Following the conviction of Iranian diplomat Assodallah Assadi on charges of terrorism, Steve McCabe MP asks whether the international community can rely on counterterrorism operations when Iran doesn't take them seriously.

The United Kingdom restored full diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2015, less than four years after the closure of its embassy in Tehran, following an attempted occupation by supporters of the Iranian regime. It was a questionable decision but indicative of the focus on the Iran nuclear deal which was still taking shape at the time. Among the issues overshadowed by that deal was the risk that we were inviting espionage and terrorism by playing host to the diplomatic representatives of a brutal and hostile regime that doesn't observe the social niceties of normal diplomatic behaviour.

On the continent, that danger was very clearly exposed when in 2018, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat was arrested in connection with a plot to bomb a Paris conference centre. Assadollah Assadi went on trial last November, following a two-and-a-half-year investigation, and was finally found guilty, along with his co-conspirators on 4 February 2021. He had smuggled the explosives into Europe while travelling on a diplomatic passport.

Prosecutors in Assadi's case were clear that the Iranian Diplomat, based at his country's embassy in Vienna, was acting under orders from the regime's leadership when he attempted to arrange the murder of leading members of the Iranian opposition and politicians from all around the globe, including a number of senior British and American figures, at a rally on the outskirts of Paris.

The target was an event organised by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of opposition groups who support a free and democratic Iran, including the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). This movement has been at the forefront of a nationwide uprising in Iran since the beginning of 2018.

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It appears the regime feared the demonstrations and rising challenge of the opposition to such an extent that Assadi was given instructions to ensure the bomb was placed as close as possible to NCRI President-elect, Maryam Rajavi.

The activities of other Iranian diplomats have also come under suspicion. In 2018 France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Albania all expelled Iranians because of activities incompatible with their diplomatic status.  Assadi's case has revealed just how vulnerable much of Western Europe appears to be to an Iranian terrorist network that overlaps its diplomatic infrastructure. At the time of his arrest, on July 1, 2018, Assadi was found to be in possession of receipts and documents indicating that he had traveled among at least 11 European countries, delivering cash payments to various assets. The assumption is that there are still several contacts and 'sleeper cells' across Europe, capable of being activated in the same way that Assadi mobilized his co-conspirators for the Villepinte plot.

Transcripts of his interrogation reveal Assadi warning that there are many Iran-backed terror groups throughout the world and that they would be watching how the European authorities behaved. The Iranian Foreign Minister criticised the French, German and Belgian authorities for not observing proper diplomatic arrangements while conveniently ignoring that one of his diplomats was charged with serious terrorist offences. It is hoped that the guilty verdict will send a clear message that western governments will not turn a blind eye to such threats, nor allow offenders to hide behind a diplomatic façade.

What is strange about this affair, is Tehran's decision to abandon its usual modus operandi of using proxies or hired guns for such attacks. The direct involvement of such a prominent diplomat hints at just how troubled the regime is by the opposition and how desperate to strike a fatal blow. It seems that the frustration in Tehran was so great that the regime was not only willing to carry out an attack in the heart of Europe but do so in full awareness that it would almost certainly kill several high-profile Western politicians and citizens.

The plot was comprehensively thwarted as a result of cooperation between a number of European countries and intelligence and police agencies but the international community cannot count on such successful counterterrorism operations in perpetuity, especially if the Iranian authorities don't fear too many consequences for such behaviour.

In the wake of Assadi's verdict, neither the UK nor its allies can afford to repeat the mistakes of 2015 by rushing to reinforce normal diplomatic relations without first securing meaningful guarantees from the Iranian regime. In fact, if this regime cannot give absolutely convincing assurances that it will never again promote terrorist plots on European soil and never again allow its embassies and diplomatic missions to be used for such purposes, then there is little purpose in persisting with diplomatic relations or allowing an Iranian embassy on our soil.

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