Belgian lawmakers have paved the way for final approval of a prisoner swap treaty with Iran that opponents fear will lead to the release of an Iranian diplomat convicted last year on terrorism charges in connection with a plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in 2018.
The two countries provisionally signed the treaty in March which would allow for the release of its citizens detained by the opposing governments. The deal requires final ratification by Belgium’s parliament.
The measure, which cleared the Foreign Relations Committee of Belgium’s lower house of parliament on Wednesday, is expected to receive a final vote by the full chamber in the coming weeks.
U.S. lawmakers have urged Belgian leaders to reject the deal with Tehran citing concerns that the deal will lead to the release of Assadollah Assadi.
Assadi, a diplomat assigned to Iran’s embassy in Austria, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court for his involvement in an attempted attack on a rally in Paris hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an organization that opposes the Iranian regime.
On Tuesday, 13 U.S. House members signed a letter to Belgium’s Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, urging him to “reject any cynical ploy by Iran’s current ‘diplomats’ to trade terrorists for dubiously detained Belgians.”
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The letter was signed by Republican Reps. Randy Weber, Louie Gohmert, Lance Gooden, Brian Babin and Jake Ellzey of Texas; Tom McClintock, Mike Garcia and Young Kim of California; W. Gregory Steube and Neal P. Dunn of Florida; Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and French Hill of Arkansas. Sheila Jackson Lee, from Texas, was the only Democrat to sign the letter.
Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, voiced his opposition to the deal in a Twitter post late Tuesday.
“A Belgium-Iran treaty must uphold Belgium’s intl [international] obligations & cannot grant impunity to Assadollah Asadi [sic] or any other actor responsible for human rights violations & heinous acts of terrorism,” Mr. Menendez wrote. “Iran must be held to account for backing terrorism & taking hostages for leverage.”
Those who support the treaty say a deal is badly needed to pave the way for the return of Belgian citizens being held in Iran.
Belgium’s Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told parliament that “human lives are at stake.”
“If the bill is not fully approved, the threat to our Belgian interests and certain Belgian citizens will increase,” he said.