Four terrorists of the Islamic Republic of Iran will be going on trial in Belgium on November 27. They are accused of plotting to set off explosives at a gathering of Iranian expatriates that was organized in June 2018 by a coalition of Iranian democratic opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
There is no serious doubt about the defendants’ guilt, especially given that the plot’s mastermind, Assadollah Assadi, threatened further terrorism in the event that he was not acquitted or otherwise released from custody.
Friday’s trial must result in substantial prison time for all those who were directly involved in the plot. But these cannot be the only consequences, and the four defendants cannot be the only ones who are held accountable.
The 2018 terror plot is only one symptom of a much larger sickness that can only be cured by the removal of Iran’s theocratic dictatorship. That cure is something that the Iranian people are working on, as evidenced by the circumstances underlying Tehran’s decision to target the “Free Iran” rally.
But in the meantime, the international community can alleviate the symptoms by isolating their cause to the greatest extent possible, through economic and diplomatic pressures.
The June 2018 rally, which took place just outside Paris, was part of an annual tradition dating back to the early 2000s. But as far as is known, that year’s gathering was the only one to be directly targeted by Iranian terrorists.
To some extent, this may have been a reaction to the event’s ongoing growth. In recent years, attendance has been estimated at around 100,000, including hundreds of dignitaries representing foreign policy, scholarship, and intelligence circles in the United States, Europe, and much of the world.
But what specifically set the 2018 rally apart from its predecessors was the fact that it took place while the Islamic Republic was still reeling from a virtually unprecedented nationwide protest.
That movement emerged in the final days of 2017 and continued through much of January 2018 while its initial economic focus transformed into chants of “death to the dictator” and explicit calls for regime change.
The dictator himself, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, blamed that message on the organizing efforts of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK/PMOI), thereby breaking with decades of propaganda that portrayed the group as too small and cult-like to pose a real challenge to the ayatollahs’ hold on power.
That propaganda was further undermined in subsequent months as the pro-democracy activist community promoted a loosely-connected series of follow-up protests in response to the NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi’s call of a “year full of uprisings.”
The recurring unrest compounded the regime’s anxiety by demonstrating that the thousands of arrests and dozens of killings it had carried out since last November were insufficient to silence the public’s demands.
This anxiety quickly prompted the regime’s highest authorities to approve of plans for an attack on the MEK’s foreign base of support, including Mrs. Rajavi herself. In her capacity as the NCRI President-elect, Mrs. Rajavi delivered the keynote speech at the June 2018 rally, and she sat throughout the event in the company of foreign dignitaries and other NCRI officials.
Investigations leading up to Friday’s trial confirm that Mrs. Rajavi was the primary target of the Paris terror plot. Belgian and French authorities also separately confirmed that the efforts to implement that plot had gone forward with the full knowledge and approval of the regime’s highest authorities.
Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani apparently signed off on its in hopes that Assadi’s role would not be exposed, but also on the understanding that if it was, it would pose a unique threat to Tehran’s relationships in the Western world.
However, Iranian officials may also have determined that that risk was worth taking, firstly because success could mean disrupting the Resistance movement for years to come, and secondly because Western powers have rarely been assertive in their dealings with the Islamic Republic.
If this latter point was part of the Iranians’ decision-making, it has only been further justified by international reactions up to this point. Yes, Assadi and his co-conspirators are likely to face punishment, but the trial should be addressed the larger issue of the plot having originated at the top of the regime.
This is a particularly egregious oversight in view of the fact that relevant recommendations have been offered by a number of individuals and groups that were at risk of being affected by the 2018 plot, and may yet be affected by the larger phenomenon of Iranian terrorism. Some of these recommendations have been offered alongside evidence to be used in Friday’s trial.
Various Western nationals who were present at the Free Iran rally have provided affidavits to the Belgian court. In one of these, Robert Joseph, a former official in the U.S. State Department, offered a word of warning to anyone who may have a role in determining the penalties for the attempted bombing. “If the leaders of free societies fail to hold the perpetrators responsible, we will only encourage more attacks and be complicit in them,” he said.
He, like many fellow supporters of the NCRI, understands “the perpetrators” to be an entire body of Iranian lawmakers and officials, whose interests and malign objectives are represented to the world by terrorist agents operating in the guise of diplomats and other professionals.
While planning the bombing of the Free Iran rally, Assadollah Assadi was also serving as the third counselor in the Iranian embassy in Vienna. Following his arrest in Germany, Tehran made every effort to block his extradition, even suggesting that his Austrian diplomatic immunity meant he could not be subject to arrest anywhere in the European Union.
Fortunately, such arguments fell on deaf ears, and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of Assadi himself escaping justice. But the value of his punishment is limited if it does not lead to broader changes that might prevent other terrorist operatives from taking his place and continuing to facilitate terrorism either directly or through any of the regime’s numerous proxies.
The simplest way of preventing these activities is by closing Iranian embassies in their entirety. While some Western policymakers are sure to regard that as an extreme measure, it is well and truly justified by the fact that the regime has plainly revealed its willingness to use those embassies at the staging ground for mass murder, and specifically for the assassination of democratic activists and Western lawmakers.
We now have a clear sense of the 2018 terror plot’s potential impact. The 500 grams of TATP explosive that Assadi provided to his operatives were capable of killing hundreds of people with its initial shockwave, to say nothing of those who might have been killed by the ensuing panic.
It is right to punish terrorists on the basis of a potential death toll, and it is also right to recognize that that potential still exists in other places, under other circumstances. If the international community addresses the potential attack in Paris, it cannot turn a blind eye to the potential attacks that loom in every place where Tehran has extended its reach.