Olivier Vandecasteele, the Belgian aid worker held for 455 days in Iran, has finally been released, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced this past Friday. Vandecasteele was arrested on a visit to Iran in February 2022 and sentenced in January 2023 in a closed-door trial to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges including spying. He worked with the Norwegian Refugee Council and Relief International in the Islamic Republic from 2015 to 2021.

The 42-year-old was released after a diplomatic battle with the Iranian regime, which conditioned his release on the freeing of an Iranian imprisoned in Belgium. In 2021, Assadollah Assadi had been sentenced in Belgium to 20 years in prison for his role in planning a June 2018 bomb attack that targeted the gathering in Villepinte, France, of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled Iranian opposition group abroad known also as Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.

Among dozens of prominent guests at the rally in Villepinte that day were then-President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; former speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Assadi served then as the third counselor at Iran’s Embassy in Vienna. The only Iranian diplomat ever brought to trial in Europe for direct involvement in terrorism, he was arrested while on vacation in Germany, where he did not enjoy diplomatic immunity, and later extradited to Belgium.

In March 2022, Belgium negotiated a prisoner exchange agreement with Iran that provided a legal means of transferring a person convicted in Iran to Belgium, paving the way for the swap of Vandecasteele for Assadi. The deal sparked an outcry from dozens of Belgian and international legal and human rights experts and the Paris-based NCRI, resulting in the Belgian Constitutional Court suspending the arrangement in December 2022 on the grounds that Assadi would likely be released once he returned to Iran. However, the path was smoothed by a bilateral treaty that took effect last month under which Belgian prisoners in Iran can serve their sentences at home and vice versa.

The NCRI accused Belgium of paying a “shameful” ransom for hostage-taking. It claimed that the deal between the two countries would “embolden the religious fascism ruling Iran to continue its crimes through repression and regional and international terrorism.”

And indeed, upon arrival in Tehran on Friday, Assadi received a hero’s welcome from government officials. The headline in the official Iranian News Agency, IRNA, was “Diplomat returns to Iran after 5 years of illegal detention and captivity by Belgium.” The Iranian website Press TV, citing an Iranian senior official, claimed the diplomat was detained in Belgium on false terror-related charges and dubbed his release “a victory for Iranians.”

The release of the two prisoners was celebrated with great fanfare by their respective countries, but neither mentioned a link between the two cases. However, the Sultanate of Oman, which mediated the arrangements, did not hesitate to speak of an “exchange” of detainees.

Encouraging terrorism

Belgium’s prisoner swap deal negotiations since 2021 have only encouraged Iranian terrorism and paved the way for more Europeans to be taken hostage.

Since the huge popular demonstrations in Iran, Iranian security forces have arrested nine foreign nationals from Germany, Poland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and other countries for their alleged role in the popular protests against the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in Iran. The nine unidentified persons were detained “during the riots or while plotting in the background,” the Iranian intelligence ministry said in a statement to the media.

Three weeks ago, while Belgium was still negotiating the release of its only hostage in Iran, two French nationals held in Iran – Benjamin Brière and Bernard Phelan – were also released. Brière was arrested in May 2020 on espionage charges, while Phelan was arrested on 3 October 2022 for allegedly endangering national security.

According to a statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the two Frenchmen were released as part of a “humanitarian action”, which referred to “requests from the French side at various levels and after negotiations.” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna announced that there had been no “quid pro quo” for these releases.

Four French men and women are still being held in Iranian jails. According to the French daily Le Point, the outcome of the Assadi case could also facilitate the release of the last four French hostages still held by Iran but, in the long run, this capitulation is leading Tehran back to its old ways of what amounts to hostage-taking.

A policy of maximum pressure

The rare times when Iran has been deterred from using terrorism in Europe have been when its leaders felt directly threatened. Such was the case in the Mykonos Trial verdict in 1997 when a German court held the Iranian government culpable in the 1992 assassinations in Berlin’s Mykonos restaurant of the secretary-general of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Sadegh Sharafkandi, and three of his associates.

Both countries recalled their ambassadors, ministerial-level cooperation halted, diplomats were expelled by both sides, and the “critical dialogue” with Europe was suspended. The other European countries followed suit. Iran-Europe relations deteriorated, and Iran felt detached from the developed world. The Mykonos ruling helped keep the leaders of the Tehran regime in check for almost two decades

But, in 2017-2018, Iran again staged a wave of terror attacks – most of them thwarted – against elements of the Iranian opposition in Europe. The June 2018 foiled bomb attack against the NCRI gathering in Villepinte was part of this campaign, potentially the most lethal and consequential one.

In January 2018, German authorities raided homes tied to Iranian operatives said to be gathering information on potential Israeli and Jewish targets in Germany. Arrest warrants were issued for 10 Iranian agents, but none were detained.

In March 2018, Albanian authorities arrested two Iranian agents on terrorism charges after they were caught surveilling a location where the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) celebrations were about to begin.

In June 2018, an investigation by Dutch intelligence led to the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats after the murder several months earlier of an Iranian Arab activist shot dead in the Dutch capital.

Later in 2018, Norway extradited to Denmark a man seen taking pictures of the Danish home of a leader of an Arab nationalist insurgent group that advocates for a separate Arab state in Khuzestan Province of Iran.

That incident prompted Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and intelligence chief Finn Borch Andersen to call for European Union sanctions. Echoing the position, Giulio Terzi, former Foreign Minister of Italy, stressed that the Iranian terror plots demonstrated a pattern, urged Western leaders to see the futility of attempting to bribe Iran’s leaders into compliance with international standards, and called for a policy of “maximum pressure.” Finally, in January 2019 the European Union designated the Iranian intelligence unit and two of its staff as terrorists, and froze their assets, as the Netherlands accused Iran of two killings on its soil and joined France and Denmark in alleging Tehran plotted other attacks in Europe.

Iran continues to hold two dozen foreigners who Western capitals and families regard as hostages.
A new wave of ‘hostage diplomacy’

Historically, Western leaders’ lack of stamina and decisiveness have emboldened the Iranian strategy of blackmail terrorism. The US, as the Western democratic global power, and France, as representative of the historic liberal values of the Occident, failed to act decisively, whether in the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the ‘82-’92 decade of hostage-taking in Lebanon, or bombings in Beirut and Paris.

Today, Europe faces a new wave of so-called “hostage diplomacy” to silence any international support for the popular nonviolent uprising against the brutal regime of the ayatollahs. The European leaders directly involved in supporting their beleaguered citizens, the UN and the international community, the human rights NGOs, and all people of conscience should act strongly against this policy of capitulation and isolate the disgraceful Iranian theocratic regime.

Unfortunately, the Belgian government’s decision to cave in to Iranian pressure and blackmail has complicated the fight against Tehran’s terrorist and subversive activities on European soil.

Source » timesofisrael