Iranian opposition activists, members of the National council of Resistance of Iran, protest with portrait depicting Iranian official Asadollah Assadi, in Brussels, Belgium in 2018. File Photo by Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE
Feb. 8 (UPI) -- When a Middle Eastern country orders one of its diplomats to bomb an opposition rally in Europe, prepares the lethal device, sends him to the European Union on a commercial airliner with the bomb in a diplomatic bag, what should the West do?
This is not some sort of Hollywood fantasy, it is reality.
A court in Belgium has just sentenced four Iranians who were involved in a plot to kill and maim hundreds at a mass rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran attended by tens of thousands at Villepinte near Paris in June 2018. There were dozens of Americans and Europeans at the rally, including well-known politicians like Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; Theresa Villiers MP, former United Kingdom Cabinet minister; and Stephen Harper, former prime minister of Canada. I was there and indeed 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 550 gm TATP high 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 were resident in Belgium as registered refugees, they were in fact trained Iranian agents. Assadi had told them to detonate the bomb as close to the Iranian opposition leader, Maryam Rajavi, as possible. That is where I was standing, with all of the other political figures. The court heard that Assadi had told his co-conspirators that if they couldn't get close enough to Rajavi, they should simply throw the bomb into the crowd and detonate it, killing and maiming potentially hundreds of men, women and children in the blast and ensuing panic.
The courthouse in Antwerp was surrounded by Iranian opposition supporters and heavily guarded by armed police and military personnel. Helicopters hovered overhead. The public was prohibited from entering the court on security grounds as the judges announced the maximum 20-year sentence on Assadi for terrorist offenses. Naami was sentenced to 18 years, Saadouni to 15 years and the lookout Arefani to 17 years. The lengthy 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 resolutely rejected by the judges and has now, following his conviction, been revoked. His co-conspirators have been stripped of their Belgian citizenship and will be deported after serving their sentences.
The court case has come 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 around the world as bomb factories. In December 2018 the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama expelled the Iranian ambassador and his first secretary on the grounds that they posed a risk to Albanian security.
Once again these "so-called" diplomats were revealed as trained Ministry of Intelligence and Security agents who had been plotting bomb attacks and assassinations of opponents of the regime in Albania. Since seizing power in the 1979 revolution, the theocratic regime, whose main contribution to the world has been Islamic fundamentalism, 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.
The Antwerp court's verdict must surely mark a turning point in relations with the theocratic regime. There can be no return to business as usual. There can be no more arguments that diplomacy is the answer. Indeed, on Jan. 19, an Iranian American by the name of Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi appeared in a U.S. federal court, 13 years after he first began taking payments from the Iranian regime while presenting himself to policymakers and journalists as an independent expert on foreign relations and political science. Court documents reveal that he was paid at least $265,000 for his service to Iran's theocratic dictatorship, before 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 policymakers.
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 U.S. President Joe Biden will quickly restore former President Barack Obama's deeply flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal that was unceremoniously dumped by former President Donald Trump.
He is praying that Biden will lift the sanctions, which prevented Iran from selling oil, crippling its economy. Biden has repeatedly confirmed that this is one of his foreign policy priorities. It will be a grave mistake. 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 have never ceased.
It is time for a complete change of direction in U.S., EU and U.N. policy toward 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 now 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 civilized 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. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.