On Monday, the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran hosted a virtual conference to mark International Women’s Day. The event featured Iranian female activists and lawmakers from Britain and several European nations, and it served to highlight the Islamic Republic’s systematic denial of women’s rights, alongside a range of other issues.
Among the speakers was Anthea McIntyre, who served as a British Member of the European Parliament from 2004 until 2019. She declared to the virtual audience, “I find it sickening to see European officials pursuing trade relations, appeasing mullahs, and ignoring their human rights abuses, especially against women.”
Several participants expressed this sentiment in Monday’s conference on women’s rights, but it was an especially prominent feature of written statements preceding that event. Those statements bore lawmakers’ signatures from the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and some were also associated with non-governmental organizations focused on Iranian affairs, such as the International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ). They were generally prepared either in anticipation of or in response to the verdict in a Belgian federal case against a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) March 3, 2021
On February 4, Assadi was sentenced to 20 years in prison on the charge of conspiring to commit terrorist murder. Three co-conspirators were similarly found guilty and sentenced to 15, 17, and 18 years. The trial determined that Assadi had been the mastermind in the plot and had personally obtained explosives from Tehran then smuggled them into Europe using a diplomatic bag, so they could be used in the attempted bombing of a 2018 NCRI gathering near Paris, which was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates, plus hundreds of political dignitaries from Europe and elsewhere.
European authorities thwarted the plot, but the details of the ensuing investigation made it clear that a successful operation’s death toll would have run well into the hundreds. Furthermore, it yielded evidence that Assadi had been at the head of a much larger network of operatives spanning at least 11 European countries, making the embassy in Vienna, where he was positioned, a potential staging ground for terrorism affecting countless Western governments citizens, and interests.
A statement prepared by ISJ and bearing the signatures of more than 20 former government ministers from across Europe said of the Assadi case, “the scope of crime requires that the European Union reviews its approach to Iran.” It highlighted the fact that Belgian prosecutors had made it clear throughout the proceedings that the terrorist-diplomat was not acting on his own initiative but had been ordered to attack the Iranian Resistance on foreign soil by high-ranking Iranian officials, including the Supreme National Security Council, which is presided over by the regime’s president and routinely receives input from the supreme leader.
In fact, it would be difficult for a high-ranking Iranian diplomat to cultivate an intelligence network or undertake terrorist operations without the knowledge and consent of his ultimate overseer, the Iranian regime’s Foreign Minister. For that reason, the ISJ statement and others of its kind called for sanctions upon Javad Zarif as a starting point for policies that impose consequences upon the entire regime over terrorist plots and other malign activities.
“In this respect,” the statement recommended, “the activities of Iran’s embassies, religious and cultural centers need to be scrutinized, and the diplomatic relations with Iran need to be downgraded.” It went on to say that any resumption of normal relations and any expansion in trade ties should be contingent upon verifiable changes in behavior from the Iranian regime, including a dismantling of its terrorist networks and a commitment to never again undertaking a plot on European soil.
Such advice is clear and direct. It reflects not only an obligation to Western security interests but also a moral obligation to the Iranian people and their families abroad, who would have borne the brunt of the 2018 attack.
This would be bad enough if those actions were limited to provocations directed at Iran’s foreign adversaries. But in fact, those provocations typically go hand-in-hand with stepped-up crackdowns on dissent inside Iran. Indeed, the 2018 terror plot was by all accounts a response to the regime’s failure to bring that dissent to heel at the beginning of the year, when citizens of more than 100 Iranian cities and towns took to the streets as part of a nationwide uprising that was, up to that point, the most serious single challenge to the theocratic system.
With thousands of arrests and dozens of killings, the regime was ultimately able to push that protest movement back underground, but it continued to bubble to the surface in various regions for months afterward. That, in turn, set the stage for another nationwide uprising that was even larger than the first, spreading anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator” to nearly 200 localities.
Had the killings in January 2018 or the terror plot in the following June yielded a serious response from the EU, there is little doubt that Tehran would have thought twice about trying to stamp out the November 2019 uprising in the same way. But since the European response had been all but nonexistent, the regime chose instead to dramatically escalate its repression. The regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei directed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to meet crowds with lethal force, and the resulting shootings resulted in around 1,500 fatalities.
To the great credit of the Iranian people, even this did not silence their calls for a free and democratic future in Iran. Many were back out in the streets two months later, protesting the same Revolutionary Guards over the missile strike that downed a commercial airliner. The courage of such activists is directly antithetical to the fecklessness of European leaders who engage the Iranian regime in trade talks while turning a blind eye to threats against their own people and to massacres of foreign populations, including those in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq who are merely victims of the regime’s meddling.
As many European lawmakers have made clear in statements addressed directly to Josep Borrell, that fecklessness must come to an end. The EU must reject all trade deals and downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran until such time as the regime respects human rights at home and halts its malign activities abroad.