On February 4, 2021, a Belgian court in Antwerp sentenced an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi who was attached to the Iranian embassy in Vienna, to 20 years in jail for his role in a failed bomb plot in France. Prosecutors said he had transported the explosives for the plot on a commercial flight to Austria from Iran. The plot intended to target a rally organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The NCRI is believed to be the political arm of the organization Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) that opposes the Iranian government.
Several reports indicated that Assadi recruited his accomplices Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami, a Belgian Iranian couple, in 2012 who both worked as Assadi’s informants from then onwards. Administrator-General of Belgium’s State Security Service Jaak Raes said that the foiled bomb plot was a “state-sanctioned operation approved by Tehran” and “was not a personal initiative of Assadi.” German authorities said that Assadi was extradited to Belgium where a court ordered his detention based on the evidence submitted. As per a police document retrieved by Reuters, Assadi threatened retaliation if he was found guilty post-investigation. Rik Vanreusel, the lawyer representing the NCRI, told Al Arabiya News during an interview that “there was a bomb planted, or almost planted, on a gathering of the opposition of the state of Iran. That the bomb was planted by a diplomat… That this spy has recruited several other agents to perform this heinous attack and this having been done without Iran knowing, to me, is impossible.”
In 2018, after initial investigations, France concluded that Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence was involved in the failed bomb attack. Several top-level politicians and diplomats were present at the rally including Rudy Giuliani, former US President Trump’s personal attorney.
Belgium’s military bomb disposal squad (DOVO) released a report explaining in detail how the explosives were carried along with the antenna, batteries, and transmitter. Saadouni and Naami confessed that they had received a package from Assadi but denied knowledge of its contents. Along with the couple, Mehrdad Arefani, a Belgium-based Iranian poet, was also arrested for his role in the plot. While the court sentenced Saadouni and Naami to 18 years and 15 years in prison respectively, Arefani was handed down a 17-year prison sentence.
The Iranian government has misused its diplomatic channels to carry out such attacks and has repeatedly violated several clauses of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), 1961. Iran has also used its embassies to spy on host countries and also to interfere in their domestic affairs. Article 41 of the VCDR categorically states that “without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that state.” Iran has a long history of violating the Vienna Convention starting in 1979 when the US embassy was attacked and occupied by the supporters of the Iranian revolution for which the International Court of Justice held Iran accountable.
In 2011, the UK embassy in Tehran was attacked by protestors who ransacked the embassy and damaged internal documents. The Iranian government did not protect the embassy premises during the attack, violating the clauses of VCDR. In 2017, Kuwait expelled 15 Iranian diplomats after finding links to spy networks and terrorist organizations. In another clear violation of diplomatic conventions, last year Iran arrested Rob Macaire, the British envoy to Iran. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the arrest a “flagrant violation” of international law. Recently, an Iranian diplomat Muhammed Reza Naserzadeh was arrested in Turkey for plotting the murder of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani who was killed in Istanbul in 2019. Vardanjani was a former Iranian intelligence operative who later became a vocal critic of the Iranian government. Three months before he was shot, Vardanjani had written, “I will root out the corrupt mafia commanders…Pray that they don’t kill me before I do this,” targeting the IRGC on social media.
Many European governments have warned Iran against plotting terrorist activities in Europe. In 2018, France and Denmark accused Iran of assassinating an exiled leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, a separatist group wanting the secession of Iran’s Khuzestan Province. Furthermore, the Dutch government accused Iran of plotting assassinations in the Netherlands in 2019. In a written statement to the Dutch Parliament, Netherlands Foreign Minister Stef Blok said that Dutch Intelligence services found “strong indications that Iran was involved in the assassinations of two Dutch nationals of Iranian origin.” These assassinations allegedly took place in 2015 and 2017 in Almere and the Hague respectively.
During an online discussion on the Belgian court’s recent verdict, British MP Steve McCabe said that the verdict exposed “how the Iranian authorities show contempt for diplomatic conventions by using their embassies and diplomatic missions to export terror.” Several other European politicians also expressed their concern about how Iran uses its diplomatic missions to widen its espionage networks across Europe. Iran’s role in sponsoring and plotting terrorist attacks around the world has once again become a point of contention and concern, especially after the recent cases exposed how the Iranian government is directly involved in plotting attacks in Europe’s heartland, thus threatening the continent’s internal security.