An Iranian diplomat and three other Iranian nationals go on trial in Belgium on November 27, more than two years after European authorities broke up an alleged plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally outside Paris.
The trial has the potential to embarrass Iran and strain ties with European countries, which have blamed Iranian intelligence of being behind the foiled bombing, a charge the Islamic republic has denied.
In the morning of June 30, 2018, Belgian police intercepted a Belgian couple of Iranian origin driving from Antwerp to Paris with a half kilogram of TATP explosives and a detonator.
The couple, 36-year-old Nassimeh Naami and 40-year-old Amir Saadouni, were said to have planned an attack on a rally attended by thousands of people organized by the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), in Villepinte outside Paris later on that day.
The NCRI is the political wing of the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), an exiled opposition group seeking to overthrow the Islamic republic and designated a terrorist group by Iran.
The United States considered the MEK a terrorist group up until 2012, when it was removed following a lobbying campaign and pledges to end its violent militancy. Among those paid by the group to lobby on its behalf is President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who spoke at the June 2018 rally in Villepinte.
Two days before the couple were arrested, Belgian prosecutors say Assadollah Assadi, a third counsellor at the Iranian Embassy in Vienna, handed the bomb over to Saadouni and Naami at a Pizza Hut in Luxembourg.
The couple admit receiving the package, but claim they were tricked. Naami has said she thought the package contained fireworks.
Belgian and French officials believe Assadi was a top Iranian intelligence operative in Europe and acted on orders from Tehran. The Belgian couple are believed to have been active in the MEK, but prosecutors said Saadouni had been turned into an Iranian government agent since 2012.
German authorities arrested Assadi while he was travelling through Bavaria, where he had no diplomatic immunity from prosecution because he was outside of Austria. French authorities arrested another Iranian-Belgian man, Mehrdad Arefeni, as an alleged accomplice.
Travel records obtained by AP and Reuters show prosecutors believe Assadi carried the explosives on a commercial flight from Iran to Austria.
Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, is reported to have been the one who tipped off European authorities about the alleged bomb plot. U.S. and Israeli media have reported on Israel’s relationship with the MEK, including using the group in the past to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists and carry out other intelligence activities.
The timing of the alleged plot has raised questions over whether rogue forces in Iran's intelligence services planned attacks in Europe without the knowledge of the government led by President Hassan Rohani in an attempt to undermine him.
The arrests came just days before Rohani’s trip to Austria and Switzerland to rally European support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after the Trump administration abandoned it.
At the time, Tehran called the attack allegations a "false flag" stunt by the NCRI timed to torpedo Rohani’s European visit and the nuclear deal.
"Visiting Europe at the time, he was absolutely furious to learn about this intelligence service operation, on which he hadn't been consulted," Francois Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran, told AFP.
European countries have blamed Iran for other recent suspected plots against dissidents, including two killings in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017 and a foiled assassination in Denmark. Iran has denied involvement, saying the accusations were intended to damage EU-Iran relations.
If convicted, the four suspects face between five years and 20 years in prison on charges of “attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group.” Hearings will last between two and three days and a verdict is expected to be delivered by the end of December.