A courthouse in Belgium on Thursday convicted an Iranian diplomat identified as an undercover agent of masterminding a thwarted bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France in 2018. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison after his claim of diplomatic immunity was rejected. His three accomplices got 18, 17 and 15 years each.
The prime culprit, Assadollah Assadi, a Vienna-based diplomat who was detained in Belgium, did not testify during his trial last year, invoking his diplomatic status. He did not attend Thursday's hearing at the Antwerp courthouse, but Austria cancelled Assadi's diplomatic immunity in 2018. He is likely to appeal.
Two other defendants, Nasimeh Naami and Amir Saadouni, a Belgian-Iranian couple, were sentenced to 17 and 15 years respectively. On 30 June 2018, they were arrested in possession of a bomb in their car on their way to France. They claimed the explosives were not sufficiently powerful to kill.
The fourth accomplice, Mehrdad Arefani, described by the prosecution as a relative of Assadi, was sentenced to 18 years in jail. He denied any involvement and pleaded for his acquittal.
The message conveyed by the harsh sentences is, according to Iranian lawyer Ardavan Amir-Aslani, founder of the Paris-based cabinet Cohen Amir-Aslani, to inform Iran "that it is not in their best interest to conduct terrorist attacks on European territory."
What was the target of the planned attack?
The planned bombing was aimed at a gathering that took place on 30 June 2018 in the conference center in Villepinte, a Paris suburb, organised by the National Council for Resistance in Iran (NCRI), the political wing of the People's Mujahedeen, or Mujaheddin-e-Khalk (MEK).
Present were some 25,000 people including the group's current leader, Marjam Rajavi and several international heavyweights, including US President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Also attending were Newt Gingrich, former conservative speaker of the US House of Representatives, and Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
The group itself was founded in 1965 by Massoud Rajavi, as a militant opposition to fight the Shah and organised around a strict Marxist-Leninist hierarchy.
Initially the group aimed to link up with Ayatollah Khomeini, but the religious leader banned the organisation after he successfully overthrew the Shah in 1979.
The MEK reacted with a massive, nationwide bombing campaign, which Tehran answered with waves of arrests and executions.
The group then found refuge in Iraq where they were trained by Saddam Hussein who put tanks and military equipment at their disposal.
After Saddam’s demise, they eventually moved to a camp in Albania, funded with €17 million of US money intended to be used to “de-radicalise” the group's 3,000 members.
Because of their links with Saddam, the MEK "are unanimously despised by every Iranian political denomination from monarchist to those who are fans of the current political regime," Amir-Aslani told RFI.
The MEK in France
Meanwhile, the political wing of the MEK, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) found shelter in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town outside Paris, where they have a walled compound.
The group's current leader is Maryam Rajavi, wife of the founder Massoud Rajavi who disappeared in 2003. It is not known if he is still alive.
In its fight, the group also targeted Americans and was on the State Department’s list of terrorist organisations from 1997 and on the EU terrorist list.
But things had already started to change in 2002, when the MEK revealed Iran’s nuclear programme.
The revelations, based on satellite pictures, triggered a massive international response resulting in calls for sanctions that were eventually imposed against Iran.
During subsequent years of intensive lobbying, the NCRI managed to get itself off EU (2009) and US (2012) terrorist lists, presenting themselves as a democratic alternative to the current regime in Iran.
Will the case complicate the Iran-EU relationship?
In its ruling, the court made it clear that Iran was not on trial, but insisted the defendants were members of a cell operating for Iran’s intelligence services, gathering information about the opposition group to identify targets and set up an attack.
Assadi’s conviction comes at a critical time and has the potential to embarrass his country as US President Joe Biden’s administration weighs whether to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. Iran also said last month it expects Washington to lift economic sanctions that former President Donald Trump imposed on the country after pulling America out of the atomic deal in 2018.
"The Europeans are well aware that this specific organisation of opponents of the regime doesn't represent much aside from themselves," according to Amir-Aslani.
"If you look into the events that they organise, aside from people coming from the loony side of the Republican Party, like Giuliani and Bolton, rare are the credible people who show up. So this will have no impact whatsoever on Iran and the Iranian-European relationship," he says.