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Foiled Villepinte attack: Iran mobilized for diplomat to escape prison

Belgian justice will deliver its verdict on January 22 against an Iranian agent, the main accused in the thwarted attempt to bomb a congress of the anti-regime opposition near Paris.

By Jean-Pierre Stroobants (Brussels, Correspondent), Originally published in Le Monde, January 14, 2021

(Translated from French) – The tension is palpable among Belgian officials, just days before judgment is to be pronounced, on January 22, by the court in Antwerp in the case against four Iranians, including a diplomat, involved in a plot to attack the opposition to the Tehran regime. It was in Villepinte (Seine-Saint-Denis), on June 30, 2018.

After the November 2020 hearings, the Iranian authorities displayed their anger and let it be known through a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry that they did not recognize the authority of the Belgian court. The case against the main defendant, diplomat Assadollah Assadi, was, according to them, illegitimate. Mr. Assadi – who refused to leave his cell – should, according to the Iranian regime, have been granted diplomatic immunity. This was pleaded in November by the defendant’s defense, which was strongly contested by civil party lawyers.

A further element of the Belgian investigation file, so far undisclosed, confirms the attention that Tehran is paying to this case. A note drafted by Security and sent to the federal prosecutor’s office in charge of terrorism cases, detailed the numerous visits in August 2019 by Iranian officials to Mr. Assadi, then in preventive detention in Belgian Limburg. Fourteen personalities in total conversed with him: the ambassador and advisers of the Islamic Republic in Brussels, an Iranian doctor and a lawyer living in France and Belgium, in addition to five “visitors linked to an Iranian agency and based in Iran”, the note indicates. They came from Tehran as part of a

delegation and told Belgium that they were members of the Foreign Ministry. However, the Belgian authorities have only been able to identify three of them.

Reprisals

Heard for seven hours a few months later, Maryam Rajavi, the president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), targeted by the proposed attack, reportedly gave investigators a note detailing the role of some of these officials. One of them was, in fact, one of the main leaders of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, in charge of supervising agents stationed in foreign countries and acting under cover. A special committee bringing together different services has also been set up in Tehran to follow up on the Assadi case. That committee threatened Belgium with reprisals if it condemned him. The prosecution has since requested a twenty-year prison sentence against him.

The diplomat, arrested in Germany while trying to return to Austria, where he served as Third Secretary of the Iranian embassy, ​​is the commander and the alleged mastermind of the plot to target the NCRI conference, attended by tens of thousands of people that day, including many prominent political figures. Two days before the Villepinte meeting, he had delivered explosives and a detonator in Luxembourg to a Belgian-Iranian couple, arrested in Brussels on June 30, 2018 while on their way to Villepinte.

According to the lengthy investigation by the Belgian justice system and State Security, the intelligence service, the entire operation was designed at the highest level in Tehran, in coordination with the defendants, who had worked for a long time for the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Jaak Raas, the head of Security, said the action was instigated “in the name of Iran, under its leadership”.

A version confirmed at the time by the French authorities. Paris froze the (non-existent) assets of Iran’s Deputy Intelligence Minister for Operations, Assadollah Assadi and a branch of Tehran’s Intelligence Ministry. An Iranian spy acting under diplomatic cover was also expelled in September 2018. The French services were, however, invited to remain discreet, in particular so that the nuclear agreement concluded with Tehran would not be endangered.

“Bargaining”

It is likely, in any case, that a decision by the Antwerp magistrates deemed too unfavorable for the defendant will not go unanswered by the Tehran regime. The recent death sentence of a professor at the Free Flemish University in Brussels, Ahmad Reza Djalali, was seen in Belgium as a warning. The Iranian-Swedish doctor, arrested in 2016 while on a mission to Tehran, has been charged with espionage for Israel. Ill, Mr. Djalali was placed in solitary confinement shortly before the start of the Belgian trial. His execution was then postponed. At the end of December, Belgian deputies voted for a resolution calling for his release and denouncing the “hostage-taking”.

The arrest last fall of a retired German-Iranian architect, Nahid Taghavi, held incommunicado in Evin Prison, is seen as a message to Germany, which had arrested Mr. Assadi before handing him over to Belgium. In November 2020, Australian-British researcher Kylie Moore-Gilbert, accused of espionage, was released after 800 days in exchange for three Iranians involved in a planned attack on Israeli diplomats in Thailand. Will Belgium soon be faced with a similar dilemma, given that the calls to save Mr. Djalali are numerous? “The question may arise for the government, but I do not know a judge who would accept a bargain,” said one deputy, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the federal parliament.

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