On November 27, four individuals will go on trial in Antwerp over a terrorist plot that was thwarted in June 2018. One of the defendants and the alleged mastermind of the plot is a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi, who was employed as a third counsellor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna prior to his arrest. The trial is expected to present evidence showing that Assadi not only recruited and directed the other operatives but also provided them with the explosives that were meant to be used in bombing the Free Iran rally that was taking place in the Paris suburb of Villepinte on June 30, 2018.
For many observers, the involvement of Iranian diplomatic personnel is sufficient on its own to demonstrate that the terror plot was an official state operation, undertaken with the full knowledge and approval of high-ranking officials like the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This has apparently been corroborated by Belgian investigators, as evidenced by a recent statement from the head of state security which stated 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.”
This exact conclusion had been anticipated by various persons who provided affidavits to the Belgian investigators, either because of their expertise on Iranian affairs or because of their presence at the target venue. “Based on my knowledge of the involvement of the regime in terrorism and on available information, in this case, it is clear to me that the planned attack was not an isolated act by a rogue element within the Iranian government,” said scholar and US ambassador Robert Joseph.
Similarly, former US Senator Robert Torricelli declared in his affidavit, “There is no doubt that the terrorist plot was decided and planned at the highest level of the Iranian regime. This is a case of state terrorism, where diplomatic privileges have been used to facilitate a terrorist act on European soil.”
Both these men had been in attendance at the 2018 Free Iran rally, and both used their affidavits to affirm their support of the coalition that organized it, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). For these and other witnesses in the case, the terror plot was just one of the latest signs of anxiety within the Iranian regime about the possibility of that coalition gaining a stronger foothold in Iranian society and threatening to overturn the existing theocratic system in favor of a genuine democracy.
Joseph, Torricelli, and others expressed a shared understanding that this anxiety was a longstanding feature of the Iranian regime. But many still expressed surprise at the extent of Tehran’s willingness to lash out at the latest challenges coming from the NCRI and its main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
The 2018 terror plot emerged in the context of what NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi called a “year full of uprisings” in Iran. That had begun in the final days of 2017 with protests against economic mismanagement which quickly spread to more than 100 cities and towns while transforming into a more general protest against the theocratic system. Ensuing government attacks on the domestic activist community were predictable, but attempted attacks on its foreign advocates were somewhat less so.
The difference was articulated in another affidavit by Italian Member of Parliament Antonio Tasso, who listed various malign activities he’d already come to expect from the Iranian regime, before noting that the details of the Paris terror plot nonetheless came as a surprise to him. “I knew that this regime had executed tens of thousands of freedom activists in Iran over the past forty years,” he said.
Tasso illustrated this point with references to the systematic execution of 30,000 political prisoners over several months in 1988, and to the shooting deaths of approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters in the nationwide uprising of November 2019, a sort of sequel to the January 2018 protest movement. He also noted that at the time of his writing, the United Nations had formally censured Iran for its human rights violations 65 times. Since then, the number has climbed to 67.
“But what I didn’t know,” Tasso went on, “is that the top officials of the Iranian regime had decided to attack the demonstration in which tens of thousands of women, men, elderly, young people, and children participated.”
Multiple affidavits speculated about the devastation that likely would have been wrought at that event if Assadi’s agents had succeeded in gaining access to the venue and planting the bomb in a densely peopled location. Overall participation in the rally was estimated at around 100,000, and photos show those participants standing shoulder-to-shoulder throughout a vast convention space.
“I tremble because the victims would not have been hundreds but thousands,” said Tasso. And although some other witnesses were slightly more optimistic, it seems clear that he was not far off the mark. The device that Assadi provided to the would-be bombers consisted of 500 grams of TATP, which is very nearly as explosive as TNT. After it was discovered and isolated by Belgian law enforcement, the device accidentally detonated, destroying a bomb disposal robot and slightly injuring an officer who was standing outside the 200-meter perimeter.
Investigators estimate that the shockwave created by the device was more than 100-meters, meaning that anyone standing within this distance from it would have been killed or grievously wounded. Knowing this, and recognizing that the prime target of the plot was Mrs. Rajavi, many of those who have commented on the case believe that the planned explosion would have killed any number of the international political dignitaries who were seated near her during the event.
In his affidavit, retired US Army Colonel Wesley Martin said of the event, “Attendees included current and former senior officials from governments throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Just as important, rally participants also included citizens from these same countries, coming to show their support.” He and others have expressed apparent shock over Iran’s willingness to so provocatively threaten both of these groups.
Supporters of the NCRI have also cited the mutual threat to Western lawmakers and civilians as reasons why it is important for the international community to hold Iranian authorities accountable for the plot. The November 27 trial is expected to result in conviction for Assadi and his agents, and many would-be victims are hoping for substantial punishment. “My expectation from the court is that they will show no mercy to these conspirators, so such crimes are not repeated,” said Antonio Tasso.
But many of those same potential victims have emphasized that punishment for the four conspirators is not sufficient on its own. “I would never have thought that a peaceful event in France with tens of thousands of men, women, and children in attendance would be a target for terrorism,” said Robert Joseph in remarks that also affirmed the likelihood that the entire Iranian regime is culpable for this targeting of a democratic opposition leader.
“I feel strongly that those who were involved must be brought to justice,” he went on to add. “We must uphold the values we espouse. If the leaders of free societies fail to hold the perpetrators responsible, we will only encourage more attacks and be complicit in them.”