On coming Friday, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat will stand trial in Belgium along with three co-conspirators in a terrorist plot. The prosecution is an opportunity to hold these four individuals accountable for activities that could have harmed hundreds of advocates for democracy in the Middle East. More than that, it is also an opportunity for Western powers to reconsider their overall approach to the regime that enables and actively promotes such terrorist plots.
The trial concerns the attempted bombing of an international gathering, organized annually near Paris by the coalition of Iranian opposition groups and personalities, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Collateral damage of the June 2018 plot could have easily included any number of the high-profile dignitaries who had traveled to the event from throughout Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Among these were many members of parliament from across Europe, former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, former PM and Foreign Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper and John Baird, former Foreign Ministers of France and Italy, Bernard Kouchner and Giulio Terzi, and President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
This list of potential victims stands alongside the French venue as a reason why it is especially important for Western governments to offer an assertive reaction to the terror plot. Ideally, that reaction could have happened very soon after the plot’s details were revealed, particularly after it was announced that the third counsellor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna had been arrested in connection with it. But the trial of that terrorist-diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, represents another opportunity for a unified Western coalition to send a strong message to his handlers in Tehran.
Make no mistake, those handlers were guiding Assadi through the entire process. An initial, months-long investigation into the terror plot led to an announcement from the French Government which stated unequivocally that the plot had been approved at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. This finding has been corroborated every step of the way by the two-year Belgian investigation. Throughout that time, Tehran has explicitly stood behind its agent, as by trying to obstruct his extradition after he was arrested in Germany, just outside the bounds of his Austrian diplomatic immunity.
Despite those efforts to help him escape accountability, an alternative account of the terror plot has gradually emerged which suggests that Assadi was acting as a rogue agent, without the knowledge or consent of his own government. This is nonsense, and it has been appropriately and repeatedly debunked by persons with knowledge of the case, as well as by persons with a solid understanding of how the Iranian regime operates in general.
“The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership,” wrote Jaak Raes, the head of Belgian state security services in recent communications with the media. “It was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative.”
It is not even clear why anyone would think otherwise, unless it is because the direct involvement of such a high-ranking diplomat doesn’t seem to be part of Iran’s usual modus operandi. This is a valid point, but the change in tactics should raise more questions about the perceived value of the target in 2018 than it does about who is ultimately responsible for setting that target. In fact, the Iranian regime’s attempted attack on the opposition gathering was predictable because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had personally acknowledged, that January, that the NCRI coalition was responsible for an ongoing, nationwide upsurge in unrest.
The January uprising inspired countless protests that carried the same anti-government message through the rest of the year, during which time Tehran became fixated on stamping out dissent both at home and abroad. That fixation called for more carefully managed terrorist activity than is usually channeled through the regime’s various terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah. In essence, the 2018 terror plot only brought the role of Assadi and other Iranian diplomats into the foreground, putting him in a leadership position whereas once he might have simply channeled the regime’s instructions, financial and logistical assistance into the hands of third-party militants.
Now that the curtain has been drawn back on the regime’s existing terrorist infrastructure, the international community must carefully consider how to assure that it is never activated in this or any other way again. It will not be sufficient to just secure conviction for the 2018 conspirators, although this is certainly a step in the right direction. Major world powers should amplify the message of that conviction so the Iranian regime will have no doubts about the consequence of other such terror plots being thwarted in the future.
Many of those who attended the 2018 gathering have recently outlined some of the ways in which this message might be conveyed. In a number of online conferences they used the opportunity to advocate for enhanced economic sanctions on regime authorities, further diplomatic isolation for the regime as a whole and the application of formal terrorist designation of entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Diplomatic isolation seems to be an especially contentious topic, especially when advocates raise the prospect of shuttering Iranian embassies and consulates altogether. But details of the Assadi case should receive a broader public airing next Friday and then it should become much easier for policymakers throughout the world to sign onto a foreign policy strategy that acknowledges the Islamic Republic is the furthest thing from an ordinary diplomatic partner.
Far from closing off a pathway for promoting moderation within the Iranian regime, embassy closures would actually limit the regime’s ability to convey terrorist extremism beyond its borders, sometimes even into the heart of Europe. In partnership with other assertive Western policies, this sort of diplomatic isolation can be expected to force the regime into a position where it must either fundamentally transform its behavior in order to survive or else focus exclusively on domestic affairs and risk overthrow by an increasingly restive population.