Thursday, December 7, 2023

Belgium’s prisoner swap with Iran proves the EU is unwilling to punish state sponsors of terror

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An Iranian terrorist, Asadollah Assadi, is heading home from Belgium just two years into a 20-year sentence. He is the beneficiary of the Islamic Republic’s hostage diplomacy after Iranian officials found a Belgian citizen in their country and imprisoned him to serve as a bargaining chip. Suddenly, crime pays, and innocent lives in Europe and elsewhere are at greater risk.

Belgium has given Iran and its partners proof that under the right circumstances, there is no price to be paid for terrorism in Europe – and that threatens the very foundations of our security and freedoms.

Let us not forget the severity of Assadi’s crimes. He was convicted of masterminding a plot to detonate explosives at a gathering of Iranian dissidents in Paris. He did so under diplomatic cover from the Embassy of Iran in Vienna and was part of Iran’s vast network of intelligence agents engaging in covert operations as a part of its global terror campaign. Thousands, including former American and European officials, and a former prime minister of Canada, would have been killed or injured if law enforcement had not intervened.

The plot was not a misguided individual acting on his own accord, but a calculated operation approved at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic and directed by the Iranian intelligence ministry (MOIS), an institution with a long history of supporting terrorism. It targeted me in a kidnapping scheme. In 2021, the US Department of Justice charged MOIS operatives with kidnapping conspiracy in a plan to rendition me back to Iran, where I risked being executed.

By releasing Assadi, Belgium has effectively granted impunity to a dangerous individual and compromised the fight against terrorism. He is already being welcomed as a hero upon his return to Iran, creating cringeworthy scenes that will be seared into the minds of those who speak out and organize in opposition to Iranian leaders.

In exchange for Assadi, Belgium secured the release of Olivier Vandecasteele, a humanitarian aid worker who was tragically taken hostage by Iran in February 2022. While his return is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, it comes at great unknown costs. Because such concessions signal to rogue nations like Iran, Russia, and North Korea that they can manipulate the safety of innocent civilians to achieve their political objectives, the likelihood of attacks has risen exponentially.

Sweden and other members of the European Union who have citizens held hostage by the Iranian regime must show greater wisdom and responsibility than Belgium by ending their policy of timidity and exacting a price from Iran for its regular practice of taking hostages to deter the barbaric practice. Iranian leaders must feel whiplash in the wake of this reprehensible bargain, so they do not internalize the lesson that the price for terrorism in Europe is zero.

Doing so is not only a moral imperative but strategic. Iran has a track record of taking Western citizens hostage and employing them as bargaining chips to secure the release of frozen funds or incarcerated Iranian citizens in other countries. By rewarding Iran’s hostage-taking tactics, we inadvertently fuel a vicious cycle that encourages further abductions and terrorist activities and jeopardizes the lives of the Iranian diaspora, Europeans, and Americans by incentivizing Tehran’s criminality.

Instead, Europe and the United States should adopt a united front, firmly condemning these actions, applying economic and diplomatic pressure to hold Iran accountable for its actions, and supporting the Iranian people working to dismantle the infrastructure that supports Iran’s criminality.

The European Union can compensate by adding the IRGC to its terrorism list, just like it added a component of MOIS to its terrorism list after the 2018 plot which Assadi spearheaded. It can also work multilaterally with the United States to ensure that once any Western hostage is detained by the Islamic Republic, it will trigger automatic costs and consequences across the democracies of the world. That includes diplomatic isolation. Diplomats of the Iranian regime should not be afforded a red carpet in European capitals while European nationals rot in the Islamic Republic’s prisons and its proxies conspire on new attacks in major cities across the bloc.

It is time for us to take a principled stance, refusing to compromise on our values and the safety of our citizens. We cannot allow Belgium’s decision to become the new normal in international relations. Our response must be resolute and unwavering, ensuring that terrorism and hostage-taking never become permissible means of achieving political ends.

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An Iranian-American journalist and women's rights campaigner. She is a survivor of multiple kidnap and assassination attempts by the Iranian regime.


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