By Omid Saleh
There has been a recent upsurge in terrorist activities by the Iranian regime. Last week, it was revealed that a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had attempted to contract professional assassins to kill the former White House national security advisor John Bolton. That same operative, Shahram Poursafi, was reportedly also developing plans for a similar attack on former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in keeping with prior threats from Iranian officials upset over the 2020 drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s foreign special operations division, the Quds Force.
Bolton and Pompeo were only two of the dozens of American political and military figures sanctioned or otherwise labeled by the Iranian government as bearing responsibility for that killing. It is only natural to assume that the IRGC or Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security have actively pursued terrorist plots against at least some of them, especially considering that no one has yet faced consequences for known incidents.
Although the US Department of Justice has filed charges against Poursafi, he remains at large elsewhere in the world, and it is unclear whether any effort is being made to secure an international arrest warrant or pursue his extradition. Meanwhile, it is equally unclear whether certain US allies would even be amenable to such a request. Known Iranian terrorists have been let go by European authorities at various times in the past, and there is an imminent risk of this trend recurring in the near future, under the most alarming circumstances.
Last month, the Belgian parliament confirmed a treaty that allows for Iranian citizens who have been convicted of crimes in Belgium to be transferred to the Islamic Republic, ostensibly to serve out their sentences there. But the treaty explicitly allows for the Iranian judiciary to commute or vacate the sentences in question, and it is generally understood that it would do just that if the treaty were applied to the case of Assadollah Assadi, as expected.
In 2018, Assadi was arrested in Germany after co-conspirators failed in an attempt to bomb the annual gathering of the Iranian Resistance (Mujahedin-e Khalq, also referred to as MEK, AKA PMOI) and political supporters which took place just outside Paris. Had it been successful, that plot would have almost certainly resulted in the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of attendees, including American and European lawmakers and foreign affairs experts who were seated close to the plot’s main target, the Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi.
Soon after that plot unraveled, it was revealed that Assadi had personally smuggled explosives into Europe on a commercial flight, using his credentials as third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna in order to conceal them in a diplomatic pouch. His trial in Belgium revealed that Assadi had been acting upon orders from the most senior officials in Iran’s ruling system. Consequently, opponents of that system praised the resulting 20-year prison sentence for the plot’s mastermind, but criticized Western powers’ apparent disinterest in demanding accountability from those higher authorities.
This lack of follow-through has no doubt been a contributing factor in the more recent escalation of Iranian terrorist threats, of which the plot to assassinate John Bolton is only one example. The month before that plot was revealed, Albanian authorities executed search warrants for a number of properties associated with Iranian nationals. The action was specifically described as being taken to prevent possible terrorist acts, but credible threats of the same were apparently still being recognized at least a week later. On June 23, the MEK, was compelled to postpone a major rally that was scheduled to take place at the organization’s main site in Albania, Ashraf 3.
That compound, home to around 3,000 MEK members including exiled leadership. The MEK was already the target of another thwarted plot in 2018, roughly three months before the attempted bombing of the summit near Paris, which was organized by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The emergence of similar threats more than four years later is clear evidence that the regime and its operatives have not been deterred. And in light of developments like the discussion of Assadi’s release, one could argue that they have actually been encouraged.
Unfortunately, the treaty between Belgium and Iran fits into a long history of conciliatory dealings with the clerical regime.
The recent terrorist threats demonstrate that Iranian officials hold little concern for the potential impact on those negotiations, from which the regime desperately needs a positive conclusion in order to salvage its failing economy. The United States and the European Union have given Tehran few reasons to believe that any other outcome is possible, and so Iranian negotiators have been proceeding based on the question of how many concessions they can extract from the process while also maintaining a belligerent posture that serves as catnip for its fundamentalist supporters both at home and abroad.
That commitment to confrontational foreign policy amplifies the terrorist threat not just from professional agents of the Iranian regime but also from mere admirers of the theocratic system and the IRGC. It is not yet certain which of these descriptions better suits Hadi Matar, the person who attacked the author Salman Rushdie last week based on a 33-year old fatwa issued by the founder of the clerical regime, Ruhollah Khomeini. But what is known is that Matar had voiced praise for the IRGC on social media and was emboldened by the escalating rhetoric from that institution and the regime as a whole, as well as the corresponding silence from Western powers.
The fatwa demanding Rushdie’s death was issued at a time of particular vulnerability for the clerical regime. Only months earlier, Khomeini had issued another fatwa which called for the death of anyone believed to be supporting the MEK. As a result, roughly 30,000 political prisoners were executed that summer.
Tehran is no doubt eager to inspire a similar sense of purpose today, while many of the country’s religiously moderate and secular citizens are participating in near-constant protests against the clerical regime. Since 2018, this protest movement has manifested in multiple nationwide uprisings, each of them featuring slogans like “death to the dictator” and widespread endorsement of the democratic vision promoted by the MEK and the NCRI.
The international community could easily help the Iranian people to realize that vision, but in order to do so they must be willing to unequivocally condemn the existing regime and disavow conciliatory policies once and for all. And a good place to start here at home is to make sure, Assadollah Assadi, the convicted terrorist-diplomat will not be sent back to Iran under the pretext of the recent agreement with the regime.
Omid Saleh is a lifetime human rights activist and writer with a special interest in Middle East Politics. Project manager at Alliance for Public Awareness