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Iran’s leaders, diplomats must all be held accountable for 2018 terror plot

Iranian regime diplomat-terrorist Assadollah Assadi will stand trial in Belgium for his role in a bombing attempt against an Iranian opposition rally in 2018
Iranian regime diplomat-terrorist Assadollah Assadi will stand trial in Belgium for his role in a bombing attempt against an Iranian opposition rally in 2018

Analysis by PMOI/MEK

Iran, November 26, 2020—On Friday, four individuals will face terrorism charges in Belgium for a plot that was disrupted by multiple European authorities in June 2018. While those law enforcement efforts prevented anyone from being killed in the attempt, it is imperative that the defendants be held accountable for the potential impact of the planned bombing. And beyond that, it is also imperative that the entire Iranian regime be held similarly accountable for the relevant plot and for the entire history of state terrorism that it underscores.

Pre-trial investigations and media disclosures have gone a long way toward revealing the details of the operation that targeted an Iranian opposition gathering near Paris two and a half years ago. The pound of explosives that was recovered from an Iranian-Belgian’s couple’s vehicle was determined to be nearly as powerful as an equivalent amount of TNT, and when it detonated during disposal it destroyed a police robot and slightly injured an officer who was standing outside of a 200-meter cordon. Experts and eyewitnesses believe that if that explosion had occurred in the crowded event space at Villepinte, France, it would have likely killed hundreds of people in the initial blast, with more dying as a result of the ensuing panic.

The potential devastation is made all the more significant by the fact that it would have taken place at the direction of Iran’s highest authorities, and under the leadership of a high-ranking diplomat, the third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna. That individual, Assadollah Assadi, is one of the four defendants who will be tried on Friday, although he and his handlers in Tehran made every effort to facilitate an escape from justice.

For months after Assadi was arrested in Germany, Iranian officials attempted to directly interfere with his extradition, often arguing that his diplomatic status made the arrest illegal regardless of whether it took place beyond the reach of his diplomatic immunity in Austria. When those efforts failed, Assadi resorted to blackmail. Transcripts of his interviews with Belgian investigators indicate he has said Iran-backed terror groups in the Middle East would be watching the proceedings closely, implying that they would launch their own attacks if European authorities didn’t “support them” by dismissing the case.

It isn’t clear whether this bargain was meant to apply to Assadi’s co-defendants, or if he was demanding a particular freedom from consequence on account of his diplomatic career. In either case, the implicit demand is wildly hypocritical, since Tehran showed no such restrain in its dealings with Western targets of terrorist attack. The crowd at the June 2018 “Free Iran” rally was naturally comprised mainly of Iranians. But many of those same people were also citizens of Europe and the United States.

Among them were parliamentarians from the United Kingdom and from continental Europe, as well as current and former American officials like Bill Richardson, who once served as ambassador to the United Nations. Most accounts of the terror plot indicate that some of these individuals would have surely been killed if the plot hadn’t been foiled, since they were sitting closest to the prime target for the bombing, Maryam Rajavi.

Mrs. Rajavi has long been recognized as a threat to Iran’s clerical regime, on account of her role as the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The NCRI organized the 2018 rally, as it had done with similar rallies each summer for more than a decade prior. The NCRI has also designated Mrs. Rajavi to serve at the head of transitional government after the current regime is overthrown, pending Iran’s first free and fair elections.

That outcome appears remarkably attainable in light of recent, wide-ranging popular unrest in Iran. That unrest pre-dates Assadi’s terror plot and was apparently a motivating factor in the regime’s decision to order that he carry it out. In January 2018, simultaneous protests were occurring in well over 100 Iranian cities and towns, with residents chanting anti-government slogans which left little question about public demand for regime change.

In a speech, regime supreme leader Ali Khamenei attributed this messaging to the organizing efforts of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), thereby admitting that an organized opposition movement posed a serious challenge to the clerical regime’s hold on power.

In the run-up to Assadi’s trial, the NCRI has hosted a number of virtual conferences. These conferences have emphasized the fact that the regime’s anxiety over popular unrest amplified its willingness to strike out at Western targets and thereby put its international relations at risk. The regime was always prepared to take on some measure of that risk, but in times of lesser desperation it has tended to channel terrorist plots through proxies like Hezbollah in order to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability.

This is not to say that the June 2018 terror plot represented an entirely different modus operandi for the regime. Instead, it merely lifted the veil on the close connections that had already been established among Iran’s political leadership, its diplomatic networks, and its infrastructure for terrorist operations. In a press conference following Assadi’s arrest, a spokesperson for the Belgian judiciary said his position and role were not unique, as “practically all employees of Iranian embassies are part of the Iranian Secret Service.” That being the case, those embassies often serve as the staging ground for terror plots, even if their diplomats decline to take as hands-on an approach as Assadi did.

There may be some grounds for believing that by sentencing that diplomat to substantial prison time, the Belgian judiciary can help to discourage others like him from taking on the same risk as he did when he personally handed off explosives in Luxembourg to two would-be bombers. But this alone cannot possibly be considered sufficient. It will do nothing to discourage those diplomat-terrorists from taking on the more passive roles they are used to. And it will certainly do nothing to discourage the regime as a whole from pursuing its terrorist agenda, especially in the face of worsening unrest.

The January 2018 uprising was only the beginning of a much larger movement that is, by all accounts, still ongoing. In November 2019, protests spontaneously broke out in nearly 200 different localities after the regime announced a sudden increase in gasoline prices, and participants immediately adopted the same anti-government slogans they’d used the previous year. Regime authorities responded by opening fire on crowds of protesters, killing 1,500. But when the November uprising marked its first anniversary earlier this month, authorities closed cemeteries and launched new arrests, thereby testifying to their belief that further widespread unrest may be just around the corner.

These circumstances should stand right alongside the raw details of the 2018 terror plot as a factor motivating Western governments to take assertive actions that will prevent Iran’s regime from lashing out again at both its domestic and its foreign adversaries. In order to do that, they must expand upon Assadi’s penalties, shut down the regime’s embassies and front organizations in their countries, and expel all its diplomat-terrorists and spies.