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Don’t let Tehran control the narrative after trial of Iranian terrorists

Assadollah Assadi, a Vienna-based Iranian diplomat, was arrested in 2018, by German police for a bomb plot against an annual rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in 2018 in Paris.
Assadollah Assadi, a Vienna-based Iranian diplomat, was arrested in 2018, by German police for a bomb plot against an annual rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in 2018 in Paris.

Analysis by PMOI/MEK

Iran, December 6, 2020—On Thursday, proceedings continued in a Belgian court with a second hearing in the trial of an Iranian diplomat and three other individuals who are accused of plotting a terrorist attack near Paris.

The 2018 incident led to 500 grams of TATP explosive being confiscated from two operatives who were attempting to transport it from Belgium to the French convention space in which the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) was hosting its annual “Free Iran” rally. The diplomat Assadollah Assadi was subsequently arrested in Germany, where he was traveling just beyond the reach of the diplomatic immunity afforded by his position as third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna.

A verdict is expected for these three individuals and a fourth accomplice by the end of the month, and prosecutors are seeking the maximum sentence of 20 years for Assadi, the alleged mastermind of the plot, plus 15-18 years for the other defendants. The prosecution has also recommended that the court strip the would-be bombers of their Belgian citizenship.

The defense team for the Iranian-Belgian couple, Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami, seemed to focus their attentions on this latter recommendation, arguing that their deportation would lead to the Iranian regime executing its own agents.

Amir Saadouni (left) and Nasimeh Naami (right) were involved in a bombing plot against an NCRI rally

Amir Saadouni (left) and Nasimeh Naami (right) were involved in a bombing plot against an NCRI rally

Since the four co-conspirators were arrested two and a half years ago, the Iranian regime has been in the awkward position of trying to defend Assadi, a high-ranking diplomat and valuable intelligence asset, while also preventing the accusations against him from reflecting back upon the regime as a whole. Toward that end, higher authorities have kept some distance from Assadi’s immediate legal defense but have also sought to undermine the trial as a whole, arguing that the arrest was inherently illegal and that diplomatic immunity puts Assadi beyond the reach of the court.

This decidedly weak argument formed the crux of Assadi’s defense on Thursday. His defense is separate from that of his co-conspirators, and Assadi’s attorney declined to use the hearing as an opportunity to directly address the allegations. Instead, he repeatedly highlighted his client’s diplomatic status and attempted to cast doubt upon the authority of the Belgian federal court. Interestingly, Assadi himself did not appear in court.

The prosecutors would have none of this, and there is little expectation that the defense will have any meaningful payoff. Quite to the contrary, it seems poised to reinforce the broader message of the prosecution, namely that Assadi’s diplomat status makes it hard to deny that he undertook his terrorist operation at the behest of higher authorities, and under the official banner of the mullahs’ regime ruling Iran.

Assadi’s co-defendants seem quite eager to sign onto this interpretation of events. Saadouni freely acknowledges having been in touch with Assadi for years before the 2018 bomb plot, and with the Intelligence Ministry for about a decade. But in defending his role in that plot, Saadouni also claimed that he and his wife had been manipulated and misled by their handlers. And now that they are facing the consequences for an operation in which Saadouni was a bag man, the couple seems to believe that they are considered expendable components of the regime’s terrorist infrastructure.

It is not unthinkable of the regime to silence its own agents to avoid further complicating its relations with the Western world, after having very nearly carried out a major attack in the heart of Europe. This would be especially easy if, by some chance, the regime managed to prevail on Western authorities with its argument that Assadi is, and ought to be, beyond the reach of European prosecutors.

Of course, this is a big “if.” On one hand, Iranian diplomats have seemingly escaped accountability in the wake of previous terror plots. But on the other hand, Assadi is the first such diplomat to be formally charged in connection with such a plot. It would have been fairly easy to imagine him being spirited back to Iran before his extradition to Belgium, but it is difficult to imagine his case going through two or more hearings only to be dropped under pressure from the Iranian regime after the potential scale of his crime had been established.

Investigators and witnesses in the Assadi case are generally in agreement that if the bomb had been detonated as planned, it would have killed hundreds if not thousands of Iranian expatriates and their political supporters, including any number of the high-profile Western dignitaries who were in attendance at the 2018 rally. The main target of the attack was NCRI president-elect Maryam Rajavi, who gave the keynote speech on behalf of the Iranian Resistance.

That pro-democracy coalition has commented extensively on the Assadi case since his arrest, and it has emphasized the need for serious accountability not only from the plot’s immediate mastermind but also from his handlers in Tehran. Toward that end, the NCRI has recommended a series of changes in Western policy, including the potential closure of embassies and other Iranian institutions that threaten to serve as staging grounds for terrorism in the European Union and beyond.

The ongoing proceedings make it ever more difficult to leave the situation alone or to be satisfied with whatever court ruling is handed down this month. A guilty verdict would avoid a complete miscarriage of justice, but it wouldn’t prevent the Iranian regime from controlling the narrative in the aftermath, setting up its agents as scapegoats, and denying its own very clear culpability for terrorist activity stretching back decades.