The Iranian spy whose Paris 'bomb plot' could have sparked a war

Vienna-based diplomat Assadollah Assadi goes on trial this week accused of planning attack on dissidents’ rally in Paris

Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi is accused of conspiring to blow up a dissidents' rally..US Embassy Iran 
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For a man allegedly intent on a murderous bloodbath in the heart of Europe, the senior Iranian spymaster was remarkably cavalier in covering up his tracks.

Assadollah Assadi, 48, must have thought his car’s diplomatic plates provided enough protection as he drove 1,000 kilometres across Europe to deliver a bomb intended to be used to blow up an expatriate anti-regime rally on the outskirts of Paris.

But the spymaster – reputedly the most senior intelligence officer for Iran in Europe – was being watched.

By the time Mr Assadi was arrested at a German autobahn rest area, the plot had unravelled, his alleged team of agents had been rounded up and the trove of documents found in his car pointed to his role as a puppet master of Iranian espionage operations across Europe.

One scrawled note in a burgundy notebook recovered by detectives from the car suggested what might happen if his team was uncovered.

"You cannot run to me or any other location besides the ones we agreed upon," he wrote, according to investigation documents seen by The National.

Officers also seized a sat-nav that suggested Mr Assadi had been on a secret reconnaissance mission of the dissidents' rally the year before along with Iranian cleric, Mohammad Reza Zaeri, who has been tipped for high office.

Antwerp trial to begin on Friday

After a two-year pan-European investigation, Mr Assadi goes on trial in Belgium on Friday accused of plotting the attack against the annual gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a coalition of opposition groups, in Villepinte, Paris, on June 30, 2018.

The diplomat is accused of involvement in the state-ordered plot with three other Iranians – an Antwerp-based husband-and-wife sleeper cell accused of planning to plant the bomb, and a France-based intelligence agent.

The Antwerp trial marks the conclusion of a two-year investigation by police forces in Belgium, Germany and France. In documents seen by this newspaper, investigators have pointed the finger at Mr Assadi.

He was believed to have been in Villepinte in June 2017 at the time of the previous NCRI conference, according to French investigators. To get to France, he hired a Skoda at a Megadrive car rental centre in Vienna though he had switched to an official embassy car by the time he was arrested on his way back to Austria.

Mr Zaeri, who was the named driver on the car rental document ahead of the trip to France, is a member of the highest circles of the Iranian regime.

He was pictured visiting the supreme leader Ali Khamenei in hospital in 2014 and, just last month, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. A copy of his Iranian driving licence was also discovered by investigators.

The photo on it matches the man often pictured in the Iranian press where his views are widely reported. Mr Zaeri did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Mohammad Reza Zarei with Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei in 2014.
Mohammad Reza Zarei with Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei in 2014.

Analysis of Mr Assadi’s seized sat-nav showed that destinations tapped into the GPS navigator included the Parc des Expositions de Paris-Norde Villepinte – the conference hall that prosecutors say would be targeted a year later.

Other addresses included a road close to the conference venue with hotels and a campsite used by delegates. Data retrieved from the device suggested that Mr Assadi was in the area for three days before travelling back to Austria via the French city of Reims and Germany.

Rental records suggest that the hire car travelled 2,853km during the eight-day period. The return trip from Vienna to Villepinte is about 2,500km.

The failure to wipe clean the sat-nav appears to have been one of many oversights made by the experienced Mr Assadi.

In another 200-page green notebook found in his car after his arrest, detectives found receipts that appeared to suggest payments of more than €25,000 ($29,658) in wages to agents.

The recipients were named only as Kezami, Nawid and Bagherzadeh – common names that pointed to them being pseudonyms. One was also given a laptop, the receipts showed.

It was not immediately clear if they were linked to the plot but dissidents believe the sums point to the wider network run by Mr Assadi, a senior spymaster for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

“Assadi… was an officer who handled agents,” the Belgian state security service VSSE said in a letter to the public prosecutor. “The plan to take the annual conference in Villepinte was under Mr Assadi’s operational command.

“The plans for the attack were developed in the name of Iran at the request of its leadership. Assadi didn’t initiate the plans himself.”

About 25,000 vocal opponents of the regime attended the 2018 meeting along with prominent European and US politicians, including President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, a prominent Republican.

(L-R, front row) Canadian foreign minister John Baird, Canadian retired politician Stephen Joseph, Colombian-French politician and former senator Ingrid Betancourt, leader of the People's Mujahedin of Iran Maryam Rajavi, former US mayor of New York City and attorney to President Donald Trump Rudolph Giuliani, former US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich,  US author and Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity Linda Chavez (2nd row, 3rd R),  Italy's former Foreign Affairs Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata (2nd row, R) pose for a picture during the meeting "Free Iran 2018 - the Alternative", organised by the People's Mujahedin of Iran in Villepinte, near Paris on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP)
The dissidents' rally in Paris attracted politicians from around the world. AFP

Dissidents believe the alleged attack plan was in response to the NCRI's role in the 2017-18 uprising against the regime. The NCRI is seen by Tehran as a criminal and terrorist network aimed at bringing down the government.

But the potential killing of former senators, ambassador, ex-military and US politicians seated close to her would have demanded a response from Washington.

“It would have potentially been World War Three,” said Bob Blackman, a British MP who was at the meeting. “If that had been successful it would have been when everyone was there, which would have been horrific.”

How 'Daniel' operated

The National starts a series of reports this week about alleged Iranian-backed military and criminal operations in Europe involving Mr Assadi, who was known to his agents only as 'Daniel'.

He was based in Vienna as the embassy’s third counsellor since mid-2014 and was in charge of intelligence for southern Europe, according to French officials. He previously served as a diplomat from 2003 to 2008 in Iraq and is said to be an expert in handling explosives.

John Sano, a former deputy director of CIA branch the National Clandestine Service, said Mr Assadi was the most senior intelligence officer for Iran in Europe and would have probably been acting on the direct orders of the supreme leader.

Emails, phone messages and testimony secured by the Belgian investigation team suggest that Mr Assadi was a hands-on operative communicating with his agents, directly receiving information and paying sources.

Flight data shows that he made regular trips between Vienna and Tehran since he was posted in the city. The flights surged during 2018 with 10 between the two capitals and the final flight from Tehran just eight days before the planned attack.

The documents seen by The National detail how Mr Assadi allegedly recruited and groomed his bombing team following a first meeting in the German city of Munich in 2015. He used rudimentary code, encrypted messaging systems and personal meetings to plan the attack, according to his accomplices.

He is accused of handing over a half-kilo consignment of the powerful explosive TATP at a meeting with the bomber team in Luxembourg, two days before the planned attack. But the alleged plotters were arrested following a tip-off to European police from an unidentified overseas intelligence agency.

The alleged bombers, Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife Nasimeh Naami, 36, were arrested in Brussels, Belgium, as they travelled from their home in Antwerp to the rally on June 30 with the bomb hidden in a make-up bag in their car.

The following day, Mr Assadi – knowing the plot had failed – was travelling with his wife and two sons, aged about 20, back to Vienna in his burgundy saloon, when he was arrested at a rest area near the Bavarian town of Aschaffenburg.

The car was surrounded by earth movers and large vehicles because of fears of a bomb stowed inside it. When police were finally given the all-clear, they found the evidence of his profession carelessly left inside his car.

Iran has denied involvement in the plot and called the arrests a “false flag operation” designed to muddy the reputation of Iran just before a planned visit to Europe by President Hassan Rouhani.

Assadi has had the audacity to threaten authorities with retaliation

It also unsuccessfully challenged the extradition of Mr Assadi from Germany to France under the 1961 Vienna Convention that protects diplomats from prosecution.

While in custody, Mr Assadi warned Belgian authorities that the criminal case would be watched closely by armed groups in the Middle East and by groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iran.

“According to Assadi Assadollah we [Belgium] do not realise what is going to happen in the event of an unfavourable verdict,” notes of the meeting taken by Belgian police said. The officers recorded that the groups would be “watching from the sidelines” to see what would happen.

Before one court hearing, Mr Assadi tried to persuade the other defendants to say they did not know each other, according to a police interview with Mr Saadouni.

A lawyer for Mr Saadouni and his wife declined to comment about matters in the investigation documents until after the case. Mr Assadi’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

“Assadi has had the audacity to threaten authorities with retaliation,” said Mr Sano. “That’s clearly unacceptable and indicative of just how brutal the MOIS can be.”

The NCRI said that the episode demanded tougher sanctions by the European Union against the Iranian regime and its agents operating in Europe.

“It is time for the EU to wake up,” said Farzin Hashemi, a senior member of the organisation.

“The EU and all member states must end the disgraceful policy of inaction, which has further emboldened the number-one state sponsor of terrorism to take advantage of diplomatic privileges to engage in terrorism and mass killing in the heart of Europe.”