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Foreign Policy

Belgium’s prisoner swap deal will only encourage Iranian terrorism

Cameron Khansarinia is the policy director for the National Union for Democracy in Iran. Kaveh Shahrooz is a lawyer and a senior fellow at Canada’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute.  

On July 14, Sweden’s judiciary struck a blow for international justice, when it sentenced Hamid Nouri — an Iranian prison official involved in the mass killing of political prisoners — to life imprisonment. The verdict put the world’s human rights abusers on notice: Europe would not be their safe haven. 

Alas, what Stockholm giveth, Brussels taketh away. 

Only a few days after Nouri’s sentence was announced, Belgium’s parliament ratified a prisoner swap treaty with Iran. Belgium entered the treaty to free one of its own, an aid worker named Olivier Vandecasteele, who languishes in an Iranian prison on dubious espionage charges. And as a result of the agreement, it will likely release Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of attempting to blow up an opposition gathering in Paris — though there are indications that Belgian courts may prove an obstacle to this plan. 

However, let us not mince words: Vandecasteele is a hostage, held by Iran for ransom. But in exchanging a convicted terrorist for him, Belgium is paving the way for even more terrorism and for more Europeans to be taken hostage. We know because we’ve seen this 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 with pressure and pushback.  

Sadly, our warnings weren’t heeded, and only a few months after the article was published, the FBI announced a Hollywood-style plot by Tehran to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist and activist, take her to Iran and likely kill her. 

We fear 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 plotted his terrorist attack while serving as an Iranian envoy in Vienna, and the Islamic Republic likely has many other such operatives across Europe. With the knowledge that prisoner swaps are an easy option, Tehran will now instruct more “diplomats” and other operatives 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 seeking safety. Now, they’ll have to live in fear of the long, and increasingly muscular, arm of the regime in every corner of Europe — with already a macabre record of killings in Germany, France and Switzerland. 

Some activists may be subjected to espionage and surveillance; others may be targets for assassination attempts; more still may be vulnerable to the same type of large-scale terror plot that Assadi was planning — and such attacks will endanger more than just Iranian activists. European citizens won’t be safe from the Islamic Republic’s terror 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 face the second consequence of this week’s treaty: more hostage-taking. 

Chloe Giorgev is one of the lawyers for Olivier Vandecasteele who is currently imprisoned in Iran | Stephanie Lecocq/EPA-EFE

The Belgium treaty will only intensify the already troubling pattern of kidnapping for ransom. In recent months alone, news of the Iranian regime’s flagrant abuse of European citizens has been constant: A Swedish academic, a French tourist and a German national have all been taken hostage, and face mistreatment and possible execution in Iran. 

Now, thanks to this decision, European tourists, nonprofit workers and visiting academics will all be at increased risk of being arbitrarily detained by Tehran. They may be abused, tortured, forced to give false confessions, or even worse. And the regime will hold them until they are able to blackmail European governments into returning terrorists.    

For instance, don’t be surprised if, emboldened by the vote in Brussels, Iran begins taking more hostages connected to Sweden until Nouri — the criminal sentenced in Stockholm — is exchanged. 

Though the Belgian government claims it signed the treaty because it had done “everything it could” to free its citizen, that is simply false. Supplication and spinelessness aren’t the only options available to Europe.  

In the face of hostage-taking, Europe should 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, it should declare the Iranian ambassador persona non grata and close the embassy as well. Adopted by Germany in the 1990s, this approach was very effective at temporarily curbing Iranian terrorism in Europe. 

Additionally, any European country whose citizens are kidnapped should remove the families and affiliates of Iranian officials from their country. 

Then, it should confiscate the regime’s assets in Europe too. European countries hold billions of euros affiliated with the Islamic Republic and its officials, and those funds should be frozen and confiscated, returned only when European hostages are released and hostage-taking ceases. 

Finally, Europe must recognize that, ultimately, the only sustainable path to having a stable relationship with Iran is to support the Iranian people’s democratic aspirations. Otherwise, such steps are merely kicking the proverbial can down the road. 

While Sweden showed courage in the face of Iran’s murderous behavior, in recent weeks, Belgium demonstrated cowardice. We urge our European friends to change course and adopt Sweden’s approach.

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