In early 2021 there was an ominous setback for Iran. For the first time, a European (Austrian) court convicted an Iranian diplomat, Assadolah Assadi, of terrorism for his role in organizing the murder of Iranian dissident exiles in France. The weapon to be used was a bomb, which would have caused many deaths, including French bystanders. After his July 2018 arrest in Germany, Assadi claimed he had diplomatic immunity even though he had recruited three Iranian expatriates, who had become Belgian citizens, to carry out the planned Paris killings. The court pointed out that diplomatic immunity does not apply to criminal acts. After a trial Assadi was convicted of attempted murder and terrorism and sentenced to 26 years imprisonment. His three Iranian Belgian recruits got 18 years each and lost their Belgian citizenship. The trial was embarrassing for Iran because it brought out so many details of Iranian misbehavior, especially while using their diplomats in Europe.
The Assadi case was one of a number of setbacks Iran has suffered in Europe lately. Iran had promised, several times since the 1980s, to halt such violence against Iranians who had fled to Europe. In most of Europe Iran has run out of second chances. This reckless Iranian diplomatic in Europe is driven by political struggles back in Iran.
During 2018 the radical faction of the Iranian religious dictatorship (in power since the 1980s) managed to regain some of the powers they lost in the 1990s by making a mess of their overseas activities. Back then an Israeli assassination campaign against Iranian agents in South America and the exposure of Iranian illegal activities in South America, Europe and elsewhere became a diplomatic liability. The Iranian radicals, largely from the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) were forced out of many high government jobs in order to make peace with European nations and achieve a ceasefire in the clandestine war the IRGC had been waging against Israel (and Jews worldwide) for nearly a decade. The more moderate members of the religious dictatorship also feared that the IRGC radicals would trigger another ruinous war which, given the decade long war with Iraq in the 1980s the country could not afford. For most Iranians, the 1980s war was a defeat for them, at least by Iranian standards.
The IRGC had been created to protect the religious dictatorship, not put it in more danger. No IRGC men were punished for 1990s overseas “wet work” (assassinations) since the religious dictatorship still needed its own separate army to protect the 1980s religious revolution that mobilized the country to halt the Iraqi invasion. In 2018 it meant the IRGC Quds Force was again looking for prospective recruits among the pro-Iran foreigners as well as terrorizing Iranian exiles who were the most vocal and effective in their criticism of the Iranian government and its IRGC assassins. The Quds Force was allowed to do whatever was necessary to silence the outspoken Iranian exiles.
This was especially important in light of the many defeats Iran has suffered since the 1990s because of Mossad (the Israeli intel agency) and, to a lesser extent, American intel agencies. Israel and Iran have, since the 1980s, been trying to infiltrate each other with spies, assassins and saboteurs. Israel has been very successful while Iranian efforts have largely failed. The main reason for this is the large number of Iranian Jews who fled Iran since the 1980s and brought their cultural awareness and language skills with them. There were very few Israelis willing to defect to Iran and help spy against Israel. In addition to their cultural knowledge and language skills the Iranian Jews brought with them links to Iranian Moslems back in Iran who were opposed to their religious dictatorship and willing to work against the Iranian government, often without necessarily knowing they were working for Israel.
The U.S. was another matter because Americans had less personal experience with Iranian terrorism and violence. All those Iranian Jews brought first-hand accounts of what the Iranian religious dictatorship was really like. Many Americans have become fans of radical, anti-American politics and were more tolerant of misbehaving Moslems. There was another problem. While the Israelis had access to Iranian Jewism immigrants, Iran had the loyalty of an even larger pool of Arab Shia in the Middle East, Europe and Sunni and Shia Arab citizens of Israel. The Israeli Arab pool yields few promising recruits and most who do sign up end up in Israeli prisons, or a morgue somewhere. These are small victories for Iran and they make the most of it in their propaganda.
Using these foreign “assets” had risks. For example, in 2013 an Iranian expatriate in Belgium was arrested for trying, at the behest of Quds, to set up an espionage and sabotage network in Israel. Quds offered the guy a million dollars if he could help plan and carry out terror attacks inside Israel. This spy was arrested and insisted that he was the victim of an Iranian extortion scheme to force him to spy. Whatever the case, Quds had failed again. What was interesting this time was that the arrested man had a brother who worked for Iranian intelligence and helped arrange for Quds Force to meet and recruit his brother in Belgium. Despite many precautions, undertaken on the advice of his Quds Force handlers, the newly recruited spy was detected by Israeli counterintelligence and was observed taking photos of the main airport in Israel, the American embassy in Israel and at least one intelligence facility. Arrested in September 2013 while trying to leave Israel, the Belgian-Iranian spy eventually, after prolonged interrogation, provided many details of his work for Quds Force.
Iranian efforts like this have been going on for most of the last decade. For example, back in 2007 Israel revealed an Iranian effort to recruit Israelis of Iranian origin to spy on Israel. Up until then, Israel had detected at least ten Iranian attempts to recruit Israelis as spies. This was possible because, although Iran wants Israel destroyed, Iran still allowed Israelis of Iranian origin to return and visit family. There are still about 8,000 Jews in Iran and nearly 150,000 Israelis of Iranian origin. Since 1948 most Jewish Iranians have left Iran, most for Israel. Each year there are still some Israelis returning to Iran to visit family or old friends. The classic method of recruitment used by the Iranians was to threaten kin in Iran with harm (imprisonment, torture, death) if the Iranian Jew who was now an Israeli did not supply information. Some of these Israelis reported the Iranian recruiting attempt to the Israeli government and that led to a more and more vigorous Israeli counterintelligence efforts against Iranian attempts to set up espionage and terror operations inside Israel.
Iranian Israelis continue visiting Iran, although it's common knowledge that Iran is not a hospitable place for Jews, Israelis or Westerners in general. Israelis usually go to the nearest Iranian embassy (usually Turkey) to take care of the paperwork. While applying for an Iranian passport, they are questioned on what they do for a living, and what they did while in the Israeli armed forces. Some Israelis have reported this to their government, and the Iranian espionage situation has been watched carefully for some time.
Because of this Israeli scrutiny, Iran is now going after the many Iranians who have fled to the West during the last few decades. Using threats or offers of money to recruit them as intelligence operatives is not easy. Iran seeks out expatriate Iranians who have been successful legitimate international businessmen as this allows them to travel a lot without alerting Israeli counterintelligence. These Iranians usually know all about the Quds Force activities against them. The Internet has been a very popular way for all expatriate Iranians to stay in touch and share information about opportunities, and new dangers. Quds operatives are always offering both to Iranians outside of Iran.
Israel has been doing the same thing and has apparently been more successful at setting up espionage and sabotage operations in Iran. This has annoyed the Iranians a great deal, as has the Israeli skill at foiling Iranian intel and terror operations against Israel. This is a war that is far from over. The Iranian religious dictatorship and their Quds Force agents are poor losers and keep trying, no matter what the cost to Iran or anyone else.