Cameron Khansarinia is the political director of the National Union for Democracy in Iran. Kaveh Shahrooz is a lawyer and senior researcher at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute of Canada.
On July 14, the Swedish justice system dealt a blow to international justice by sentencing Hamid Nouri, an Iranian prison official implicated in the massacre of political prisoners, to life imprisonment. The verdict warned perpetrators of human rights violations around the world that Europe would not be their refuge.
Alas, what Stockholm gives, Brussels takes away.
Just days after Nouri’s conviction was announced, the Belgian parliament ratified a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran. Belgium made the treaty to free one of its own, an aid worker named Olivier Vandecasteele, who is languishing in an Iranian prison on dubious espionage charges. And following the deal, he will likely release Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of trying to blow up an opposition rally in Paris – although there are indications that the Belgian courts could prove to be an obstacle to this plan.
However, let’s not mince words: Vandecasteele is a hostage, held by Iran for ransom. But by exchanging him a convicted terrorist, Belgium is paving the way for even more terrorism and the taking of more Europeans hostage. We know this because we have seen it happen before.
Two years ago, we wrote about the Iranian regime’s decades-long international campaign of terror in the West and warned the United States government that the only way to stop this practice was to push and push.
Unfortunately, our warnings went unheeded, and just months after the article was published, the FBI announced a Hollywood-style plot from Tehran to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist and activist, take her to Iran and probably kill her.
We fear that the same precedent is being created in Europe. In particular, we believe that this week’s treaty will have two devastating results.
The first of these will be more attacks. Assadi had plotted his terror attack while an Iranian envoy to Vienna, and the Islamic Republic likely has many other such operatives across Europe. Knowing that prisoner swaps are an easy option, Tehran will now order more “diplomats” and other agents to engage in terrorism.
The regime will come after Iranian human rights activists and opposition figures living abroad even more brazenly 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 a grisly record of murder already in Germany, France and Switzerland.
Some activists may be subject to espionage and surveillance; others may be the target of assassination attempts; more could be vulnerable to the same type of large-scale terrorist plot that Assadi foresaw – and such attacks will endanger more than Iranian militants. 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 were to thwart such attacks and arrest the regime’s agents, their citizens will have to deal with the second consequence of this week’s treaty: more hostage-taking.
The Belgian treaty will only intensify the already troubling pattern of kidnappings for ransom. In recent months alone, reports of the Iranian regime’s gross abuse of European citizens have been constant: a Swedish academic, a French tourist and a German national have all been taken hostage and face ill-treatment and possible execution in Iran.
Now, thanks to this decision, European tourists, non-profit workers and visiting scholars will all face an increased risk of being arbitrarily detained by Tehran. They may be abused, tortured, forced to make false confessions, or worse. And the regime will hold them back until they are able to blackmail European governments into getting back at the terrorists.
For example, don’t be surprised if, emboldened by Brussels’ vote, Iran begins to take more Sweden-linked hostages until Nouri, the convicted criminal in Stockholm, is traded.
Although the Belgian government claims to have signed the treaty because it had done “everything it could” to free its citizen, this is simply not true. Plea and softness are not the only options available to Europe.
Faced with the taking of hostages, Europe must be bold. When Tehran takes a European hostage, that country – and, perhaps, others acting in concert – should begin expelling Iranian diplomats. If the situation continues, she should declare the Iranian ambassador persona non grata and close the embassy too. Adopted by Germany in the 1990s, this approach was very effective in temporarily curbing Iranian terrorism in Europe.
Additionally, any European country whose citizens are being kidnapped should remove the families and affiliates of Iranian officials from their country.
Then he should also confiscate the regime’s assets in Europe. European countries hold billions of euros affiliated with the Islamic Republic and its officials, and these funds should be frozen and confiscated, returned only when European hostages are released and the hostage-taking stops.
Finally, Europe must recognize that ultimately the only sustainable way to have a stable relationship with Iran is to support the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. Otherwise, such steps just kick the proverbial box down the road.
While Sweden has shown courage in the face of Iran’s murderous behavior in recent weeks, Belgium has shown cowardice. We urge our European friends to change course and adopt the Swedish approach.