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The full Belgian parliament is expected to soon vote on a treaty that was signed in March between the governments of Belgium and Iran. The Foreign Relations Committee of Belgium’s lower house approved the measure this week. If ratified, the treaty would allow for persons convicted of a crime in one country to serve out their sentences in the county where they hold primary citizenship. There is no doubt that it has been written to set the stage for a prisoner swap involving the Iranian terrorist Assadollah Assadi, and perhaps also his co-conspirators in the plot to bomb the 2018 gathering of Iranian expatriates organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Assadi held a position of high rank in the Iranian regime’s embassy in Vienna when he used his diplomatic status to evade normal security screenings and smuggle an explosive device from Iran to Europe on a commercial flight.
Attendance at that rally was estimated at around 100,000. As we have on many occasions, dozens of political dignitaries traveled to the venue just outside of Paris, to hear the keynote address by NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi and to deliver our own speeches in support of her vision for a free, democratic future for the Iranian people. I can attest to the devastation that no doubt would have been caused by the explosion had Assadi’s plot not been thwarted by European law enforcement.
The investigation into that plot established that Mrs. Rajavi was its main target. That being the case, its success likely would have involved the deaths and injuries of many European and American dignitaries, as they were seated close to the stage where she was to speak.
In reacting to news of the pending treaty, Mrs. Rajavi correctly reiterated that the plot for which Assadollah Assadi was arrested had clear potential to be the worst terrorist attack on European soil up to that point. As one of the potential victims of that plot, I join her in expressing disbelief and outrage at the notion of releasing to his home country after serving only four years of his 20-year sentence, in exchange for one or more European nationals who were arrested on false charges for the express purpose of using them as bargaining chips in situations like this.
Even if the prospective exchange were in any sense even, it is laughable to think that Assadi would actually be made to serve the rest of his sentence in any of Iran’s notorious prison facilities. Tehran has made it clear on numerous occasions that it wants nothing less than complete freedom for its terrorist operative. The regime has maintained that position since his arrest on July 1, 2018, despite never actually disputing the charges levied against him.
Ratification of the treaty between Belgium and Iran would arguably legitimize that claim and even add to its absurdity by implying that Iranian citizenship is alone sufficient to win a person immunity from a sentence handed down by a Belgian court. In this way, it would effectively constitute an invitation for Iranian terrorists of every stripe to try their luck at attacking Iranian expatriate dissidents and activists, secure in the knowledge that even if they are caught in the act, the worst consequences they will have to endure are to remain in a European jail long enough for the Iranian judiciary to manufacture charges against another European national and offer him or her in exchange.
As it stands, Tehran is no stranger to this practice. At least 18 dual and foreign nationals are currently known to be held hostage in Iran, serving sentences for spurious national security charges and awaiting exchange for Iranians who have committed sanctions violations and other actual crimes in the West.
The unrest in Iran has made Iranian authorities increasingly desperate to reassert their power, especially in light of the fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech in January 2018 which acknowledged that a then-ongoing uprising reflected the growing influence of the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK). It was out of a desire to strike a blow against that organization that the regime’s leading authorities ordered Assadollah Assadi to lead the operation which sought to bomb the June 2018 Free Iran rally.
The MEK’s influence at home has only continued to grow, so it is only a matter of time before the regime tries once again to strike a blow against Iranian dissidents on European or American soil. Assadi’s release, or even the hint of that release’s potential, would no doubt give the regime even more incentive to launch such an attack. Even if every such plot is foiled, the danger to Western nationals will grow in every place where Iran’s intelligence service is present. So, for the sake of both domestic and international security, every Belgian lawmaker must vote against the pending treaty, and their counterparts throughout Europe and North America must emphasize that there can be no impunity for terrorists.
Ken Blackwell is the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.