Cameron Khansarinia is policy director of the National Union for Democracy in Iran. Kaveh Shahrooz is a lawyer and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Canada.
On July 14, the Swedish judiciary struck a blow to international justice when it sentenced Hamid Nouri – an Iranian prison officer involved in the mass murder of political prisoners – to life in prison. The verdict informed the world’s human rights abusers that Europe would not be their safe haven.
Unfortunately, what Stockholm gives, Brussels takes away.
Just a few days after Nouri’s sentence was announced, the Belgian parliament ratified a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran. Belgium signed the treaty to release one of its own people, a aid worker named Olivier Vandecasteele, who is languishing in an Iranian prison on dubious charges of espionage. And as a result of the agreement, it is likely to release Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of blowing up an opposition rally in Paris — though there are indications that the Belgian courts may constitute an obstacle to this plan.
But let’s not mince words: Vandecasteele is a hostage held by Iran for ransom. But by swapping a convicted terrorist for him, Belgium is paving the way for even more terrorism and for more Europeans held hostage. We know because we’ve seen this happen before.
Two years ago, we wrote about the Iranian regime’s decades-long international terror campaign in the West, warning the United States government that the only way to stop this practice was to press and push back.
Unfortunately, our warnings went unheeded, and just a few months after the article was published, the FBI announced a Hollywood-esque plot by Tehran to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist and activist, take her to Iran, and probably kill her.
We fear that the same precedent is now being set in Europe. In particular, we believe this week’s treaty will have two devastating results.
The first of these will be more attacks. Assadi had planned his terrorist attack while serving as Iran’s envoy in Vienna, and the Islamic Republic probably has many more such agents across Europe. Knowing that prisoner bartering is an easy option, Tehran will now instruct more “diplomats” and other agents to engage in terrorism.
The regime will pursue Iranian human rights activists and opposition figures living abroad even more brutally than before. These activists fled Iran in search of safety. Now they will have to live in fear of the regime’s long, and increasingly muscular arm in every corner of Europe – with already a macabre record of assassinations in Germany, France and Switzerland.
Some activists may be subject to espionage and surveillance; others may be targets for assassination attempts; even more could be vulnerable to the same kind of large-scale terror plot that Assadi planned — and such attacks will endanger more than just Iranian activists. European citizens will not be safe from the terror of the Islamic Republic in their own backyards, offices or favorite cafes.
And even if European authorities thwart such attacks and arrest the regime’s agents, their citizens will face the second consequence of this week’s treaty: more hostage-taking.
The Belgian treaty will only reinforce the already disturbing pattern of kidnappings for ransom. In recent months alone, there has been constant news of the Iranian regime’s blatant abuse of European citizens: a Swedish academic, a French tourist and a German national have all been taken hostage, mistreated and possibly executed in Iran.
Thanks to this decision, European tourists, non-profit workers and visiting academics are all at increased risk of being arbitrarily detained by Tehran. They can be abused, tortured, forced to make false confessions, or worse. And the regime will hold them until they can blackmail European governments into returning terrorists.
For example, don’t be surprised if Iran, encouraged by the vote in Brussels, starts taking more hostages linked to Sweden until Nouri – the criminal sentenced in Stockholm – is exchanged.
While the Belgian government claims to have signed the treaty because it “did everything” to free its citizen, that is simply false. Supplication and insomnia are not the only options available to Europe.
In the face of hostage situations, Europe must be courageous. When Tehran takes a European hostage, that country — and perhaps others acting in concert — should begin expelling Iranian diplomats. If the situation continues, it must explain to the Iranian ambassador persona non grata and also close the embassy. This approach, adopted by Germany in the 1990s, was very effective in temporarily containing Iranian terrorism in Europe.
In addition, any European country whose citizens are being kidnapped must remove the families and affiliates of Iranian officials from their country.
Then it would also have to confiscate the regime’s assets in Europe. European countries are holding billions of euros affiliated with the Islamic Republic and its officials, and those funds must be frozen and confiscated, only to be returned when European hostages are released and the hostage situation ends.
Finally, Europe must recognize that the only sustainable path to a stable relationship with Iran is ultimately to support the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. Otherwise, such steps will only kick the proverbial tin can down the road.
While Sweden showed courage in the face of Iran’s murderous behaviour, Belgium has shown cowardice in recent weeks. We urge our European friends to change course and adopt the Swedish approach.
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