Terrorism Case Exposes Vulnerabilities to be Removed in the West, Exploited in Iran

Analysis by PMOI/MEK

Iran, February 2, 2021—On Thursday, a Belgian federal court is expected to issue a sentence in the case of Assadollah Assadi, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat who is being tried alongside three co-defendants for the attempted bombing of an Iranian Resistance gathering in France in 2018. A number of European lawmakers have responded to the pending verdict by issuing public statements that argue for changes in Western policy relating to the underlying threat of Iranian terrorism.

One such letter was addressed to Rik Daems, the president of the European Council’s Parliamentary Assembly, and signed by 40 members of the body. Another was prepared by the non-profit International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ) and sent to several leading figures in the European Union, bearing the signatures of more than 20 lawmakers and former government officials from about a dozen European countries.

The overall message of both statements was similar, although each highlighted its own specific issues and policy recommendations. Both were highly critical of existing Western strategies for dealing with the Iranian regime. In fact, both made reference to “appeasement” and accused European politicians of emboldening the regime in some of its malign activities. The European Parliamentarians’ statement noted that those activities included domestic human rights abuses as well as foreign terrorism and that the political impulses behind both of those activities was similar.

The statement described domestic repression and the foreign exportation of the regime’s fundamentalist ideology as dual pillars in the Iranian regime’s strategy for maintaining its hold on power. Both tactics are often directed toward undermining a pro-democratic Resistance movement that is active both inside Iran and among the Iranian diaspora. The Assadi case seems to confirm this while also exposing some of the ways in which Iranian authorities exploit their current position on the world stage.

Assadi’s diplomatic status is not merely incidental to his role in the terrorist plot that may soon land him in prison for up to 20 years. His employment by the Iranian embassy in Vienna gave him a number of vital tools for running an operation like the one that was thwarted in the 2018. The goal of that operation was to kill Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and to disrupt the rally at which she was scheduled to deliver the keynote address.

About six months before that rally, the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), was credited with leading a nationwide uprising against the theocratic dictatorship. That movement lasted through much of January 2018 and helped to popularize slogans which described a popular demand for regime change in Iran. Once those slogans had spread to more than 100 cities and towns throughout the country, the uprising came to represent one of the most serious challenges the ruling system had faced since the 1980s.

Unsurprisingly, the regime’s response to that challenge was violent. Several dozen participants in the 2018 uprising were either shot dead or tortured to death. Thousands were arrested, and many were sentenced to multiple years in prison for the crime of peacefully protesting. But by the time of the NCRI’s summer rally, it had become clear that this repression had failed to conclusively silence dissent. In the wake of the uprising, Mrs. Rajavi urged activists to turn the rest of the year into a “year full of uprisings,” and this helped to inspire countless local demonstrations for months afterward.

The year of uprisings was arguably in full-swing when Iranian expatriates began arriving in France for the Free Iran rally. The annual event had come to attract tens of thousands of participants, and in 2018 it was poised to act as a symbol of the resilience and growing organizational strength of the movement that was driving the Iranian uprising. The threat to the Iranian regime’s leadership was evidently so severe that the authorities were willing to sign off on a plan that came with its own threats, namely the risk of exposing Iranian sleeper cells in Europe and terrorist elements within Iranian embassies, as well as the risk of starting an international incident by killing European citizens on Western soil.

Many of the attendees at the 2018 rally were either naturalized citizens of European nations or the European-born children and grandchildren of Iranian immigrants. Not only that, but the event featured hundreds of political dignitaries representing a wide range of political affiliations in the West and throughout the world. And since the main target of the terror plot was Mrs. Rajavi, it is all but certain that if the would-be bombers had not been captured in Belgium, they would have killed some of the Western lawmakers and scholars who were closest to the Resistance leader.

The arrest of those operatives and Assadi himself was a triumph of counterterrorism by multiple European authorities. But it was also a reminder of underlying vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. It may be that these were only exposed to the public because Tehran had been driven into a panic by the January 2018 uprising, but now that the secret is out, it cannot be ignored. If the international community does not respond appropriately, the Iranian regime will come away from the incident believing that it does not need to worry about consequences even in the wake of situations where it threatened the lives of Western politicians.

The recent statements from ISJ and the European Parliament both made it clear that that threat came directly from the leadership of the Iranian regime. Investigators and prosecutors in Assadi’s case have said the same. “The plans for the attack were developed in the name of Iran at the request of its leadership. Assadi didn’t initiate the plans himself,” said the Belgian National Security Service in a February 2020 report. That message has been highlighted again and again by those European lawmakers who believe Iran should be subject to greater economic and diplomatic pressure.

Toward that end, ISJ specifically urged the nations of Europe to downgrade their relations with the Iranian regime and to continue along that path until such time as the regime provides credible guarantees that it will “never engage in terrorism in Europe again.” The implication of this statement is that in absence of such assurance, Iranian embassies and consular institutions should be shuttered altogether, on account of the possibility that other figures like Assadollah Assadi stand ready to lash out on Western soil again the next time their regime is threatened at home.

Such threats have already re-emerged in multiple times, and even Iranian government officials have publicly acknowledged that further PMOI-led uprisings may be pending. While increased diplomatic isolation for Tehran will certainly help to improve the security of Western nations, it may also inspire broader participation in those uprisings by Iranian citizens. The same goal may also be advanced by the recommendations in the European parliamentarians’ statement, which emphasizes the value of limiting or severing trade relations with Iranian entities, pending an end to terrorist activities and the improvement of human rights conditions. Regardless of Tehran’s response, such measures promise to weaken the institutions that Tehran relies on to repress domestic dissent, thereby clearing the ground for a democratic revolution.

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