In July, the Brussels Court of Appeals issued an order preventing the transfer of a convicted Iranian terrorist who is widely expected to be the focus of a prisoner swap agreement with the Islamic Republic for another two months. What makes the case more dramatic is that the terrorist was not an ordinary person. Rather, at the time of the plot, he was an accredited Iranian “diplomat”.
The ruling was the result of multiple plaintiffs filing suit against the Belgian government immediately after it was reported that the parliament had approved a treaty clearly designed to set the stage for Assadollah Assadi’s release.
Those plaintiffs included the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi, several officials with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and prominent politicians from a number of Western countries who had taken part in the grand gathering in support of the main Iranian opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran that Assadi targeted in June 2018. Had his plot not been thwarted, it would have involved the detonation of a bomb at a convention center near Paris, potentially resulting in the worst loss of life in any modern terrorist incident on European soil.
Experts testified to this fact in Assadi’s trial, which concluded early last year with the issuance of a 20-year prison sentence. Three co-conspirators were handed sentences nearly as long, and the prosecutions helped to establish the culpability of the Iranian regime itself, which had ordered an attack on the NCRI in the wake of a serious escalation of domestic unrest at the beginning of 2018. The involvement of higher authorities was apparent from the fact that Assadi returned to Tehran during the planning stages and obtained the explosives there, before smuggling them into Europe on a commercial flight to Austria.
Assadi was then serving as third counsellor at the regime’s embassy in Vienna, and evidence obtained from his arrest revealed that he had used that position to cultivate a vast network of operatives and intelligence assets spanning much of Europe. The details and surrounding context of the 2018 plot leave no doubt about its seriousness or about the underlying threat of Iranian terrorism.
The text of the treaty signed between Iran and Belgium ostensibly allows for Assadi and any other Iranian convicted of a crime in Belgium to serve out their sentence in their home country. It affords the same option to Belgians imprisoned in Iran, while also explicitly giving each country the freedom to commute or simply nullifying a sentence handed down abroad for one of its citizens.
Assadi’s case has been linked to that of a Belgian aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, who was reportedly arrested in Iran right around the first anniversary of Assadi’s conviction, which strongly suggests he was targeted specifically for use as a bargaining chip in that case.
Vandecasteele is certainly not the only Western national to be targeted for use as a bargaining chip of some kind. The Islamic Republic is presently holding at least 20 such individuals, and perhaps many more. Over the years, that regime has filed spurious charges against roughly 150 foreign and dual nationals, as well as taking over 100 Westerners hostage in Lebanon, where it wields outsized influence through its Shia militant proxy Hezbollah.
This phenomenon would most likely be even more prevalent if not for the regime’s concerns over the potential consequences of hostage-taking and other violent provocations against major Western powers. Therefore, the Assadi case threatens to accelerate Tehran’s malign activity by demonstrating that serious consequences are easily avoided, even in situations where agents of the Islamic Republic have directly threatened the lives of Western lawmakers, scholars, and other innocent people.
Although Assadi’s conviction and sentencing were rightly praised by supporters of Iran’s pro-democracy opposition movement, many of the same voices criticized the European Union and the United States for their failure to demand accountability for a decision taken by the most senior officials in the Iranian regime.
If Assadi is released in exchange for Vandecasteele or as part of any other unfair trade, Tehran will have even less incentive to hold back from future attempts on the lives of Iranian dissidents and their political supporters. Furthermore, other rogue states and terrorist organizations would no doubt view Assadi’s freedom as an invitation to take other Western nationals hostage and retain them as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for terrorist operatives.
As nine prominent American supporters of the Iranian Resistance recently underscored the newly-approved treaty “allows the Iranian regime to establish its European terrorist command center in Belgium.”
It is surely no mere coincidence that at virtually the same time the Belgian parliament was approving the treaty intended to govern the release of Iran’s most prominent convicted terrorist, the prominent Iranian opposition pro-democracy coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, had to postpone its annual “Free Iran World Summit” since authorities in Albania, where several thousand members of the Iranian opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) have set up a community known as Ashraf 3, warned of terrorist threats affecting the security of the venue.
It’s time that the European Union see the Iranian regime for what it is: A rouge state that is using terrorism and hostage-taking as statecraft for blackmailing. Appeasement with the ayatollahs has never worked. It will never work. It is high time for a sound response from Europe and to make it clear to Tehran that the consequences of hostage-taking will far outweigh its possible benefits.