Just after midday on June 30, 2018, Belgian police surrounded a Mercedes-Benz being driven by a Belgian-Iranian couple through Brussels. The couple had set off on a four-hour journey to Paris that morning and did not know unmarked police vehicles had been tailing them since they left their rented accommodations in Antwerp. When they took a detour through the Belgian capital after hitting traffic on the motorway, police swooped in.
With guns drawn, officers warned Amir Saadouni, 40, and his female accomplice, Nasimeh Naami, 36, to exit the car slowly. Saadouni and Naami were handcuffed and taken into custody. A search of the car uncovered a large suitcase containing a bomb made of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) – an extremely volatile explosive known as the “mother of Satan” because just tiny quantities of it can cause catastrophic damage. In the passenger foot-well was a women’s make-up bag that held a disguised detonator.
According to Belgian prosecutors, Saadouni and Naami had planned to plant the bomb at a political rally in Villepinte, on the outskirts of Paris. The annual event, which was attended by tens of thousands of people, had been organized by Iran’s exiled opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI). High-profile attendees included Donald Trump’s former lawyer Rudy Giuliani, ex-speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, as well as dozens of parliamentarians from European Union member states, and five British MPs. The couple evidently hoped to kill hundreds, if not thousands of people, but their primary target was NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi, who delivered the keynote speech that afternoon.
Less than 24 hours after this terrorist attack was foiled, another covert police operation was carried out successfully. This time, it was German police who stopped a car close to the Austrian border and arrested its driver and alleged mastermind of the previous day’s terrorist plot, Vienna-based Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi.
The case of the Iranian bomb-plotters finally drew to a close in February this year when a judge at Antwerp Criminal Court sentenced the trio to prison terms ranging from 15 to 20 years on various terrorism charges. A fourth defendant, Mehrdad Arefani, was given a 17-year term after being found guilty of being a co-conspirator. Saadouni, Naami and Arefani were also stripped of their dual Belgian citizenship.
The Iranian bomb plot could be the tip of the iceberg. Iran’s European terrorist network appears to stretch far deeper than an isolated incident. Evidence presented in court indicates Assadi was not simply a rogue agent. Rather, he was operating with the knowledge and authority of his superiors in Tehran. As well as being a third counselor for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, he was also a senior officer within the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). He had been, as the French Government contended, instructed by Iranian intelligence to organize at least one terrorist attack in Paris – something Tehran has vehemently denied.
Assadi refused to stand in the dock in court. He claimed he should be immune from such proceedings by virtue of his diplomatic status. However, German police demonstrated his diplomatic immunity did not extend beyond Austria, and they were able to extradite him to Belgium. Evidence presented before the judge shows Assadi did not spend all that much time at his embassy office. Instead, he appears to have been busy travelling across Europe, visiting countries including Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. His visits rarely lasted longer than a day, and neither he nor the Iranian Embassy could produce any documentation that indicated he went to any of these locations in a professional capacity.
ACCORDING TO receipts seized by German police, Assadi used the holiday website booking.com to reserve rooms at budget hotels. Investigators established he had visited 289 locations across 11 European countries. While traveling, he allegedly met scores of unidentified Iranian citizens at busy restaurants, department stores and tourist sites. A notebook found in Assadi’s car when he was arrested shows he logged every one of these meetings and recorded payments to these individuals.
If there was a plausible explanation for his extensive travel, Assadi was not forthcoming with it. What seems more likely is that he had been helping to operate a spy network across Europe – a web of Iranian operatives who could be called upon to launch terrorist attacks against targets on European soil.
In interviews with investigators, Saadouni and Naami admitted they were contacted in 2015 by an Iranian agent calling himself Daniel, who was later revealed to be Assadi. The couple agreed to meet him in Munich in the summer of 2015, and were paid 4,000 euros for expenses. They exchanged a number of emails with Assadi over the next few months before allegedly meeting him again at the MIOS headquarters in Tehran in November 2015.
During that meeting, they are believed to have received instructions to gather information about the headquarters of their eventual target, the NCRI, in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. Over the course of the next two years, the couple met with Assadi on a number of occasions in various European cities, including Munich, Milan and Vienna. During this time, Assadi also transferred more than 200,000 euros to the duo in numerous smaller transactions.
Belgian, German and Austrian police have not revealed the identity of the individuals Assadi met with as logged in his notebook. The NCRI, which acted as civil plaintiffs in the case, has accused the Iranian MIOS of using operatives, working legally as diplomats in European embassies, to organize a vast network of terrorist sleeper cells across Europe. Assadi was able to use his cover as a diplomat to smuggle the TATP bomb in a diplomatic bag on a commercial flight from Iran to Austria.
Assadi’s conviction – the first of an Iranian official on such charges in Europe since the 1979 Islamic Revolution – raises some serious questions about the EU’s Iran policy. While the Belgian judiciary made it clear in its ruling that the Iranian state was not on trial, it said it accepted Assadi had been operating at the behest of Iran’s intelligence services. For a long time, Iran has been seen as the Middle East’s problem, and its terrorist threat has been confined to that region. The Assadi affair, however, shows the Iranian state may be implicated in the commission of terrorist atrocities in Europe.
The Belgian state security service warned the court the bomb plot was devised by Iranian leadership, and yet the EU has refused to draw Iran into the actions of Assadi and his accomplices. EU spokesman Peter Stano framed the attempted attack as the action of an individual, rather than state-sponsored terrorism. The case shows that the EU needs to be alert to the threat posed by Iran. Its policy of appeasement is simply not working and the bloc now needs to take a robust stance on Iran. The NCRI has suggested downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran and reviewing the status of its embassies. Without swift action, Iran will only be emboldened.
The writer is a freelance journalist who splits her time between London and Tel Aviv. She has contributed to newspapers and media organizations including the BBC, Daily Mail, Daily Star and Daily Mirror.