Diplomats wear many hats, but terror mastermind should not be one of them
According to the US State Department’s website, diplomats serve many functions. Although it puts a high premium on “advocating” for US interests, it makes clear that American diplomats also help strengthen relations with other nations, allow Washington to better understand the politics, economy and culture of other countries, and even help them meet their development goals or recover from natural disasters.
In addition, diplomats are tasked with assisting their fellow citizens living in or visiting the country to which they are posted, by providing what is commonly referred to as consular services.
Given its size and power, the US probably has more interests than most countries, and certainly more diplomatic missions than most. Yet it is fair to assume that other nations’ foreign ministries would similarly define the missions of their own diplomats. After all, there are many international laws and agreements that set the parameters of how diplomacy is to be conducted and what diplomats can and cannot do.
A diplomat is someone who wears several hats, and whose task has changed over time. But fundamentally, a diplomat is an emissary who seeks to foster better communication, understanding and possibly cooperation between two countries. Diplomats and diplomatic missions enjoy many privileges and legal immunities. They are also afforded protections by the host government under international law.
But it is a violation of international law and diplomatic norms to interfere in the domestic affairs of the nation to which a diplomat is posted, never mind be involved in plotting violent attacks in other nations.
There is an overwhelming international consensus around how diplomacy works and how diplomats are to function. Unfortunately, some nations have continuously flouted the norms, conventions and laws surrounding the functions and protections afforded to diplomats. At the top of this list, as is often the case, is Iran.
Last week, German authorities arrested a diplomat posted to the Iranian Embassy in Vienna, in relation to a terrorist plot to attack a conference of Iranian opposition leaders in Paris. The plot involved several people living in a number of European nations, including two Belgian nationals of Iranian descent who were arrested last week in Brussels carrying explosives in their car. The Iranian diplomat is alleged to have provided them with the explosives.
The conference, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), is an annual meeting attended by Iranian opponents of the regime, but it also often invites people from other countries who are critical of Iran’s foreign policy.
This year, the conference featured Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, and Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York and current legal adviser to President Donald Trump. Had the plot succeeded, it could have killed scores of people, including Europeans, Americans, Saudis and others.
This plot has once again shone a spotlight on Iran’s very checkered history and warped understanding of diplomacy. Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have denied the allegations, and have asked German authorities to release the diplomat, Assadollah Assadi.
They argue that the allegations are an international conspiracy meant to thwart Iran’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal. However, this is not the first time that Tehran has violated diplomatic norms. It has a very troubling history of doing so.
Iran cannot use its diplomats as yet another means to destabilize the international political order or suppress its critics abroad.
In 2013, an Iranian American working at the direction of Iranian intelligence agencies was convicted in US courts of trying to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s then-ambassador to the US, Adel Al-Jubeir, at a restaurant in Washington’s famous Georgetown neighborhood. That plot, however, does not appear to have been an isolated case.
Credible news reports indicated that it was most likely part of a broader campaign by Iran-linked operatives to kill foreign diplomats in at least seven countries over a span of 13 months. Targets included American diplomats and their families posted in Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbor.
The intelligence led Azerbaijani authorities to arrest dozens of people in relation to the plot. Iranian operatives were also behind the targeting of Saudi diplomats in Thailand. If that was not bad enough, the Iranian regime allowed mobs to ransack the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad in January 2016, in violation of legally binding commitments that require host nations to provide security to diplomatic missions.
Although the regime condemned the attack and arrested close to 100 people in relation to it, the ease with which Iran’s security apparatus brutally suppresses any peaceful protests suggests that it could have easily prevented the attack. Credible reports at the time suggested that the mobs were acting at the direction of the regime.
The world needs diplomats. Their expertise, experience and skill at using conciliatory language have contributed greatly toward creating a more peaceful world. Their status must be protected and their activities encouraged. However, Tehran cannot use its diplomats as yet another means to destabilize the international political order or suppress its critics abroad.
Iran must adhere to the same laws and diplomatic norms to which the vast majority of nations adhere. Until then, its status as an international pariah will remain, and nations will continue to take measures to ensure that it does not interfere in their domestic affairs or destabilize the global order.
• Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization.