The European Union’s head of foreign policy, Josep Borrell, is scheduled to take part in the three-day Europe-Iran Business Forum that began Monday, alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and a host of other participants. Borrell’s decision to participate is effectively an affirmation of legitimacy for Zarif and the terrorist regime he represents. This would have been questionable in the best of circumstances, but it is absolutely reckless in the wake of recent developments.
On February 4, a serving Iranian diplomat was found guilty of plotting to set off explosives in the heart of Europe, targeting an opposition rally that had been organized for June 30, 2018 by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian federal court while three co-conspirators received between 15 and 18 years each.
The trial was the first ever instance of an Iranian official facing charges in Europe for terrorist activity. The evidence also revealed that Assadi operated a network of terrorist agents across Europe. The case demonstrated clear evidence that Assadi was not acting on his own initiative but on direct orders from Tehran.
Documents recovered from Assadi’s vehicle showed that he had traveled among at least 11 European countries in recent years, delivering cash payments to operatives in his network. These details were highlighted by various European lawmakers and former government officials even before the guilty verdict was announced.
High-profile former officials from more than a dozen European countries have said that the activities of Iran’s embassies, religious and cultural centers need to be scrutinized and the diplomatic relations with Iran need to be downgraded. Dozens of members of the European Parliament also echoed similar calls to the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
These lawmakers have stressed that European trade relations with the regime must be “contingent on the improvement of the human rights situation in Iran and an end to the regime’s terrorism on European soil.” But the advance schedule for the Europe-Iran Business Forum suggests that this advice has been rejected by the EU’s top foreign policy official.
The further lineup for the Business Forum includes at least one European ambassador to Iran, making the event a de facto rejection of recommendations for both economic and diplomatic responses to Assadi’s conviction. The result will be the reinforcement of a longstanding sense of impunity among leading regime officials.
According to the NCRI, the attempted attack in Paris in June 2018 had been ordered by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in the wake of input from both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, who chaired the meeting. The decision represented the regime’s readiness to embrace substantial risk to damage its main opposition, even in the presence of political dignitaries who had traveled to Paris from throughout Europe and the rest of the world to show support for the NCRI’s cause of regime change and democratic governance.
Had the attack not been thwarted, it is very likely that the death toll would have run into the hundreds and included a number of European politicians and foreign policy experts.
The regime may have had significant grounds for believing that the risk wasn’t as great as one might assume. That conclusion no doubt stemmed from every bit of un-earned praise that has been heaped upon Zarif and Rouhani in spite of their full-throated defense of Iran’s abysmal human rights record.
But Rouhani and Zarif’s assumption of impunity also reflects a longstanding feature of the entire regime and its relationship with Western “adversaries.” In the interest of retaining access to Iranian markets or avoiding the political challenge of directly confronting the Iranian regime, those supposed adversaries have turned a blind eye to much of Iran’s malign behavior over the years, often focusing only on those, like the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, that have extremely far-reaching security implications.
In 1988, for instance, Iranian democracy activists raised alarms about escalating political violence that would soon lead to the systematic execution of approximately 30,000 prisoners of conscience at the time. The massacre found its way into the language of a routine UN resolution on Iran’s human rights situation, but Western governments and international bodies declined to follow up in any meaningful way. The main target of that massacre, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), is also the main constituent group in the NCRI coalition, and was therefore the main target of the 2018 terror plot, as well.
The plot represents exactly the sorts of far-reaching security implications that sometimes motivate Western pressure on the regime. It also highlights the remarkable continuity that can be achieved between pressure on the regime’s violent foreign policies and its domestic repression of dissent.
Western permissiveness has only emboldened the regime, and the Business Forum promises to give Tehran the impression that even in the wake of a foiled terror plot in the heart of Europe, nothing has changed. Those who recognize the persistent threat emanating from the regime must therefore work to contradict this impression as soon as possible.
Giulio Terzi (@GiulioTerzi) was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy (2011-2013) and Ambassador to the United States (2009-2011).