On Friday, four agents of the Iranian regime will be going on trial in Belgium. But in a sense, it will be the entire Iranian regime that goes on trial. This is because one of the four defendants is a high-ranking diplomat-terrorist, whose role as the mastermind of a 2018 terror plot helped to expose the regime’s habit of using its diplomatic networks for the furtherance of malign objectives.
That diplomat-terrorist, Assadollah Assadi, was serving as the third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna prior to his arrest in July 2018, following an opposition rally that his operatives had attempted to blow up. Apart from coordinating the operation, Assadi personally transported an explosive device into Europe before handing it off in Luxembourg to an Iranian-Belgian couple with instructions to carry it on to its final destination just outside of Paris.
Investigations that traced the chain of custody for that device also concluded that the entire operation had been undertaken with the full knowledge and support of leading regime’s officials, including President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This fact should receive appropriate attention at Friday’s trial in Antwerp, as well as in accompanying media coverage.
It seems clear that prospective witnesses in the case will have plenty to say on the matter. The head of the Belgian state security service recently assured reporters that the 2018 terror plot “was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative” but instead “was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership.” And this conclusion can easily be applied to a wide range of other terrorist activity carried out by proxies in Tehran’s name, or in line with the regime’s interests.
This was the implication of statements offered the Belgian judiciary in a press conference immediately following Assadi’s arrest. “Practically all employees of Iranian embassies are part of the Iranian Secret Service,” said a spokesperson, thus affirming that Assadi’s dual role as a diplomat and terrorist was by no means unique to him.
The June 2018 terror plot simply stands apart from others of its kind because the fingerprints of higher authorities are more clearly impressed upon the evidence. This is apparently a testament both to the perceived value of the target in that case, and to the vulnerable situation that the regime found itself in when attempting to confront that target.
Several months before Assadi and his co-defendants attempted to carry out the bombing, the regime found itself in the midst of a practically unprecedented nationwide uprising. Protests began in the final days of 2017 and spread to more than 100 localities by the middle of January 2018. By then, Khamenei had responded to the unrest in a public speech and had taken the unusual step of acknowledging that anti-regime sentiment was being promoted and directed by Iran’s leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), enjoys a substantial footprint both within the Iranian activist community and upon the world stage. Each summer, the NCRI organizes a massive gathering of Iranian expatriates, and it was this “Free Iran” rally that Assadi’s team was targeting in 2018. As such, the casualties from a successful attack would have included thousands of individuals from any number of home countries. And because the prime target of the plot was the opposition leader Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, it most likely would have killed or wounded several of the visiting political dignitaries who were seated near her during the event.
Among those dignitaries were European lawmakers with a range of political affiliations, as well as former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, and former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani. The list of potential victims underscores the fact that Tehran was plainly willing to put all of its international relations at risk in order to carry out the attack. And that in turn points to a certain degree of desperation in the regime’s effort to confront the organized Resistance movement that had presented so great a challenge to its hold on power at the beginning of that year.
This desperation represents a vulnerability that the international community, particularly European countries can effectively exploit. And they should do so in the wake of Friday’s trial, not just because it serves their interests but also because the threats against their own citizens and colleagues makes it a moral imperative for them to respond assertively. At the same time, there are pending revelations about the close connections between Iran’s diplomatic networks and its terrorist infrastructure. And this lays the groundwork for Western initiatives that could begin to dismantle that infrastructure.
Policymakers must pay close attention to the trial. And after sentence is passed on the four persons involved in the 2018 terror plot, those same policymakers must think carefully about what they can do to prevent other such operatives emerging with other plots, as they are sure to do in light of the fact that nationwide unrest has resumed on at least two other occasions since the initial uprising. Tehran will be even more committed to cracking down internationally on the Iranian Resistance if it appears as those the regime itself is not being held to account.
The international community must, therefore, send a strong message of condemnation to the regime while also taking concrete actions to interfere with the potential coordination of another terror plot. One way of accomplishing both these aims is by ejecting all diplomat-terrorists of the regime and close its embassies.