an attempted attack on Iranian expatriates and Western nationals.
In the meantime, prosecutions are taking place right now which could establish expectations of real accountability from the Iranian regime. Individual courts and the international community as a whole should take care not to lose sight of this opportunity. Everyone who is appropriately concerned about the impact of Iranian terrorism should help to keep these cases in the public eye and present them as a reason to pursue further prosecutions at successively higher levels of the Iranian regime.