Iranian diplomat sentenced to 20 years for bomb plot in France (& democracy activist killed yesterday on Iranian orders)

February 05, 2021

IRANIAN DIPLOMATS YET AGAIN ENGAGED IN BOMB PLOTS TO KILL CIVILIANS

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attached several pieces below from today and yesterday.

Just to make it more explicitly clear than most of the US press does today: the rally in France which the Iranian government attempted to bomb, was not some small gathering. It was attended by about 25,000 people, including several prominent Americans.

Also not made clear in US media, but reported for example in Germany in Deutsche Welle yesterday: “Iranian diplomat Assadolah Assadi transported the explosives for the plot on a commercial flight from Iran to Austria. Belgian prosecution lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier said, ‘Today’s 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.’”

In addition to the Iranian government’s role in the killing and attempted killing of Jews in countries as far afield as Argentina and India, European countries have in recent years blamed Iranian diplomats for murders in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017, and for a foiled assassination in Denmark in 2018. Albania in 2019 said it had averted several planned attacks by Iranian agents.

 

LOKMAN SLIM, ASSASSINATED YESTERDAY BY HEZBOLLAH

I would like to pay tribute to the fearless filmmaker Lokman Slim, 58, an outspoken Shia critic of Hezbollah and Iran, who was murdered yesterday in his car in south Lebanon. (I had lunch with Lokman Slim at a conference in Europe a few years ago.)

A Twitter account belonging to the son of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared to celebrate the news of the assassination yesterday, saying, “The loss of some is in fact a gain and unexpected mercy #No_Sorrow.” The tweet has now been deleted.

Slim not only documented the murderous campaign of Iranian forces and their proxy militias in Syria and Lebanon, he also highlighted the suffering of prisoners in the Assad regime’s dungeons, particularly in the award-winning film he co-directed with his wife about Syria’s notorious Tadmor prison.

Last month, Slim said he had evidence that the hazardous chemicals that caused a massive explosion in the Beirut port last year had been brought to Lebanon for use by the Syrian government, with the complicity of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

In the New York Times article today on Slim’s assassination (third piece below), it is very misleading of the Times to simply write “Few of Lebanon’s political killings are ever solved, and it is widely believed that the authorities are hamstrung in their ability to investigate by fears of angering powerful political forces” without the Times making clear that the single most powerful faction of the government is Iranian-controlled Hezbollah and it is the one carrying out most of the killings.

 

ARABS AND ISRAELIS UNITE IN PLEA TO BIDEN NOT TO REPEAT THE MISTAKES OF OBAMA

Meanwhile, there is growing despair across the Middle East and beyond at the initial indications by the Biden foreign policy team that they intend to repeat the Obama era appeasement of the Iranian regime.

For example, Bahraini analysis Amjad Taha writes (February 2):

“The Biden administration should understand that the situation is no longer the same as it was during Obama’s presidency… America should not stand against its interests in the Gulf in order to favor Iran. The Iranians have occupied three of UAE’s islands. Iran has [since1979 when the Islamic regime seized power] murdered millions of Arabs by inflicting and supporting multiple wars such as the ones located within Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and they’ve supported every terrorist attack in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

“The Arab citizens of the Gulf know that Israel was not responsible for the blast explosions near the Kaaba, and they did not target Makkah with its missiles. Israel did not manufacture militias that kill the people of Iraq and Yemen, nor did they swing pictures of Netanyahu in southern Lebanon, or occupy Syria, Ahwaz, and the Emirates Islands. Israel did not kill 4,000,000 people and make 7,000,000 migrate. Rather, Iran is responsible for all of the aforementioned situations.”

 

CONTENTS

1. “In the Mideast, Biden Returns to Abnormal: He revives the Obama policy of strengthening America’s enemies and harming its friends” (By Michael Doran,
Wall St Journal, Feb. 5, 2021)

2. “The U.N. Refugee Agency With Few Actual Refugees: Less than 5% of five million people deemed ‘Palestinian refugees’ meet the criteria for this status” (By Richard Goldberg and Jonathan Schanzer, Wall St Journal, Feb. 4, 2021)

3. “Prominent Lebanese Critic of Hezbollah Is Killed” (By Ben Hubbard, New York Times, Feb. 5, 2021)

4. “Iranian Diplomat Is Convicted In Plot to Bomb Opposition Rally in France” (By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, Feb. 5, 2021)

5. “Iranian Diplomat Sentenced to 20 Years for Foiled Bomb Plot in France” (By Sue Engel Rasmussen, Wall St Journal, Feb. 5, 2021)

 

ARTICLES

IN THE MIDEAST, BIDEN RETURNS TO ABNORMAL

In the Mideast, Biden Returns to Abnormal
He revives the Obama policy of strengthening America’s enemies and harming its friends.
By Michael Doran
Wall Street Journal
Feb. 5, 2021

https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-the-mideast-biden-returns-to-abnormal-11612481108

Joe Biden implicitly campaigned on Warren G. Harding’s 1920 promise of “a return to normalcy.” But his administration is returning to Barack Obama’s abnormal Middle East strategy. A normal policy would respect the fundamental commandment of sound statecraft: Strengthen friends and punish enemies. It would distinguish between them by asking two simple questions: Which states have tended to shelter comfortably under the American power umbrella? And which have instead sought to destroy the American order? Israel, Turkey and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have functioned as pillars of the postwar American order. By contrast, for the past 40 years Iran has tirelessly opposed the American security system.

Three details of Iran’s strategic position could make it more dangerous in the near future. First, the Persian Gulf contains five of the world’s 10 largest proven oil reserves, and Iran threatens to dominate the region. Second, Tehran is increasingly allied with both Russia and China. Third, outreach to Iran by the U.S. has deeply angered most of America’s Middle Eastern allies.

A normal policy would seek to contain Iran. Every president since Jimmy Carter regarded Iran as a threat – except Mr. Obama. His flagship policy was the Joint Cooperative Plan of Action, to which Mr. Biden is dedicated to return. The JCPOA won’t contain Iran. Its sunset clauses create a clear path for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. By lifting sanctions, it supplies the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with cash.

Mr. Obama also dispensed with traditional military deterrence. Tehran saw a green light to expand and arm its militia networks. By the time Mr. Obama left office, Tehran held substantial sway over four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana’a. Donald Trump returned to containment. While revitalizing deterrence and imposing sanctions, he also supported military and intelligence operations by allies, especially Israel, against Iran and its proxies. A new coalition of regional states developed and was formalized in the Abraham Accords.

Mr. Trump established significant leverage over Tehran. Mr. Biden appears intent on squandering it. Consider his Yemen policy. One of his first moves was to announce a review of the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization. Iran is building up the Houthis as a Yemeni counterpart to Hezbollah. As Hezbollah threatens Israel with precision-guided rockets and missiles, so the Houthis are threatening Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the Houthis provide Iran with a perch on the Red Sea, which guards the approach to the Suez Canal from the Indian Ocean.

Instead of forcing Iran to retreat, the Biden administration is working to drive out Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, which intervened in Yemen to stop Iran’s advance. In his first major foreign policy speech, delivered yesterday, Mr. Biden announced an end to all support for operations in the Saudi-led war, including arms sales. Following on the review of the Houthi terrorism designation, this will embolden Iran and demoralize Saudi Arabia and all American allies who are threatened by Iranian aggression.

The arms ban comes after a previously announced review of arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The administration bills the review as “pro forma,” but in reality, it is a threat. If Riyadh and Abu Dhabi work with the Israelis against America’s return to the JCPOA, Washington will cut off their arms supply.

In returning to a policy of containment, Mr. Trump was at least partly motivated by a desire to erase Mr. Obama’s legacy. It is only natural that Mr. Biden’s national-security team, which with few exceptions was also Mr. Obama’s team, would feel a reciprocal urge to erase the Trump legacy. But that’s no basis for a superpower’s foreign policy.

Abandoning containment, gutting deterrence, squandering leverage, downgrading allies and enriching enemies – these are the essential components of the Obama-Biden strategy. For a superpower to embrace such an approach isn’t only abnormal; it is alarming.

 

THE U.N. REFUGEE AGENCY WITH FEW ACTUAL REFUGEES

The U.N. Refugee Agency With Few Actual Refugees
Less than 5% of five million people deemed ‘Palestinian refugees’ meet the criteria for this status.
By Richard Goldberg and Jonathan Schanzer
Wall Street Journal
Feb. 4, 2021

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-u-n-refugee-agency-with-few-actual-refugees-11612378415

Lost amid President Trump’s unceremonious send-off were a pair of Jan. 14 tweets from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo : Of the more than five million people identified as “Palestinian refugees” by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, fewer than 200,000 meet the criteria for refugee status.

This is a breach of trust by a U.N. agency, but Unrwa is not the only one to blame. One administration after another, Democrat and Republican, enabled Unrwa to perpetuate its fiction. It’s time for a new U.S. policy that promotes regional peace, advances Palestinian human rights and defends the U.S. taxpayer.

History can explain, in part, how this mess was created. In 1948, five Arab armies invaded the fledgling state of Israel but lost. Unrwa was established to care for Arab residents displaced by that conflict. The organization was dedicated solely to Palestinian Arabs – independent of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which took responsibility for all other world refugee populations.

Unrwa became part of a new Arab narrative: Millions of Palestinians were trapped as refugees, living in destitution and yearning for home. Until these people achieved their “right of return,” the Arab world insisted, the Middle East would never see peace. Meanwhile, Israel absorbed 800,000 Jewish refugees who were exiled from Arab states.

Over time, America somehow allowed itself to become Unrwa’s leading donor. From 1950 to 2018, American taxpayers contributed more than $6 billion, even as legislators from both parties raised concerns about the agency. Employees moonlighted as terrorists. Schools were used to store weapons and launch rockets against Israel. Concerns in Congress mounted over waste, fraud and abuse.

For years, Unrwa stymied congressional investigations into its distribution of textbooks that promote hatred and incitement against Israel and Jews. When the Trump administration suspended funding to Unrwa in 2018, it cited the agency’s textbooks as justification. After repeated denials, the agency’s chief acknowledged recently that Unrwa’s curricula refers to Israel as the “enemy,” teaches math by counting “martyred” terrorists, and includes the phrase “Jihad is one of the doors to Paradise” in grammar lessons.

But Unrwa’s corruption runs deeper. The agency today claims 5.6 million people as refugees. That is simply false. There were 800,000 refugees in 1948. How could that number have grown to such an extent while the population in question aged and died?

In 2012, then- Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois tried to answer this question. His amendment to an annual spending bill demanded an estimate of people receiving Unrwa services who were actually displaced by the 1948 war. The Obama administration delivered a classified answer in 2015. The State Department guarded the secret, even during the Trump years – until Mr. Pompeo’s tweets.

“Unrwa is not a refugee agency; it’s estimated <200,000 Arabs displaced in 1948 are still alive and most others are not refugees by any rational criteria,” Mr. Pompeo tweeted. “Taxpayers deserve basic truths: most Palestinians under UNRWA’s jurisdiction aren’t refugees, and UNRWA is a hurdle to peace. America supports peace and Palestinian human rights; UNRWA supports neither. It’s time to end UNRWA’s mandate.”

President Biden reportedly intends to restore funding to the agency. Some questions he needs to answer: Should America support more than five million people through a refugee agency if fewer than 200,000 of them are refugees? Why should the State Department’s refugee bureau oversee Unrwa if the majority of its registry are not refugees?

Since most people registered with Unrwa are citizens or permanent residents of another country – such as Jordan – or currently reside within the borders of a future Palestinian state, Congress should work with the administration to find bilateral solutions. America can still assist the remaining 200,000 refugees while supporting others outside the Unrwa framework.

Remarkably, there are no technical teams from the U.S. Agency for International Development or other federal agencies designing programs, projects, or budgets to help Palestinians registered with Unrwa achieve economic independence. In other words, there are no plans to improve their lives. That needs to change.

American oversight of the U.N. must also change. When the U.S. contributes to U.N. agencies, it often takes a seat on the board to exercise basic oversight. Unrwa, however, has no board of governors and no oversight.

It took more than eight years, but we finally got the truth: Less than 5% of those on Unrwa’s registry are refugees. This means Unrwa is not a refugee agency, but something else entirely. That demands a bipartisan policy to halt the abuse of taxpayer funding.

 

PROMINENT LEBANESE CRITIC OF HEZBOLLAH IS KILLED

Prominent Lebanese Critic of Hezbollah Is Killed
Lokman Slim was a rare Shiite Muslim who openly criticized the extremist group for its militancy in Lebanon and the Middle East. He was found dead in a car with multiple bullet wounds.
By Ben Hubbard
Feb. 5, 2021

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/world/middleeast/lokman-slim-killed-hezbollah.html

BEIRUT, Lebanon – A prominent Lebanese critic of the militant group Hezbollah was found dead on Thursday after being shot multiple times in what his friends called a political assassination.

Lokman Slim, 58, was a publisher and filmmaker who was among a small group of political activists from the country’s Shiite Muslim minority who openly criticized Hezbollah, a Shiite extremist group, for violent role in the country and the wider Middle East.

Mr. Slim’s killing came at a time of multiple crises that have pushed Lebanon to the brink of collapse. Its political system is nearly paralyzed, its economy is in free-fall, and many of its people are still suffering the aftereffects of a huge explosion in the Beirut port in August that killed more than 200 people.

For weeks, Lebanon has been under total lockdown, with a 24-hour curfew aimed at slowing the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

The killing of Mr. Slim, which the Lebanese authorities said they were investigating, raised fears among his supporters that the country could slide into a new period of political killings similar to those it had suffered through in the past. Assassinations have been rare in recent years, but multiple killings of politicians, journalists and security officials mar the country’s history.

“It is dangerous that there could be a return to assassinations,” said Ali al-Amine, a Shiite journalist and Hezbollah critic who considered Mr. Slim a friend.

Few of Lebanon’s political killings are ever solved, and it is widely believed that the authorities are hamstrung in their ability to investigate by fears of angering powerful political forces.

Mr. Slim hailed from a prominent Shiite family; his father had been a member of Lebanon’s Parliament. He studied philosophy and ancient languages at the Sorbonne in Paris before returning to Lebanon in the late 80s.

Over the next decades, he launched projects aimed at documenting Lebanon’s violent history and paving the way for what he hoped would be a more peaceful future, based on secular values and respect for religious diversity.

He opened a publishing house called Dar al-Jadeed, and in partnership with his wife, Monika Borgmann, created an organization, UMAM Documentation and Research, to compile information about the history of Lebanon and its 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

He and Ms. Borgmann made films, including Massaker, which featured interviews with participants in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, and Tadmor, which recreated the traumatic detentions of Lebanese men in a notorious desert prison in Syria.

All along, Mr. Slim remained in his family’s historic, book-filled villa in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an area that has come to be dominated by Hezbollah.

While many of the group’s critics refrain from criticizing it openly, Mr. Slim accused it of imposing its view of eternal war against Israel and the United States on Lebanon’s Shiites, and criticized it for sending fighters to back President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in the civil war there.

That stance won Mr. Slim friends among Hezbollah’s foes in Lebanon, as well as among diplomats from the United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

Diplomatic cables released in 2010 and 2011 by WikiLeaks show that United States diplomats often sought out Mr. Slim for his views on developments in the Shiite community, provided funding for some of his initiatives and arranged high-level meetings for him during visits to Washington.

Those initiatives, which included supporting independent Shiite candidates in parliamentary elections and forming a Shiite clerical body to serve as an alternative to that seen as beholden to Hezbollah, earned him harsh criticism from Hezbollah and its political allies.

They dismissed him and his colleagues as “the Shiites of the embassies,” an insult meant to suggest that their support came from Western governments and not from the communities they lived in.

Mr. Slim often received personal threats. Last year, rioters attacked his home and covered the walls with insults, prompting him to live elsewhere for a while.

“Lokman Slim publicly and privately acknowledged that there were threats being made against his life, and yet he bravely continued to push for justice, accountability, and the rule of law in Lebanon,” Dorothy C. Shea, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, said in a statement. “This assassination was not just a brutal assault on an individual, but a cowardly attack on the principles of democracy, freedom of expression, and civic participation.”

In January, in an interview on an Arabic satellite station, Mr. Slim suggested that the hazardous chemicals that had blown up in the Beirut port had been brought to Lebanon for the Syrian government, with the complicity of Russia and Hezbollah.

“We have before us a war crime whose parties are Moscow, Beirut and Damascus,” Mr. Slim said, although there is no clear evidence that Hezbollah or any government played a direct role in bringing the chemicals to Beirut.

In a statement from its media office, Hezbollah condemned Mr. Slim’s killing and called on the Lebanese authorities “to work quickly to uncover the perpetrators and punish them.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Slim drove to southern Lebanon to visit a friend and never returned home. His relatives posted frantic messages on social media that he was not answering his cellphone.

The security forces found his body on Thursday in a car he had rented for the trip, on an isolated road near the southern village of Addoussieh. A coroner said he had been shot six times, including three times in the head.

Mr. al-Amine, Mr. Slim’s friend, said that Mr. Slim’s public positions and the area where his body was found made it likely that Hezbollah had killed him.

“Everyone knows that that area is completely controlled by Hezbollah,” he said.

Mr. Slim’s relatives worried that his would become the latest in Lebanon’s string of unsolved killings.

“I want an investigation and I want his killers to be punished,” said Ms. Borgmann, his wife, emphasizing that she wanted an international investigation because she did not trust the Lebanese authorities to find the truth.

Ms. Slim’s sister, Rasha al Ameer, said he had told her that if he was ever assassinated to consider it “a work accident.” She had been at a police station on Thursday morning to report him as missing when someone had called to give her the news.

Ms. al Ameer, like Ms. Borgmann, said she had little hope that the Lebanese authorities would identify the killers.

“Why should they waste their time going around in the same closed circle?” she said, seeing her brother in the long line of such killings in Lebanon.

“He was not the first, and he will not be the last,” she said.

 

IRANIAN DIPLOMAT IS CONVICTED IN PLOT TO BOMB OPPOSITION RALLY IN FRANCE

Iranian Diplomat Is Convicted In Plot to Bomb Opposition Rally in France
A court in Belgium sentenced Assadollah Assadi, an envoy based in Vienna, to 20 years in prison for his role in a thwarted attack on a group that seeks to overthrow the Iranian leadership.
By Steven Erlanger
New York Times
Feb. 5, 2021

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/world/europe/iranian-diplomat-convicted-bomb-plot.html

BRUSSELS – A Belgian court on Thursday stripped a senior Iranian official of his diplomatic immunity, convicted him of organizing a thwarted bomb attack aimed at an Iranian opposition rally in France in 2018 and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

The Iranian official, Assadollah Assadi, a Vienna-based diplomat detained in Belgium, invoked his diplomatic status in refusing to testify during his trial, which began in November. Mr. Assadi, now 49, received the maximum sentence on charges of attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group. He did not attend the hearing on Thursday at the courthouse in Antwerp.

The conviction is a blow to the Iranian government as it tries to persuade the United States to re-enter the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal before Iranians vote in presidential elections in June.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, claimed in 2018 that the bomb plot allegations were a “false flag” operation designed to embarrass Iran as President Hassan Rouhani prepared to travel to Europe to rally support for the nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump had recently abandoned.

The target of the bomb plot was an annual convention in Villepinte, outside Paris, of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political wing of the Mujahedeen Khalq, or M.E.K. The leader of the council, Maryam Rajavi, is a controversial figure who has been compared to the leader of a cult, as has her husband, Massoud Rajavi, who disappeared during the Iraq war in 2003 and is believed to be dead.

Ms. Rajavi has long argued for a revolution in Iran and says she would act as interim president of a new government. Prosecutors say the bomb plot was aimed at killing her and well-known international figures who also attended the 2018 convention.

Those included Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York; Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker; Louis J. Freeh, the former F.B.I. director; Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico; Stephen Harper, the former prime minister of Canada; and Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian politician. In the past, such figures have been paid large sums of money for their appearances and lobbying activities.

The M.E.K., which Ms. Rajavi also leads, has a complicated history. The group began in opposition to the shah of Iran and later was considered a terrorist organization by the European Union until 2009 and by the United States until 2012.

The Belgian court also convicted three accomplices of Mr. Assadi, all dual citizens of Iran and Belgium, who were given jail terms of 15 to 18 years and stripped of their Belgian citizenship. All three are believed to be agents of the Iranian intelligence ministry, prosecutors said.

The head of Belgium’s State Security Service, Jaak Raes, said in a letter to the prosecutors that intelligence officials had determined the planned bombing was a state-sanctioned operation, approved by Tehran.

A spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the verdict, calling Mr. Assadi’s detention and sentence illegal under international law. “Iran reserves the right to resort to legal and diplomatic means to realize the rights of Assadollah Assadi and hold governments accountable for violating their international obligations,” said the spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.

Mr. Assadi was attached to the Iranian mission in Austria when he supplied explosives for the planned attack. Prosecutors said that he brought about a pound of the explosive triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, and a detonator from Iran to Vienna in his luggage and then drove it to Luxembourg. There, he handed it over on June 30, 2018, to an Iranian-Belgian couple at a Pizza Hut. Mr. Assadi was arrested at a service station in Germany, where he did not have diplomatic immunity, as he drove back to Austria.

The couple, Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife, Nassimeh Naami, 36, had been granted political asylum and later citizenship in Belgium. They were arrested as they drove to Paris from Antwerp on the day of the rally. The fourth defendant, Mehrdad Arefani, 57, was an associate of Mr. Assadi who was supposed to guide the couple at the rally.

Iran has been accused in the past of trying to eliminate opponents abroad. Denmark called for sanctions against Iran for planning another assassination there in 2018.

Mr. Assadi was in contact with Iranian agents all over Europe, according to documents provided to Belgian prosecutors by the police in Germany and the Netherlands, according to Belgium’s Flemish broadcaster, VRT. The documents include a notebook found in his car containing numerous receipts for payments to people identified only by aliases.

A note from Belgium’s intelligence and security agency identified Mr. Assadi as an officer of Iran’s intelligence and security ministry who operated undercover at the Iranian Embassy in Vienna, according to The Associated Press. Belgium’s state security officers said he worked for the ministry’s so-called Department 312, the directorate for internal security, which is on the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations.

 

IRANIAN DIPLOMAT SENTENCED TO 20 YEARS FOR FOILED BOMB PLOT IN FRANCE

Iranian Diplomat Sentenced to 20 Years for Foiled Bomb Plot in France
Assadollah Assadi is the first Iranian diplomat convicted for terrorism in Europe in a case that has soured Iranian relations with a key partner

By Sue Engel Rasmussen
Wall Street Journal
Feb. 5, 2021

https://www.wsj.com/articles/iranian-diplomat-sentenced-to-20-years-for-foiled-bomb-plot-in-france-11612439873

A Belgian court sentenced an Iranian diplomat to 20 years in prison for plotting a bomb attack against a gathering of Iranian dissidents outside Paris in 2018, in a case that has strained Tehran’s ties with Europe.

Assadollah Assadi, a counselor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna, was Thursday convicted of organizing the foiled attack that targeted a rally held by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella opposition group dominated by the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, or MEK.

The court in Antwerp sentenced three other Iranians to 15, 17 and 18 years respectively in prison for collusion, concluding that Iranian state intelligence had ordered the plot.

“The attack plan was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership,” the Belgian state security service VSSE said to the public prosecutor last year.

Mr. Assadi, in prison in Antwerp since 2018, claimed protection by diplomatic immunity and refused to appear at the court hearings. The three others maintained their innocence.

Mr. Assadi’s lawyer said before the verdict that he would appeal a guilty sentence.

A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the verdict, saying that Iran didn’t recognize it and that all stages of the judicial process were illegal and violated international law.

The MEK heralded the verdict as a victory against the Islamic Republic, whose leadership it has worked for nearly 40 years to overthrow.

The group’s leader Maryam Rajavi said the trial had “confirmed the regime’s widespread planning for espionage and terrorism in Europe.” She called on the European Union to recall ambassadors from Tehran and close down Iranian embassies.

The case shows Iran’s willingness to conduct operations and exert political influence in Europe, which has helped keep alive the 2015 nuclear deal and provides a key link for Iran to the West. The verdict marks the first time an Iranian diplomat has been sentenced in Europe for terrorism activities.

Iran denies involvement in the plot, which Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has called a “false flag ploy” meant to tarnish Iranian-European relations.

The foiled plot strained Iran’s ties with Europe as both sides worked to salvage the nuclear deal, which former President Trump withdrew from in 2018. In retaliation to the terror plot, France and the EU froze assets of Iran’s intelligence agency, Mr. Assadi and another agent.

European officials are now concerned that Iran will retaliate by executing Ahmedreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian scientist working in Brussels, who has been sentenced to death for alleged espionage in Iran.

Ahead of the verdict, Iran worked behind the scenes to exchange Mr. Assadi for Mr. Djalali, the officials said.

Iran sees the MEK as a terrorist organization and accuses the group of fomenting public uprisings inside the country, including in late 2017, months before the Paris gathering. The U.S. considered the MEK a terrorist group until 2012, when the Obama administration delisted it after a lawsuit from the group that was backed by its American supporters.

According to the prosecutor, Mr. Assadi, an operative of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, on June 28, 2018, delivered a detonator and a pound of explosive, transferred from Iran in a diplomatic pouch, to an Iranian couple in Luxembourg.

The couple, Nasimeh Naami and Amir Saadouni, who lived in Antwerp, were arrested two days later en route to Villepinte outside Paris, where the MEK gathering took place. A fourth suspect, Mehrdad Arefani, an alleged Iranian mole in the MEK, was arrested at the site. Mr. Assadi was arrested on July 1 at a reststop in Germany, and extradited to Belgium.

European countries have in recent years blamed Iran for other suspected plots against dissidents, including two killings in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017, and a foiled assassination in Denmark in 2018. Albania in 2019 said it had averted several planned attacks by Iranian agents against the MEK, which runs a large camp in the Balkan nation.

A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations didn’t reply this week to requests for comment on Mr. Assadi’s trial. Iran has denied involvement in the plots in Europe. Mr. Zarif has accused European nations of “harboring terrorists.”

Mr. Assadi’s case shows how Iran uses its presence in Europe and the continent’s open borders for intelligence work, particularly through cultural and religious institutions.

His notebook, submitted as evidence, suggested that the diplomat visited locations in 11 different European countries, including Shiite mosques and institutes in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and France. His visits notably included the Islamic Center Hamburg, a hub for pro-Iranian activities in Europe, supervised by a foundation set up by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The German Ministry of Interior has called the Hamburg mosque “one of the most active centers of Iranian propaganda in Europe” whose actual task is “the subtle propagation of an Islamic theocratic state after Iranian example.”

“Iran uses cultural networks for intelligence purposes,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who studied for 14 years at seminaries in Iran’s holy city of Qom. “They want to have a foothold in Europe.”

Norwegian intelligence in November asked the country’s Ministry of Justice to consider expelling a cleric at the Iran-backed Imam Ali Center in Oslo who threatened national security, according to state broadcaster NRK.

British authorities last year investigated the Islamic Centre of England, a charity run by a representative of Mr. Khamenei, after it hosted a vigil attended by 2,000 people for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani who had been killed by the U.S.

 

* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.