Accused Iranian diplomat’s European spy operations 'revealed in notebook'

Assadollah Assadi faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted this week of plot to blow up dissidents’ rally in 2018

Left: Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, right: the gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in Villepinte in June 2018. US Embassy Iran/AFP
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An Iranian diplomat accused of plotting to blow up an opposition rally outside Paris left details of his pan-European spying network in a notebook in his car when he was arrested, according to documents seen by The National.

The 200-page green notebook, found on the back seat of Assadollah Assadi's car, included references to hotels, restaurants, embassies and Islamic centres across 11 European countries, police investigators said.

The locations included the Islamic Centre of Hamburg, which faced calls for closure because of its close ties with Tehran, and where hundreds of people joined demonstrations a year ago after the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani.

A Belgian court is due to rule on Thursday if the Vienna-based spymaster is guilty of masterminding the botched attack against the annual gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in June 2018. If found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors said they had “irrefutable proof” of the role of Tehran in ordering the bombing but the notebook appears to provide an insight into how Mr Assadi conducted his day-to-day intelligence gathering operations across Europe.

Former US mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani with Iran's opposition leader Maryam Rajavi as the pose with Statement by 33 Former Senior U.S Officials & Dignitaries . Annual gathering of Free Iran-Alternative 100 ASHRAF at the Villepinte exhibition North of Paris, France, June 30, 2018. Saturday, June 30, 2018, the Iranian Resistances grand gathering was held in Paris, France. Delegations from various countries including prominent politicians, members of parliaments, mayors, elected representatives, and international experts on Iran attended the event.  The speakers declared their support for the Iranian peoples uprising and the democratic alternative, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.  They called on the international community to adopt a firm policy against the mullahs regime and stand by the arisen people of Iran. Siavosh Hosseini (Photo by Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Rudy Giuliani at the Paris exhibition centre at Villepinte in June 2018. Getty Images

The book included references to the Paris exhibition centre at Villepinte, France, where the rally was held with 25,000 people in attendance including Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Newt Gingrich, a prominent US Republican.

It also included references to parking spots in Luxembourg, where Mr Assadi allegedly handed over the bomb to a husband-and-wife team of agents, Amir Saadouni, 40, and Nasimeh Naami, 36, who were briefed to plant and detonate the device. The couple were arrested in Belgium as they travelled from their home in Antwerp to the rally, a Belgian court has heard.

The notes were included in more than 101 filled pages that included references to 289 places in 11 countries. Some of the nations have been linked to Iranian terrorist plots, such as Sweden and the Netherlands whose government claims hitmen have killed Iranian dissidents.

Places referenced in the notes include castles and sightseeing spots – venues for Mr Assadi's family holidays, according to his relatives – but also hotels, restaurants, shops and other venues, according to the leaked documents.

The largest number of places identified were in Germany, followed by France and Austria, where Mr Assadi was headquartered at the Iranian embassy in Vienna.

Detectives found receipts within the notebook that appeared to suggest payments of more than €25,000 ($30,200) to agents handed over by Mr Assadi, a veteran of the Iranian Ministry of Internal Security.

The identities of the recipients of the money were not known and given only single names but dissidents said the sums pointed to Mr Assadi’s wider network. One was also given a laptop, the receipts showed.

“Assadi… was an officer who handled agents,” the Belgian state security service VSSE said in a letter to the public prosecutor, seen by this newspaper.

Mr Assadi refused to leave his prison cell at the start of his criminal trial in November in Antwerp, Belgium, where he faced charges with the alleged bombing team and a fourth man. He claimed that he had already been convicted in a “political trial”.

Belgian police officers stand guard at the entrance to Antwerp courthouse, on November 27, 2020, ahead of the start of the trial of four suspects including an Iranian diplomat accused of taking part in a plot to bomb an opposition rally. - In July 2018, Belgian anti-terror prosecutors announced they had foiled an attempt to bomb a June 30 meeting of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition movement, outside Paris. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)
Belgian police officers stand guard at the entrance to the Antwerp courthouse in November. Assadollah Assadi refused to leave his prison cell at the start of his criminal trial. AFP

He was with members of his family when he was arrested at a German motorway rest area the day after the attack was due to be carried out.

Police found a second notebook that included apparent instructions on what to do if the team was uncovered.

Police also retrieved the car’s sat-nav that included details of a surveillance operation at the Villepinte venue from a year earlier, according to prosecutors.

The alleged attack plan was in response to the NCRI's role in the 2017-18 uprising against the Iranian regime.

The People's Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK), which controls the NCRI, is seen by Tehran as a criminal and terrorist network aimed at bringing down the government.

Shahin Gobadi, spokesman for the Paris-based MEK, said: “The regime’s espionage network in Europe, which is used for terror plots like the one in Paris, should be exposed and destroyed.”

Iran has said it will not recognise any verdict by the Belgian court against the diplomat. The country’s foreign ministry says he is innocent and that he has been “conspired against” after a two-year police inquiry.