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Iranian Terrorists’ Legal Appeal is an Opportunity to Demand Broader Accountability

By Mohammad Sadat Khansari, Originally published in NCR-Iran.org, 17th November 2021

A court in Antwerp, Belgium will be considering an appeal on Wednesday for three individuals who were convicted in February for their role in a terrorist plot ordered by the Iranian regime. The Iranian-Belgian dual nationals were each given sentences of between 15 and 18 years in prison, while the plot’s mastermind, an Iranian regime diplomat named Assadollah Assadi, received 20 years. Assadi declined to file an appeal in the wake of a defense that relied almost entirely on asserting that he should receive diplomatic immunity. 

His tacit acknowledgment of guilt now hangs over his co-conspirators’ appeal, which may only serve to bring renewed international attention to a case that many critics feel was glossed over European policymakers. Around the time of the February conviction, the National Council of Resistance of Iran urged the European Union and its member states to take serious action to extend accountability beyond the four individuals directly implicated in the 2018 terror plot which targeted a political rally organized by the NCRI near Paris. 

Attendance at that rally was estimated at around 100,000, including dozens of European and American political dignitaries. The primary target of Assadi’s plot was NCRI’s President-elect Maryam Rajavi. Experts testified that if the bomb had been detonated as planned, immediate death casualties would have likely numbered in the hundreds, with an ensuing stampede potentially raising the death toll even further. 

As it happened, the explosives were detonated by a Belgian bomb squad after they were discovered in the vehicle of two of Assadi’s co-conspirators, Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami. Despite the area being cleared to what was considered a safe distance, one police officer was slightly wounded by the powerful blast, and a robot was destroyed. The explosives responsible for that damage had previously made their way across at least three European countries en route to the French border, after being transported from Iran to Austria by the plot’s mastermind, using his diplomatic pouch to avoid security screenings. 

Following Saadouni and Nasimeh’s arrest at the border, Assadi was apprehended in Germany while attempting to travel back to Austria and to the Iranian embassy in which he was stationed. It is now understood that while technically employed as the third counselor at that embassy, Assadi was in fact operating as the European bureau chief for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Details of that role were revealed by documents that were obtained from Assadi’s vehicle at the time of his arrest. Among them were receipts for payments given to various agents, as well as handwritten notes regarding associated meetings. 

It has been reported that those meetings took place in at least 22 cities and 11 countries. Assadi recorded traveling to more than 100 locations in Germany, where domestic intelligence agencies have monitored a variety of illicit activities by Iranian operatives in recent years, including the procurement of equipment with potential applications to a nuclear weapons program. France was the second most popular meeting place, with 42 meeting locations being identified there.  

Assadi’s network also extended from Austria into Hungary, Switzerland, and Belgium, as well as to the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Sweden. The last of these was made more significant in the year after the bomb plot was thwarted, as Swedish authorities arrested a former Iranian prison official after he arrived for a visit to the Scandinavian country in 2019. The trial of Hamid Noury is currently ongoing and was recently located from Stockholm to Durres, Albania in order to hear testimony from seven eyewitnesses who reside in an Albanian community built and maintained by the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)

Noury stands accused of war crimes and mass murder as a result of his involvement in a massacre of 30,000 Iranian political prisoners during the summer of 1988. He is the first person to face legal consequences for that crime against humanity, and activists associated with the MEK have urged the international community to regard his arrest as a test case for “universal jurisdiction,” a principle that allows serious violations of international law to be prosecuted in any venue. In particular, the MEK has been pushing for charges to be filed against Ebrahim Raisi, who was inaugurated as president of the Iranian regime in August and who played a leading role in the 1988 massacre as one of four officials on the Tehran “death commission.” 

However, Iranian activists have remained skeptical of the prospects for Western policymakers to adopt their recommendations. That skepticism has arguably been reinforced by the relative lack of attention to the 2018 terror plot, even in the face of the current appeal. In both cases, critics of existing Western policies toward Iran tend to attribute inaction to longstanding conciliatory impulses, which have only been amplified in the midst of the scramble to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 

Talks aimed at the restoration of that agreement are currently scheduled to resume on November 29, coincidentally in the very same European city where Assadi spent years cultivating his network of intelligence and terrorist operatives. The participants in those talks continue to deal with the Raisi administration as if expecting it to function as a good-faith negotiating partner, even now that the new president has appointed a variety of ultra-hardline figures to key government posts, including several who are under sanction for terrorism and human rights abuses, and two who are subject to international arrest warrants for their prior roles in terrorist attacks. 

The pursuit of ordinary dealings with the Raisi administration threatens to further embolden all of Tehran’s malign activities. That threat is amplified by continued inattention to the regime’s terrorist threat, not just because of the conciliatory message it sends but also because it leaves intact the terrorist networks that were proven to exist in the aftermath of the 2018 terror plot. Although Assadollah Assadi has been sentenced to prison for 20 years, there is no reason to believe that his network has fallen apart on its own. It still has to be dismantled, and for that to happen, the international community needs to make a priority of confronting the Iranian terror threat. 

The best time to do that would have been immediately after Assadi’s plot was thwarted. But his henchmen’s appeal presents another excellent opportunity to bring the topic front-and-center in policy discussions and to agree upon a means for sending Tehran a clear message of deterrence. The core of that message consists of counterintelligence and law enforcement messages against Iranian operatives throughout Europe, but it stands to be reinforced by multilateral economic sanctions and new diplomatic pressures. 

It may be even further reinforced by the execution of arrest warrants for the likes of Iran’s Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who oversaw the 1994 bombing of the Argentine AMIA center, or for the regime’s president Ebrahim Raisi, who oversaw the murder of 30,000 people in 1988. One thing is clear: the highest officials in the Iranian regime cannot evade accountability for their wrongdoing, least of all when their actions still pose a global threat to this day.

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