A trial due to begin next week in the Belgian city of Antwerp is set to cast further light on the Islamic Republic of Iran's use of official diplomatic missions in its ongoing campaign of violence and harassment of its opponents across the globe. While the threat of activities by non-state Sunni jihadi organizations remains high on the agenda of many western countries, the flouting by Iran of global norms in pursuit of the regime's perceived enemies has received little focus. The Antwerp trial may serve to change this.
The four people to be tried in Antwerp stand accused of seeking to place an explosive device at a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), held at Vellepinte, outside Paris on June 30, 2018. The NCRI is the public and diplomatic wing of the Mujahidin al-Khalq or Peoples' Mujahidin of Iran (MEK). This organization was responsible for the first public revelations regarding the Iranian nuclear program, in 2002. Led by Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, the MEK is a veteran opponent of the Iranian regime. It has succeeded in recent years in forging deep links with influential political circles in both the US and western Europe.
Speakers at the Paris rally included Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City and attorney to President Donald Trump. The specific target of the bombing, according to western media reports, was NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi. The bomb would have caused large scale loss of life at the rally had it been placed and detonated.
Four people are accused of involvement in the planned bombing of the NCRI rally. Three of them have been named. They are: Assadollah Assadi, 48, an Iranian diplomat and third secretary at Iran's embassy in Vienna, Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife Nasimeh Naami, 36. The identity of the fourth person has not yet been announced.
Saadouni and Naami, having received an explosive device containing 1lb of TATP (triacetone triperoxide – an explosive commonly used in terror attacks) from Assadi, were set to travel from Belgium to Paris on the day of the planned bombing when they were arrested by the Belgian authorities at Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, to the east of Brussels. Assadi was arrested in Germany on July 1 and was subsequently deported to Belgium.
The authorities, it appears, had been watching the three for some time. According to an article in this week's Sunday Times, the Belgian state security service – the VSSE (Veiligheid van de Staat) – received a "tip off" from a "partner service" that the three people arrested were thought to be planning an act of violence in France. The paper notes that the partner service is thought to have been Israel's Mossad.
The Iranian regime apparently hoped the bombing would be seen as an internal MEK matter.
According to a Belgian police official quoted by Buzzfeed, "There was a meeting in Luxembourg that was under surveillance and everyone worked together quickly to discover the bomb and arrest Assadi. It seems like the Iranian regime hoped a bombing would be seen as an internal MEK matter, which would be a plausible theory except we caught their guy in the act."
Jaak Raes, the head of the VSSE, wrote in a letter to the Belgian federal prosecutor quoted by the Sunday Times that "The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership. It was not a matter of Assadi's personal initiative."
The Paris bomb plot reflects a notable pattern of activity by Iranian state bodies.
The plot to bomb the Paris NCRI rally should not be seen as a single, stand-alone event. Rather, it reflects a notable pattern of activity by certain Iranian state bodies, conducted via Iranian representations abroad, often with the participation of locals of Iranian or other descent. The specific Iranian state organizations engaged in this ongoing campaign are the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. (MOIS)
Assadollah Assadi, according to a number of Iranian opposition news sources, began his career in the early 1980s as a member of the IRGC, and then transferred to the MOIS in 1989. Having risen through the ranks at the ministry, he was the MOIS representative at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad between 2005-8. As later in Vienna, he was officially accredited as a diplomat at the embassy. Assadi began his work in Vienna in 2014.
One Iran opposition site, Irannewsupdate.com maintains that Assadi was the top MOIS representative in Europe at that time, and "In this period, he monitored and coordinated the regime's operations against political refugees and dissidents, mainly members and supporters of PMOI/MEK."
The German Federal Prosecutor, in a July 11, 2018 statement following his arrest, noted that "Assadi was a member of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, whose tasks primarily include the intensive observation and combatting of opposition groups inside and outside of Iran."
Assadi's case is the first time that a serving diplomat in Europe will face trial for direct involvement in terrorism.
Observation of the record over the last half decade in Europe reveals that the planned Paris attack was only one of a long list of operations undertaken by the MOIS and the IRGC against Iranian opposition targets in Europe. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of other incidents:
In December, 2015, Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi, a member of MEK, was assassinated in his apartment in Alere in the Netherlands. Samadi had been sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Iran for his alleged role in a 1981 bomb attack in Teheran.
In July, 2016, Reinhold Robbe, an academic and former head of the German-Israel Friendship Society, was targeted in Paris by the IRGC. A Pakistani national, Haidar Syed-Naqfi, was paid by the organization to conduct surveillance on Robbe and other Jewish and Israeli targets.
On November 8th, 2017, Ahmad Mola Nissi, a founder of ASMLA, an insurgent group formed among the Ahvazi Arab population of Iran, was shot dead outside his home in The Hague.
In January, 2018, German media reported that 10 suspected IRGC operatives had been surveilled by the authorities, suspected of planning to target a number of Israeli and Jewish targets. No one was charged.
On March 28, 2018, two IRGC operatives were arrested in Albania, suspected of planning an attack on MEK members resident in that country. They were later released without charge.
On October 30, 2018, Habib Jabor, an ASMLA official, was the subject of surveillance revealed by the Danish authorities to constitute part of an assassination plan against him. A Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent was arrested and extradited to Denmark.
The alleged Paris bombing thus forms part of an extensive campaign of harassment and violence by Iranian state bodies against supposed enemies of Iran on European soil.
Iran policy may soon be subject to significant change under a new US Administration. Any attempt to renegotiate an agreement on Iran's nuclear program is likely to include reference to the paramilitary and irregular military activity undertaken in a variety of locations by Iran – in the Mid-East region and beyond it. The ongoing Iranian campaign of terror in Europe should form a major part of that discussion.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.