Early this month, a Belgian court convicted the Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi of planning a deadly terrorist attack on European soil. The plot in question was thwarted in the summer of 2018, but the ensuing investigation and trial helped to expose a much larger underlying threat. When Assadi was arrested by German authorities, documents were recovered from his car which showed that he had been in contact with a network of operatives spanning at least 11 European countries. Many of those operatives received cash payments from Assadi while he was serving third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna.
The nature of those cash payments remains to be determined, and critics of the Iranian regime have urged Western governments and multinational bodies to undertake more serious investigations of the full range of activities that figures like Assadi had been pursuing around the world.
There’s little question that the network associated with Assadollah Assadi has a role to play in both these aspects of Iran’s foreign strategy: direct attacks on its adversaries and disinformation campaigns aimed at smearing it as either ineffectual or dangerous to Western interests. Fortunately, that narrative has been widely rejected within American and European policy circles, as evidenced by the presence of political dignitaries from all major political parties at the event that Assadi attempted to bomb in 2018. Unfortunately, though, it has not been rejected entirely by the governments in which those parties are represented.
We should hope that this situation will not last much longer, now that Assadi and his three co-conspirators have been convicted, and their network exposed. Paying attention to Iran’s propaganda at this point would needlessly downplay the effects of far-reaching infiltration by institutions like the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). It would also lend false credibility to the very claims that motivated the 2018 plot in the first place.
According to the Belgian National Security Service, that plot had not been undertaken on Assadi’s own initiative but had been ordered from high up in the Iranian regime. And according to the NCRI, the decision stemmed from discussions involving both the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. It marked a notable departure from the regime’s usual modus operandi, in that the activity was not channeled through proxy groups but was placed directly in the hands of a high-ranking diplomat. This hands-on approach reflected the perceived importance of the operation, which was reportedly intended to kill NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi, in particular.
About three months prior to the Free Iran rally at which she delivered the keynote address, Mrs. Rajavi urged activists in Iran to make the just-begun Iranian calendar year a “year full of uprisings.” That in turn was motivated by a protest movement that had broken out in more than 100 Iranian cities and towns at the end of 2017, then continued through much of January 2018. The movement exposed previously hidden vulnerabilities in the clerical regime and, more to the point, revealed the domestic popularity and organizational strength of the MEK, which even regime officials credited with leading the protests.
By the summer of that year, the regime was desperate to counter direct challenges to its rule and also to reassert the propaganda that portrayed the MEK as an ineffectual cult and helped to prevent Western governments and international bodies from supporting those challenges. A devastating attack on the powerfully symbolic Resistance gathering might have accomplished both of these aims, but unfortunately the failure of that attack only thwarts one of them. The regime’s propaganda has not been amplified in its wake, but it has not been uprooted, either.
This is because talking points that target the Resistance have been spreading through international media for many years, as the result of an increasingly sophistication system of international warfare carried out by networks like the one associated with Assadollah Assadi. On one hand, Assadi’s conviction helped to alert Western governments to the existence of these networks, potentially putting them on a path toward confronting them. But on the other hand, the networks’ mere existence is not enough to convince American or European policymakers that they or their colleagues have been deliberately misled about the situation in Iran.
Just this week, the NCRI announced the release of a letter than had been sent to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres from a former collaborator with the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, expressing regret over his dissemination of false claims points about the Resistance movement. “For four years I fell into a trap set by the Iranian regime’s Ministry… and its Iranian embassy in Albania,” said the author, Hadi Sani-Khani, before going naming specific agents, tactics, and operations the regime used in an effort to poison the international press against the MEK and forestall any Western support for its democratic aims.
Among other things, the letter explained the genesis of a 2019 article in Der Spiegel that parroted false claims about the MEK’s community in Albania – an article that later became the subject of a lawsuit that resulted in a court order for the retraction of those claims. That article was not the only one of its kind to face a successful legal challenge, and this phenomenon should go a long way toward demonstrating the legitimacy of the Sani-Khani letter and the underlying claims regarding an Iranian influence network dedicated to disinformation and character assassination in Western media.
As the international community sets out to further investigate the contents of the letter, policymakers should also be making plans for how to address the relevant phenomena when they prove to as real and as dangerous as the NCRI claims. No doubt most serious critics of the Iranian regime will offer the same advice they have already offered in response to Assadi’s conviction, namely that European nations should consider closing Iranian embassies, downgrading diplomatic and trade ties, launching investigations into Iranian institutions that currently operate in their territory, and pursuing indictment or other consequences for all those who have contributed to the spread of terrorism or information warfare in the name of the Iranian regime.