- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2021

A Belgian court on Thursday sentenced a senior Iranian diplomat to 20 years in prison Thursday on charges he plotted to carry out a terrorist attack against a major rally held by an Iranian dissident group near Paris in 2018.

Assadolah Assadi, who was accused of operating on orders from Iranian intelligence, was found guilty of plotting an elaborate bomb attack that ultimately got thwarted against the annual rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a group that advocates for the overthrow of the Islamic regime in Tehran.

The case, coming at a sensitive moment between the U.S., Europe and Iran over the future of the struggling Iranian nuclear deal, was the first trial in Europe of suspected terrorism by an

Iranian government official since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The U.S. government has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. The Iranian government has long sharply rejected the designation and has denied involvement in the Assadi plot, although European authorities charged that the 49-year-old diplomat operated from the Iranian Embassy in Vienna.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, a speaker at past NCRI rallies, told a webinar hosted by the group Thursday the verdict in the case “validated” the characterization of Iran as a sponsor of international terrorist activity.

“The United States and the EU, and frankly, freedom-loving nations around the world who have embraced the notion of a accountability and the rule of law owe an incredible debt of gratitude to the people of Belgium, their judicial system [and] their security service for their courage, for their thoroughness in this investigation,” said Mr. Ridge.

Assadi was tried in the Belgian port city of Antwerp along with the three others, who were also arrested after police foiled the 2018 plot. Agence France-Presse reported Thursday that Assadi was charged with “attempted murders of a terrorist nature” and “taking part in the activity of a terrorist group.”

Assadi, a Vienna-based diplomat detained in Belgium, refused to testify during his trial last year, citing his status as a diplomat. He did not attend Thursday’s hearing at the Antwerp courthouse, but has reportedly warned of unspecified retaliation if he was convicted.

The Belgian-Iranian couple Nasimeh Naami, 36, and Amir Saadouni, 40, accused of accepting explosives and a detonator from Assadi before all three were arrested, were also sentenced Thursday. Naami received an 18-year sentence and Saadouni 15 years, and that Belgium-based Iranian poet Mehrdad Arefani, who also acted as an accomplice, was sentenced to 17 years.

The NCRI claims the thwarted bombing plot was ordered by Tehran with the goal of assassinating NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi at the dissident group’s annual rally. The group, which has long been in the crosshairs of Iran’s theocratic government, hailed Thursday’s rulings.

“The conviction of the regime’s diplomat and his three accomplices in the Court of Belgium is indeed the conviction of the clerical regime in its entirety,” Mrs. Rajavi said in a statement. “This is a brilliant triumph for the Iranian people and resistance and a heavy political and diplomatic blow to the clerical regime in Iran.”

Iran’s government has denied involvement, but the verdict shines a light on Tehran’s shadowy international operations at a moment when Tehran is talking hopefully of a better relationship with the Biden administration after President Trump renounced the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed harsh economic sanctions.

The NCRI has insisted without offering evidence that Assadi operated on direct orders from Iran’s highest authorities. In addition to aggressive international campaign calling for regime change in Iran, the NCRI is known for its association with the so-called Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a group that is detested by Iranian authorities.

The MEK is the most structured of exiled Iranian opposition groups and has a long history in Washington. The group was itself once listed as a terrorist organization, but was removed from U.S. and EU terrorism lists several years ago after denouncing violence and recruiting well-known Western politicians and diplomats to plead its cause.

The 2018 rally drew a crowd estimated at 25,000 and  featured speeches by some with close ties to the Trump administration, including President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Legal documents obtained by The Associated Press say Belgium’s intelligence and security agency (VSSE) said they believe Assadi worked for the Iranian intelligence ministry’s so-called Department 312, the directorate for internal security, which is on the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations.

Belgian officials Thursday said the prosecution was a legal case based on the country’s own terror laws, and said international relations and politics played no role in the verdict.

⦁ This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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