This week that the Belgian parliament ratified a treaty that is expected to set the stage for the exchange of an Iranian terrorist for a Belgian national who is being held hostage in the Islamic Republic. Olivier Vandecasteele was taken into custody by Iranian authorities in February, approximately one year after a Belgian court handed down a 20-year sentence for the Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, for his leadership of a plot to bomb an Iranian opposition gathering near Paris in 2018.
The timing of the arrest left little question about Tehran’s intention to link the cases, and opponents of the treaty for “Transfer for Sentenced Persons” are understandably concerned that Assadi’s release could give the Iranian regime clear incentives to accelerate its practice of hostage-taking. Awareness of these concerns no doubts influenced the Belgian government’s decision to keep the treaty a secret until it was presented to parliament at the end of last month. It was reportedly negotiated roughly four months earlier, following bilateral meetings between the Iranian and Belgian foreign ministers on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
As Iranian state media described it, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian presented his Belgian counterpart with the regime’s “position and views” on the Assadi case during those meetings and reiterated longstanding demands for his immediate and unconditional release. Ever since his arrest, Assadi and his handlers in Tehran have been repeating the argument that because his activities took place under diplomatic cover, he is entitled to blanket immunity, regardless of the location or severity of his crimes.
The Belgian-Iranian treaty effectively provides that immunity after the fact, by allowing for an Iranian citizen in the Belgian prison system to be returned to his homeland, where authorities are explicitly vested with the power to grant him amnesty upon arrival. Tehran’s persistent narrative about this case should leave no doubt that that is exactly what the regime will do if the treaty is fully implemented.
Despite yea votes from 79 of the Belgian parliament’s 131 members, that implementation is still not a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the principal source of lingering doubt is the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s assurance that it will continue to pursue challenges and political action to prevent Assadi’s transfer.
“Any relocation of criminals that are responsible for terrorism and human rights violations, without serving legally mandated punishment, is to encourage and offer a ransom for terrorism and human rights violations and a breach of international laws,” said Maryam Rajavi, leader of the NCRI coalition and the person designated to serve as transitional president in Iran following the current regime’s overthrow.
Endorsement of that coalition generally presupposes serious frustration with existing policies toward the Islamic Republic. NCRI officials have variously accused Western nations, both individually and collectively, of “appeasing” the theocratic regime in hopes of encouraging its internal reform. Outrage over the Belgian treaty is one of the strongest recent examples of this phenomenon, insofar as it highlights appeasing gestures as they relate to what could have been the worst terrorist attack on Europe by a foreign entity.
The trial of Assadollah Assadi confirmed that he had not been acting as a rogue agent but had been directly ordered to target the NCRI and Mrs. Rajavi specifically, by officials at the very top of the ruling system. As a result, Assadi procured 500 grams of high explosives and a detonator from the regime and smuggled it into Europe on a commercial flight, using a diplomatic pouch, before handing it off to two co-conspirators.
Experts testified that the explosives in question had the potential to kill hundreds of people in the initial blast, which would have no doubt sparked a stampede that could have raised the death toll into the thousands. The 2018 Free Iran World Summit was estimated to have been attended by around 100,000 people, including many of the aforementioned American and European supporters.
It is easy to understand the NCRI’s criticism of any policy that seems to downplay the significance of such a plot, and that is exactly what the Belgian treaty does by setting the stage for Assadi’s release just four years into his unquestionably well-deserved 20-year sentence. Others have argued and will continue to argue that his release is necessary to free Vandecasteele, a Belgian aid worker, from conditions that have already had a serious impact on his health and well-being. But there are other means of accomplishing that aim, which unfortunately remains little-explored by Western policymakers.
The NCRI and its supporters have long maintained that comprehensive pressure on regime institutions is the only way of impeding malign activities such as hostage taking. But regime change is the only means of halting those activities once and for all.