An Iranian diplomat has been jailed for 20 years in connection with a plot to bomb a convention in Paris attended by dissidents and Western officials such as Rudy Giuliani.
In what represents the first time an Iranian official has been convicted outside Iran on terrorism charges, a Belgian court found Assadollah Assadi, 49, and three accomplices guilty, with sentences ranging from 15 to 20 years.
Prosecutors accused Assadi, who worked at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, of presiding over a plot to bomb an event organised by the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, also known as MEK.
Tehran has a long history of targeting opponents of the regime in Europe, killing leading figures of Kurdish, Arab, and leftist groups in covert operation over the four decades since the Islamic Revolution, but no Iranian state representative has ever been held accountable in Europe.
Assadi and his accomplices were caught in a swirling pan-European operation involving Belgian, French and German police. He had travelled to Luxembourg in June 2018, where he passed explosive materials to Belgian nationals Amir Sadouni 40, and his wife Nasimeh Naami, 36, during a meeting at a Pizza Hut. The couple were subsequently arrested in Belgium on their way to France to carry out the attack, and found to be carrying a package containing explosives and a detonator.
In police custody Sadouni and Naami admitted knowing Assadi but denied they knew about the contents of the package he gave them. Assadi was arrested a day later while on holiday in Germany – had he been in Austria his diplomatic immunity could have protected him from arrest – and extradited to Belgium.
Mehrdad Arefani, 57, an Iranian poet based in Belgium, was also arrested in Paris for involvement in the plot, according to court documents.
MEK is a cultish leftist militant group which has had a turbulent history with the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution, including fighting a guerrilla campaign against the Ayatollah during the 1980s.
The group was delisted as a terrorist organisation by the EU in 2009, and has around 4,000 active members according to the government of Albania, where in 2016 MEK members set up shop in a mysterious compound.
During the presidency of Donald Trump, the group gained an oversized lobbying power, as the administration looked for allies as part of its signature policy of maximum pressure upon Iran.
The June 2018 conference outside Paris organised by MEK was attended by exiled opposition leader Maryam Rajavi and a number of other Iranian dissidents living abroad. Trump’s personal lawyer Giuliani was also in attendance, as were other European and Arab officials.
John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Adviser well known for his hawkish views on Iran, addressed the group's event in the U.S in 2017.
Assadi, registered as the third counsellor at Iran's embassy in Vienna, refused to attend the trial sessions in Belgium, citing diplomatic immunity. Prosecutors argued that his diplomatic protection only applied in Austria.
The Iranian government has denied any involvement in the plot and described the allegation of any state role as a “shallow fabrication”, but after Assadi’s arrest the ministry of foreign affairs summoned European envoys in Tehran, calling the arrest a violation of the Vienna conventions.
Following the verdicts, Rajavi chaired an online virtual event in celebration, which was attended by Western officials, including Stephen Harper, former Prime Minister of Canada.
MEK members attending the video conference wore military uniforms and waved flags as she called for justice, and urged the people to topple what she called Iran’s "clergy" regime.
Speaking outside the court in Antwerp after the verdicts were announced, Georges-Henri Beauthier, the Belgian prosecution lawyer, told reporters: "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."