This is not some Hollywood fantasy, but reality. A Belgian court has just passed sentence on four Iranians who were involved in a plot to kill and maim hundreds of people at a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran at Villepinte near Paris in June 2018.
There were dozens of Americans and Europeans at the rally, including well-known politicians like Newt Gingrich, ex-speaker of the US House, Theresa Villiers MP, a former UK Cabinet minister, and Stephen Harper, former Prime Minister of Canada. I was there myself and was a plaintiff at the trial in Antwerp on Thursday, sending recorded evidence.
Assadollah Assadi was a senior diplomat from the Iranian Embassy in Vienna. He was arrested by police in Germany after being filmed handing over a powerful explosive device and detonator to two Iranian co-conspirators, Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife Nasimeh Naami, 36. A third co-conspirator, Mehrdad Arefani, was present at the Villepinte rally as a lookout.
Although all three lived in Belgium as registered refugees, they were in fact trained Iranian agents. Assadi had told them to detonate the bomb as close to Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi as possible.
That is where I was standing, with all of the other political figures. The court heard Assadi had told his co-conspirators that if they couldn’t get close enough to Mrs Rajavi, they should simply throw the bomb into the crowd and detonate it.
The courthouse was surrounded by Iranian opposition supporters and heavily guarded by armed police and military personnel. Helicopters hovered overhead.
The public were prohibited from entering the court on security grounds as the judges announced the maximum 20-year sentence on Assadi for terrorist offences. Naami was sentenced to 18 years, her husband Saadouni to 15 years and the lookout Arefani to 17 years.
The jail terms mark the culmination of an unprecedented trial of an accredited diplomat. Assadi refused to testify or attend court, claiming diplomatic immunity, which was rejected by the judges and has now, following his conviction, been revoked. His co-conspirators have been stripped of Belgian citizenship and will be deported after serving their sentences.
The court case comes as no surprise to those of us familiar with the Iranian regime. The mullahs have a history of deploying their assassins in the guise of diplomats and using their embassies as bomb factories.
In 2018, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama expelled the Iranian ambassador and his first secretary on the grounds they posed a risk to security. Once again these ‘so-called’ diplomats were revealed as trained Ministry of Intelligence and Security (Mois) agents who had been plotting bomb attacks and assassinations of the regime’s opponents.
Since seizing power in the 1979 revolution, the theocratic regime has ruthlessly bombed and shot its opponents around the globe, while torturing and executing political prisoners at home. But this is the first time a diplomat has been caught red-handed and jailed for acts of terror.
Lies and propaganda
The Antwerp court’s verdict must surely mark a turning point in relations with Tehran. There can be no return to business as usual. There can be no more arguments that diplomacy is the answer.
Indeed, on January 19, an Iranian-American, Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, appeared in a US federal court, 13 years after he allegedly began taking payments from the Iranian regime while presenting himself as an independent expert on foreign relations and political science.
Court documents state that he was paid at least $265,000 for his service to Iran’s theocratic dictatorship, before finally being arrested by the FBI and charged with extensive violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The mullahs’ regime has embedded agents around the world, feeding lies and propaganda to the media and to policy-makers.
The arch-criminal and Supreme Leader of the mullahs is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There can be no doubt that he, together with his senior ministers, president Hassan Rouhani, foreign minister Javad Zarif and minister of intelligence Mahmoud Alavi, ordered the spying, the bomb plots and the assassinations.
Khamenei is praying that President Joe Biden will quickly restore Barack Obama’s deeply flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal that was unceremoniously dumped by Donald Trump.
He is praying the US will lift the sanctions which prevented Iran from selling oil, crippling its economy. Biden has repeatedly confirmed this is one of his foreign-policy priorities. It will be a grave mistake.
Crimes against humanity
Biden need not think that lifting sanctions will put food back on the table for impoverished Iranians. In fact, it will enable Khamenei to reinforce his funding of Bashar al-Assad’s bloody civil war in Syria, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the brutal Shi’ia militias in Iraq and the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon. It will also enable the mullahs to accelerate their development of a nuclear weapon and ballistic missile delivery systems, which has never ceased.
It is time for a complete change of direction in US, EU and UN policy towards Iran. The people of Iran expect the West to be on their side.
They expect their calls for democracy to be taken seriously. The appeasement policy, lamely followed by the EU, is dead in the water.
Now, following the Antwerp trial, the EU will have to reassess completely its relationship with Iran. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, must recall his ambassador from Tehran and every Western nation should follow suit.
Any country that seeks to use terror as statecraft should be debarred from civilised assemblies and held to account in the international courts of justice, their leaders indicted for crimes against humanity.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change, an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association