An Iranian diplomat is among six people arrested over a suspected plot to bomb a meeting of thousands of exiles attended by Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Belgian officials said on Monday.
The diplomat, based at the Iranian embassy in the Austrian capital Vienna, was arrested after a married couple were intercepted by Belgian police on Saturday with half-a-kilo of home-made explosives TATP and a detonator in their car, according to a statement.
The diplomat arrested in Germany is suspected of having been in contact with the couple who were identified by exiles as being residents in the northern city of Antwerp.
Their suspected target was a meeting of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), according to officials.
An NCRI official claimed that the man arrested in Germany had been station chief of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) in Vienna since 2014. Three other suspects were held in France.
One of the main responsibilities of the MOIS is to conduct covert operations against the opposition abroad and to “identify and eliminate its members,” according to a 2012 report for US Congress.
The embassy did not immediately comment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is due to visit Austria on Wednesday as he seeks to shore up European support for the troubled nuclear deal that allowed his country to re-enter the global economy.
Iran said that the arrest of the diplomat was a ploy on the eve of the visit. “How convenient: Just as we embark on a presidential visit to Europe, an alleged Iranian operation and its ‘plotters’ arrested,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.
Austria has long been an Iranian commercial and diplomatic entry point to Europe. It is home of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, which monitors Iran's compliance with the accord.
The Austrian capital was also the scene of the 1989 assassination of Kurdish opposition leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou and two of his colleagues. Police investigated links to the Iranian regime but nobody was ever prosecuted.
Mr Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, joined several former European and Arab ministers who attended the meeting dubbed ‘Free Iran 2018 – the Alternative”.
He told the crowd that Mr Trump “does not intend to turn his back on freedom fighters”, according to reports.
Others who attended the meeting in a packed hall at an exhibition centre in Villepinte, just outside of Paris, included former US ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, and Canada’s former premier, Stephen Harper.
Mr Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, an advocate of tougher sanctions against Iran, has addressed the group’s rallies in the past. Washington is expected to roll out new US sanctions against Tehran as well as pursue punitive measures against businesses from other countries that continue to operate in Iran.
The couple arrested in Belgium were identified only as, Amir S, 38, and Nasimeh N, 33, and were charged with attempted terrorist murder and preparation of a terrorist act, according to Belgian statement. They were described as being of Iranian heritage.
Police said it was not clear if the plot was intended to target the crowds or specific speakers to the conference.
"We can say we arrested them just in time," said Belgian magistrate Eric van der Sijpt. "All I can say is that they were planning a terrorist attack at a conference. I don't know if they were targeting somebody special.”
The NCRI is an umbrella bloc of opposition groups in exile that seek to depose the clerical regime in Iran. It is also known by its Farsi name Mujahideen-e-Khalq, had once been listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.
“A plot by the religious dictatorship ruling Iran to carry out a terrorist attack against the grand gathering of the Iranian Resistance in Villepinte was foiled,” Shahin Gobadi spokesman for NCRI said in a statement.
Mr Giuliani released a statement, saying that “all the participants at the Free Iran 2018 – The Alternative rally in Paris on June 30, appreciate and admire the fine work of law enforcement particularly in Belgium and France in arresting the terrorists who according to the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s office were planning an attack on the gathering supporting freedom from the theocratic oppressive regime in Iran.
“This accentuates the growing sense that the regime that is the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the world is increasingly weakened by constant large demonstrations in over 140 cities. It is also becoming apparent that Madam Maryam Rajavi and the NCRI pose a realistic alternative to this homicidal regime. Nothing could be worse for these misogynists than a movement seen as replacing them headed by a heroic woman.”
Tehran has long called for a crackdown on the NCRI in Paris, Riyadh and Washington. The group is regularly criticised in state media.
Following the arrests, Belgian authorities also conducted five raids in different parts of the country but did not say whether anything was found.
Iran is under increased pressure from the impending reimposition of US sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal in May.
On Monday, the US State Department director of policy planning, Brian Hook, annpounced that he and Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, would visit the Gulf region “in the coming days”, accompanied senior officials, to coordinate efforts on Iran.
The State Department has not released the itinerary of the visit but the delegation is expected to make stops in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi before heading to Europe in a bid to to prepare the groundwork with Gulf and transatlantic allies for US sanctions that will be reimposed on Iran next month.