Claude Moniquet: Let's try to be strong against an Iran which seems to be strong, but which in fact is very weak

Claude Moniquet: former journalist, former field agent at the DGSE, worked on the Middle East and the Eastern Bloc and it is in these two capacities that he has been interested for 40 years on the situation in Iran and this called the Shiite arc: Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. He is the author of twenty books. He is co-director of the European Strategic Intelligence And Security Center (ESISC)

Claude Moniquet spoke on April 26 at a conference at the Brussels Press Club, on the initiative of the ESISC, on the Iranian situation after several months of a crisis which is the most serious that his regime has known since its birth in 1979. Here is the transcription of his speech.

I am going to speak to you about two things today, on the one hand hostage diplomacy and on the other hand the question of the registration of the Revolutionary Guards on the list of European terrorist organisations.

First of all, hostage diplomacy is a term that appeared fairly recently in the media and essentially around the well-known case in Belgium of Olivier Vandecasteele. I'll come back to that in a few moments. And we may have the impression that this is a new practice of the Iranian state. Absolutely not. If you remember, one of the birth certificates of the Iranian Islamic revolution is the hostage taking of the American embassy. More than 50 diplomats held as hostages for 450 days by people who today, for the most part, are in the high spheres of the regime, whether in parliament, government, in the security services or in intelligence .

Second hostage experience, which lasted even longer than these 450 days of hostage-taking of American diplomats, this is the question, which was called the hostages of Lebanon. The hostages of Lebanon is a sequence that will last from 1984 approximately to 1992, in which several dozen journalists and humanitarian workers and various actors, European and American, will be held hostage in Lebanon by organizations fronts, such as Hezbollah or the Islamic Jihad, which in fact were emanations from the Revolutionary Guards, which I will talk about a little later.

So there is nothing new in Iran's use of hostages to advance its political goals and to put pressure on its partners, to have a bargaining chip. At the time of the American embassy, the leader of the revolution, Khomeini, said "Yes, but it's not us, it's not the state. It was happening right in the center of Tehran with people who called themselves the "Revolutionary Students Following the Line of the Imam." The Iranian police or army could have put an end to it in a few minutes. They never did for 450 days, but that was not the fault of the Iranian state. They were independent activists over whom the state had no power. So that's it, it's not us. The hostages of Lebanon, same thing. "Besides, it wasn't even happening in Iran, it was happening in Lebanon. And we, Iranians, what influence do you want us to have on these people we don't know? We don't even have the phone number for Hezbollah or the Islamic State. How could we tell them to stop? »

What has changed is that today it is fully assumed. It is that today, in Iran, people are arrested under false pretexts. For example, the Frenchman Benjamin Brière committed an unimaginable crime which scandalizes me personally. He filmed a nature reserve with a drone. Filming a nature reserve with a drone is obviously a threat to state security! He was also arrested for undermining state security and convicted of espionage. I don't know if it was said clearly, but very probably for the benefit of the "Zionist entity", as the Iranians say when they refer to Israel. The same goes for a whole series of French hostages, we have six French hostages currently in Iran. We have Benjamin Brière, Bernard Phélan, who is a dual Franco-Irish national. We have the trade unionists Cécile Kohler and Jacques Paris. We have researcher Fariba Adelkhah and we have a sixth person whose identity has not been revealed. In all, there must be between 20 and 30, maybe 40 Western hostages who are currently being held in Iran, some of whom have already been sentenced, others who are being held under rather obscure statutes and who are intended to serve as bargaining chip, means of pressure on Iran.

And then we have the Belgian Olivier Vandecasteele and we have a Swedish-Iranian doctor, Ahmad Reza Jalali, who we don't often talk about, but I think we still have to remember his name, who was sentenced to death and who has already been transferred several times to the death row wing of Evin prison. Jalali, who taught among other things emergency medicine at the VUB in Brussels.

It's all assumed. Iran captures these people, convicts them on pretexts that are not even spurious, which are ridiculous, and then enter into negotiations. Among others, in the case of Mr. Vandecasteele, it is the most obvious case, a direct negotiation with Belgium. Negotiation which revolves around Mr. Assadollah Assadi who is an Iranian diplomat who was stationed at the Vienna Embassy, who was responsible at the Vienna Embassy for the operations of MOIS, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for the whole of Europe and who was caught red-handed with a smoking gun in his hand as he handed over to Ministry agents who were based in Belgium. They handed them a bomb in Luxembourg which was to explode in the annual meeting of the People's Mojahedin in Villepinte in 2018.

It was a trial that was extremely important, which I know well because I was an expert for the civil parties during this trial in Antwerp in 2019/2020. It is a trial that is important because on several occasions, trials have referred to the responsibility of the Iranian state in attacks, among others in Germany or Argentina. It even happened that there were arrest warrants, among others against Mr. Falahian, who was at the time the Iranian intelligence minister, for attacks committed in Europe. But this is the first time with the Assadi affair that we had in the box of the accused present in Europe, an Iranian diplomat really caught red-handed with exceptional documentation. We had the film of the delivery of the explosives to the terrorists, we had exchanges of emails, we had exchanges of telephone calls, we had everything. Result, sentence to 20 years in prison. And there, when in fact the Iranians, they waited a bit.

I was a bit naive in this trial and I was one of those who thought that we had such an exemplary case that Belgium, on the one hand, and no doubt other European countries out of solidarity, could not do otherwise than to take diplomatic sanctions against Iran, that is to say a minimum of expulsions of people identified as intelligence agents.

All European intelligence services have stocks of people who are identified, known and who can be expelled as we are doing with the Russians in the context of the war in Ukraine. It's not very complicated, maybe even diplomatic ruptures. For what ? Because the terrorist Assadi was a diplomat stationed in Vienna and because the explosives that were handed over by Assadi to the terrorists who were to act in Villepinte could only travel by diplomatic pouch, no other means. So we still had a school case. We didn 't do anything. There was no reaction... The European reaction that I expected did not take place.

And so the Iranians have come to the conclusion that they've generally drawn about Europe for a very long time, which is that Europe is weak and doesn't really have a will when it comes to diplomatic sanctions. And so Iran went on the attack. And Iran, going on the attack, simply decided one day that it needed a Belgian in prison. It fell on the unfortunate Olivier Vandecasteele, who is now detained, sentenced to 40 or 50 years in prison, I believe, or 30 years in prison, a hundred lashes, an absolute horror.

A human case - which we are all upset about and we all stand in solidarity with his family - but which has led Belgium, which has not taken the necessary measures at diplomatic level, as I have just pointed out, to do what absolutely nothing to do with Iran: that is to say, to give in to pressure. What did we do? The government has in the greatest discretion designed a bill, I am weighing my words, which one could say was written in Tehran. I mean if it was written by Belgian diplomats, it's a shame for Belgian diplomacy: an agreement for the exchange of prisoners, convicted prisoners which allows, among other things, for example, once a prisoner condemned returns to his country of origin, allows his amnesty, his pardon or his release. If it was not written by the Mullahs, it was written by someone who loved the Mullahs very much or who had a personal sympathy for Mr. Assadi. So we gave in. This bill, which was introduced in extremis in July, just before the end of the parliamentary session, was unfortunately voted on by the majority quite automatically.

I won't dwell on that. And since then, if there had not been legal recourse from the victims of the planned Villepinte attack, Assadi would have been back in Iran and released and probably celebrated as a hero for several months already. This is not the case because there have been appeals and all these appeals have been brought before the Constitutional Court which has decided by saying that Belgium could perhaps make an exchange and hand over Mr. Assadi to Tehran, but that in any case, it had to warn the victims, in this case the people of the People's Mojahedin of Iran and the NCRI, who could address themselves to a court to lodge an appeal. So, we have a slightly bizarre decision legally. It's a bit of a snake biting its own tail because this game can go on for years. For the moment, in any case, Belgium has introduced an official request for the release of Mr. Vandecasteele. We do not know if she proposed the return of Mr. Assadi, but probably not since we were not informed.

So, as she has to notify the civil parties, apparently that was not done. This Belgian solution was the worst. She was the worst for a very simple reason. Firstly because the Iran of the Mullahs is a country - and its history has proven it - which knows only one language: that of force. When you oppose Iran, Iran backs down. When we are weak in front of Iran, it advances and it has been like that for 40 years. The second reason is ethical. Obviously, you don't release a convicted terrorist at the beginning of his sentence. That after one-third, two-thirds of the sentence, there can be negotiations, depending on the legal conditions, is another problem. But we do not release someone who has been sentenced to 20 years in prison after two years of detention or three years of detention. It is still legally difficult to accept. Third, any TV detective fan knows the worst thing you can do is give in to a blackmailer. Yielding to a blackmailer, it has never done until proven otherwise, that encourage him to continue to practice blackmail.

Clearly, if this Assadi-Vandecasteele affair results in an exchange, Belgium thinks to protect its citizens, but it puts them in danger. Because tomorrow or in six months or in three years, if there is another dispute between Belgium and Iran, there will be other Belgians who will be kidnapped, who will be sentenced to dozens of years in prison , to a whipping sentence... And then Belgium will have to give in at some point as it did in this case. And this is of course the case for the other European countries. So much for hostage diplomacy.

The case of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards

I am going to move on to the "Iranian Revolutionary Guards", which are moreover linked to the Assadi affair, since the latter, before being in the intelligence services, was trained during the Iran-Iraq war in the Guardians of the Revolution. It was there that he learned, among other things, sabotage, the use and handling of explosives. The Revolutionary Guards is a very interesting organization and I am going to allow myself a comparison which may seem audacious and which may shock.

I am not comparing the Iranian regime to the Nazi regime, although one could philosophically make certain comparisons, but one can certainly compare the Revolutionary Guards to the SS. The SS was an ideological organization, an ideological army of Adolf Hitler's regime. This is exactly what the Revolutionary Guards are. The Guardians of the Revolution were created in May 79, just after the revolution, to be a counterweight to the official army, whose loyalty was not assured. It is an ideological army. It is an army that has the power to arrest, among other things, we have the recent demonstrations, many arrests, probably hundreds, were made by the Revolutionary Guards. It is an army that manages places of detention. It is an army, it is an army which has its own intelligence service, which also has its navy, its air force, etc. It is an army which, inside the country, is the backbone of the regime. It is the praetorian guard of the mullahs' regime, just as the SS were the praetorian guard of the Hitler regime.

Outside, it is an extremely powerful military force, which has its own special forces, which specializes in training and supervising terrorist groups. I spoke of Hezbollah, but there are others. It is a force that we have seen in action in Syria during the civil war. It is a force that is directly linked to the preparation and commission of attacks, not only in Europe, but also in South America. The attack against the Jewish mutual AMIA, which killed 85 people in 1994, was prepared by people officially from Hezbollah, but who had been trained and supervised by the Revolutionary Guards. It was the same Revolutionary Guards who blew up the American and French military barracks in Beirut in October 1983, with 200 American dead and around 60 French dead. They are the same people who framed and trained the people who, a year later, blew up the American embassy in Beirut. They were implicated in the Lebanon hostage affair, as I said, through Hezbollah, which they trained and framed. And much more recently, we find them in planned attacks, for example against the Israeli representative office in Baku in 2011 and against the Israeli embassy in Bangkok in June 2012.

So it is an organization that is unquestionably a terrorist organization. It is also an organization that is linked at the highest level to the regime, since it participates in the Supreme National Security Council. The Supreme Council is an extremely interesting body because I have heard — I am quite fascinated by this — for years European diplomats, in particular French diplomats, tell me that it is necessary to distinguish in Iran, in the regime, between the hard and the moderate. This is a speech that I heard during part of my youth, which is unfortunately distant, on the Soviet Union. We said, "You know, there are moderates in power in the Soviet Union. Besides, one of the main moderates was a man who was known because he liked the jazz records he sent by diplomatic pouch and Scotch whisky. His name was Yuri Yandropov, he was the head of the KGB…

The Supreme National Security Council is a body in which sit all the representatives of all Iranian centers of power. There is obviously the President of the Republic, Raïssi. There are representatives of the Supreme Leader. There is the army, there are the Revolutionary Guards, there is also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there is the police and there is even the President of Parliament. There are a dozen permanent members. All the centers of power are united and all participate in the same thing; because what is the Iranian Supreme National Security Council for? It serves to determine when and what means should be used to advance the interests of the Mullahs' regime. It can be pure diplomacy, it can be trade sanctions, it can be the use of terrorism. In 2019, shortly after Assad's arrest, we published a report on Iranian terrorism in Europe in which we noted, and it was far from exhaustive, some thirty terrorist acts committed or attempted by the Iranian regime and among others by the Revolutionary Guards in Europe, the United States or Latin America or the Middle East.

A sign of the regime's weakness

What I mean is that the Iranian regime is by nature a terrorist regime. It's not an accident, it's not a regime that uses terrorism, it's a regime that is terrorist by nature, and the Revolutionary Guards are one of the main tools of this terrorist regime. Therefore, the question of whether sanctions should be taken against the goalkeepers is not really a question since sanctions are taken. We took it again a few days ago in Brussels, in the United States and in Great Britain. Sanctions were taken in a coordinated manner against leaders of the guards. But what is the point of systematically taking sanctions against individuals while not sanctioning the organization they represent, that they lead and for which they are responsible? If the leaders and cadres of the Revolutionary Guards are terrorists, ipso facto, the organization they lead is a terrorist organization. And so I think that this inclusion of guards on the list of European terrorist organizations is a necessity. It is a necessity because it is necessary, and I come back to this idea, to send clear messages to Iran, messages that Iran understands.

It was explained quite clearly and brilliantly by my predecessors that Iran, under its appearance of strength, was a weak state today. And I would even say, I would go further, the more Iran shows its muscles, the more it is a proof of weakness. Because when you are strong and sure of yourself, when you dominate your country and your society, you don't need to do what Iranians do. The Iranian regime, by repressing demonstrations, by hanging opponents, by organizing attacks abroad... it is a sign of weakness. As is a sign of weakness the fact of having named the executioner Ibrahim Raïssi at the head of the Republic. It is a signal that we send. We tell people who we know are in the process of revolting, that they have already revolted in the past, be careful because the one we have just put in power is not a reformist, he's a very bad guy. In 88, he was involved in this horrible massacre in which 30,000 prisoners, overwhelmingly People's Mojahedin, were murdered in the regime's prisons.

When we get this man out of mothballs, when he has no particular political base and we put him at the head of power, we are sending a strong signal to society. Our turn has come, I think, the turn of Europe and the democracies has come to send a strong signal to the Iranian regime and to say No, we have understood your game and we will not back down. And that goes through the registration of the Revolutionary Guards on the list of terrorist organizations. This requires a resizing of Iranian diplomatic missions in Europe. I'm not specifically talking about relationship breakdown. It is a later stage that we may have to reach one day. But bring back the Iranian embassies, the Iranian advisers to a more reasonable dimension, already by expelling the guards, the agents who do intelligence and subversion and who are paid exclusively to spy on the Iranian communities in Europe. It would be a signal that the Iranians could understand. I will end with this point. Let us try to be strong against an Iran which seems to be strong, but which in fact is very weak.