(CNSNews.com) – Iran is demanding the immediate release of a diplomat arrested in Germany in connection with an alleged plot to bomb a rally in Paris of an exiled opposition group that has been locked in a decades-long confrontation with the regime in Tehran.
The incident is threatening to sour relations with several European governments at a time when Iran is on a charm offensive, attempting to salvage the nuclear deal following President Trump’s withdrawal in May.
Among the thousands of participants at Saturday’s “Free Iran” rally organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran/People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (NCRI/MEK) were American delegates including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
An alleged conspiracy to bomb the event was exposed when a Belgian police special unit stopped a couple traveling in a Mercedes and found in the vehicle 500 grams of the powerful homemade explosive TATP and an ignition mechanism hidden in a toiletry bag, according to Belgium’s State Security Service (VSSE).
The couple, both Belgians of Iranian origin, were arrested and “charged with attempted terrorist murder and the preparation of a terrorist offense.”
The VSSE said they were suspected to have planned to bomb the NCRI rally just north of the French capital.
It also reported that a “contact person” – a 47-year-old Iranian diplomat based in Vienna, Austria named as Asadollah A. – had been arrested in Germany.
The Austrian foreign ministry’s list of diplomatic corps names Asadollah Assadi as a “third counselor” who has been stationed at the embassy since June 2014.
Police in Germany’s Bavaria state stopped the diplomat and three associates at a gas station on Sunday evening.
Police said the area was cleared as there were suspicions the vehicle may contain explosives. None were found, but the diplomat was taken into custody as he was subject to an extradition request.
A spokeswoman for the German federal police declined to comment on individual cases, “for personal and data protection reasons.”
Meanwhile Austria’s foreign ministry has reportedly informed the Iranian authorities they plan to revoke Assadi’s immunity because of the existence of a European arrest warrant.
On Wednesday, the Iranian foreign ministry summoned diplomats from Germany, France and Belgium to demand Assadi’s release.
Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said he should be released “without any delay and condition,” in line with diplomatic immunity afforded under the Vienna Convention.
The ministry also condemned Belgium’s request to have the diplomat extradited from Germany, and separately, complained to France for allowing the “terrorist” NCRI to hold its rally there.
Qassemi said the allegations were in line with a U.S. and Israeli campaign to damage ties between Iran and Europe.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Twitter dismissed the alleged plot as a “false flag ploy” timed to coincide with President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Switzerland and Austria.
‘Centers of espionage and terrorism’
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday the department had seen reports of the arrests but said she did not want to ahead of the investigation.
“Overall, I can just say that we strongly condemn the Iranian government’s use of terrorism, which has taken place around the world in many countries,” she said.
“We’re all too familiar with the Iranian attacks that have taken place, and we continue to condemn acts of terrorism that Iran has been involved with in the past.”
The NCRI secretariat said it has warned repeatedly about “terror plots and preparations by so-called ‘diplomats’ of the Iranian regime and by the agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC Qods Force in various European countries.”
The group said Iranian embassies and representative offices in Europe are “centers of espionage and terrorism” and should be shut down.
The NCRI/MEK controversially supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and was designated as a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law until delisted in 2012.
After Saddam was overthrow in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the group was disarmed by agreement and its members confined in two camps where they sporadically came under deadly attack, until they were eventually resettled in Albania in 2016.
Loathed by the regime – which accuses it of killing thousands of Iranians – the group’s members were targeted during a campaign of mass extrajudicial executions three decades ago.
Dissidents in exile have not been exempt.
Kazem Rajavi, a former Iranian ambassador to the U.N. and the brother-in-law of NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi was shot dead near Geneva in 1990. Swiss investigators later accused the Iranian regime of responsibility and issued an arrest warrant for a former intelligence minister, Ali Fallahijan.
The NCRI’s representative in Rome, Mohammad Hussein Naghdi, was shot dead on a street in the city in March 1993; and the group’s representative on refugee issues, Zahra Rajavi, was shot dead along with an NCRI colleague in an Istanbul apartment in February 1996.