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When will Europe grow a spine on Iranian terrorism?

Feb 10, 2021 | Oved Lobel

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For the first time since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, Europe has put on trial and convicted an Iranian official on terrorism charges. Asadollah Assadi, officially a diplomat – the third counsellor at the embassy in Vienna – is in fact, according to the court, a senior agent of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).

The court found that in June 2018, Assadi brought a bomb with him on a flight from Iran and handed it off to Amir Saadouni and his wife Nasimeh Naami, who’d reportedly been recruited around 2010, supposedly telling them it was essentially a firecracker. The target: the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) convention near Paris, and in particular the MEK leader Maryam Rajavi.

Saadouni, allegedly a former member of MEK, was tasked to infiltrate the group for the attack. Aside from Assadi, Saadouni and Naami, a fourth accomplice, Mehrdad Arefani – described as a relative of Assadi – is also being charged.

If the plot had succeeded, dozens could potentially have been killed or injured, including several prominent international guests at the convention, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Designated as a terrorist group by the United States in 1997 and by Europe in 2002 for its persistent terrorism against both Western interests and Iranians, MEK was delisted in 2009 by the European Union and in 2012 by the US. Reasons of expediency played a role in the latter decision, but it is also true that there are no credible reports of terrorist plots by the group in recent years except for claims by the Iranian regime attributing attacks – including the Assadi case, which Iran ridiculously claims was a MEK “false flag” to increase tension between Europe and Iran, as well as attacks in Iran itself – to it. But it remains a bugbear for Teheran.

In response to the thwarted attack, France in 2018  reportedly expelled an Iranian diplomat and froze the funds of Assadi and Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, Deputy Minister and Director General of Intelligence at MOIS, who planned the attack, as well as an entire MOIS unit.

Following Assadi’s conviction, the Belgian prosecution and intelligence chiefs made it clear that the Iranian regime was responsible for the plot. “The plan to attack was conceived on behalf of Iran and under its leadership,” the chief of Belgium’s State Security Service Jaak Raes wrote. The prosecution lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier declared that  “The ruling shows two things: A diplomat doesn’t have immunity for criminal acts… and the responsibility of the Iranian state in what could have been carnage.”

However, the broader diplomatic response out of Europe to this attempt by the Iranian state to orchestrate a terror attack outside Paris seems wholly inadequate. There was little mention of Iranian responsibility, and the tone suggested desperation that this verdict not impact diplomatc relations with Teheran.

The European Union statement did not blame Iran for that attack at all, painting the plot as an individual initiative. “The acts committed by this person are completely unacceptable. That’s a fact. The other aspect I can add is that the person in question is already on the EU counter-terrorism list.”

Belgium officially said this case was a compartmentalised terrorism case and would not have anything to do with diplomacy and relations with Iran.

A French diplomatic source anonymously told Reuters in 2018, “We hope this matter is now over. We have taken measures and said what we needed to say.”

Astoundingly, Europe appears determined to look the other way and try to delink Iranian state terrorism on European soil from broader relations with Iran.

Europe has a long history of looking the other way on terrorism. Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) front groups are still active across Europe; Italy made a pact with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that it would turn a blind eye to its operations if it didn’t carry out attacks inside Italy; and many European countries, including the UK and Belgium, simply ignored the activities of salafi-jihadist groups with a similar tacit understanding. The MEK itself was allowed to operate in Europe even at the time it was still designated a terrorist organisation.

But these are all non-state actors. Iran is a different and far more dangerous matter, and Iranian agents have allegedly assassinated more than a dozen dissidents in Europe since 1990, including two murders in the last five years, and have tried to kill many others.

Europe’s long-standing refusal to link the terrorist activities of Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah to diplomatic relations seems incomprehensible. And this continues even after the primary suspect in this case, Assadi, threatened retaliation against Europeans by unnamed groups if he were to be found guilty. Despite all the reported expulsions of Iranian diplomats over this and several other plots and assassinations throughout Europe, it’s very clear as a whole that the continent is not proactive about Iran-sponsored terrorism and murder.

One of the key signs that European security agencies simply don’t concern themselves with this issue is that in almost every case, it is a tipoff from Israel’s Mossad that alerts the country in question to the plot. This was the case with Assadi’s bombing plot as well as in the United Kingdom where Israel revealed in 2015 that Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah was stockpiling explosives in London for potential attacks. Israeli intelligence also reportedly led to Germany finally banning Hezbollah.

Since 2019, a wave of European countries has begun cracking down on Hezbollah, but France remains an exception despite the Paris bombing plot, continuing to insist on the false distinction between Hezbollah’s “military” and “political” wings, banning only the former. This is why Hezbollah has been able to use Paris as one of the centres of its global criminal activities, and why France continues to advocate for more US ‘realism’ in relation to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

France has been appeasing Iran since the 1980s, and no matter how tough it gets – it did bomb Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) positions in Lebanon in retaliation for the 1983 Beirut Barracks bombing and backed Saddam Hussein heavily during the war – it always folds in the end. Through a series of terrorist attacks and assassinations in France itself as well as kidnappings and killings in Lebanon, Iran has been able to force France to play by its rules.

This is especially true of the MEK, whose leader France expelled in 1986 after conducting massive raids against the group as part of its attempt to mollify Teheran and get French hostages back. In 2003, France again carried out sweeping raids against MEK, allegedly because it was planning terrorist attacks but more likely because Paris sought to smooth relations with Iran.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that France – as well as the rest of Europe – appears essentially unresponsive or even indifferent to a thwarted terror attack by agents of the Iranian regime on its soil.

Now, following the conviction of Assadi, the Iranians are likely to do what they always do – kidnap or detain dual nationals on false charges to barter them for MOIS, IRGC and Hezbollah personnel detained abroad. They will also begin linking the release of the dozens of dual nationals Teheran already holds to the release of the four suspects involved in the 2018 case. And in the end, the Europeans will likely cave and hand over the prisoners in exchange for the hostages, as they have in the past.

The more Europe refuses to link diplomatic relations with Iran to the dangerous activities of the IRGC, MOIS and Hezbollah on its soil, the more incentivised Iran will be to continue its violent and dangerous behaviour.

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