Copyright ©1997 by Dow Jones & Co/Kenneth R. Timmerman
Paris - The European Union is bracing for an April 10 verdictfrom a Berlin court that has the potential of "profoundly disrupting"Europe's relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, senior European officialssay. The court is expected to take nearly an entire day to read out sentencesagainst an Iranian national and four Lebanese henchmen accused of havinggunned down four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in the Mykonos restaurant inBerlin on September 17, 1992.
The German state prosecutor, Bruno Jost, has publicly accused the governmentof Iran of having orchestrated and carried out the murders of Kurdish leaderSadegh Sharafkindi and his colleagues. On Nov. 15, Jost asked the Berlincourt to hand down life sentences against two of the defendants, KazemDarabi and Abbas Rhayel, whom he identified as Iranian government intelligenceagents. While this is not the first time the Iranian regime has been inthe dock for killing dissidents, the 3-year Berlin court hearings haveproved to be far more embarrassing than similar cases tried in France,Italy, or Turkey.
For one, this is the longest public trial the Iranian authorities havehad to endure. But more importantly, information provided publicly by aformer top aide to Iranian President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, by a former IranianPresident, and by German government intelligence officials has succeededin Òopening the door a bit to the headquarters of Iranian stateterrorism and casting a look at the killing machine," State ProsecutorJost said. Worried Officials Senior European officials (Many of whom requestedanonymity due to the sensitivity of the case) interviewed separately intwo European capitals only two weeks before the sentencing date said theEU has been "closely monitoring" the Iranian government reactionto the Mykonos case, and would "react vigorously and in unison"in the event the Islamic Republic or its agents launch counter-attacksagainst any EU government or citizen
. A crisis working group comprised of officials from the 15 EU memberstates has been established to monitor the Iranian reaction to the verdict,both inside Iran and in Europe itself, where Iranian intelligence networksremain extremely active and have the potential of launching fresh terroristattacks. The fact that the German court will read its verdict in publicwithout releasing any supporting documents for nearly a full year afterwardshas some officials concerned that Tehran will react to sensationalist charges,and that in turn Europe will be forced to take extreme reactions that mostwould prefer to avoid. "There is going to be no opportunity for nuancehere," one official said. "We're going to get the headlines,and the headlines only. And this is what the Iranians are going to reactto." The key issue is whether the German court will convict top IslamicRepublic officials of complicity to murder.
After dramatic testimony from former Iranian President Abolhassan BaniSadr (1980-1981) last August, the court issued an international arrestwarrant for Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian-Khuzestani forhaving orchestrated the assassinations. Bani Sadr told the court that Fallahianwas the most important member of a top secret Council for Special Operations,which "decides who becomes a death candidate." Operational plansfor the assassinations were approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah SeyedAli Khamene'i and by President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the top twoleaders of the Islamic Republic, Bani Sadr told the court. "Withouttheir agreement, carrying out the attack was just as unlikely as it wouldhave been without massive support from the state, for example through passports,plane tickets, money, special telephone numbers,'' he said.
Tehran reacted to Bani Sadr's testimony by requesting that the Germansarrest the former President and extradite him to Iran. In an interviewwith an Iranian daily newspaper on August 28, Intelligence Minister AliFallahian warned that continuation of the Berlin trial would have "effectson our relations with Germany and German interests in Iran." To itscredit, the German court persisted despite these attempts at intimidation.Bani Sadr's claims were buttressed by dramatic testimony from AbdolghasemMesbahi, a former aide to President Hashemi-Rafsanjani and a senior intelligenceofficial who oversaw foreign terrorist networks (initially identified onlyas "Witness C"), who claimed that Messrs. Rafsanjani and Khamene'ihad personally signed the order authorizing the assassination of the rebelKurdish leader in Berlin.
Within hours of these revelations in mid-November, angry demonstratorssurrounded the German embassy in Tehran shouting "Death to pro-AmericaGermany," and the Iranian parliament launched a closed-door reviewof Iranian-German ties. The crisis only dissipated when Rafsanjani himselfintervened, after having received a 2-page letter from German ChancellorHelmut Kohl. A German court "cannot destroy the historic relationsbetween Iran and Germany," the Iranian president said. The "realculprits" behind the Mykonos trial were "Israel and the UnitedStates." It remains unclear what promises - if any - Chancellor Kohlmade in his letter to Rafsanjani. But German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkelreaffirmed that Germany and the European Union would continue their "criticaldialogue" with Tehran, regardless of the outcome of the Mykonos trial.That will depend, however, on just how far the court goes with its verdict;and how the Iranians take the bad news.
In the best case, the court will only convict the members of the hitteam itself. But even here, the head of the Federal Office for the Protectionof the Constitution (BfV), Peter Frisch, told the German daily Tageszeitunglast week, the reaction from Tehran is likely to be dire. "We mustprepare ourselves for demonstrations, riots in Iran, and considerable disturbancein foreign relations," he said. Most European observers believe thecourt will go one step further, and convict Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahianof having been a direct participant in the 1992 killings. "The questionthen becomes, what is Fallahian's standing within the current government?"one official said. "Clearly, the most rational response for Tehran,if they wish to avoid a clash with Europe, will be to simply dump Fallahian."But the EU is also preparing for less rational responses, and for moreradical verdicts from the Berlin court. In the event the court finds crediblethe evidence presented by "Witness C," then the April 10 verdictwill include some form of condemnation of top Islamic Republic officials,including President Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i.
Although Germany has no conspiracy laws, making it unlikely the paircan be convicted, the Berlin judge could issue a more nuanced statementdeploring their role in having ordered the killings. And this could sparka dramatic increase in tensions with Tehran. While few EU officials believeTehran will allow radical groups to actually seize the German embassy inTehran, they expressed concern that the Iranian government will respondin more indirect ways. "They might arrest European businessmen ontrumped up espionage charges - they've done it in the past - or step upattacks on dissidents inside Iran and in Europe," diplomats in onecapital said. Europe's Warning A senior diplomat from another country,whose government has tended to be sympathetic toward the Islamic regime,offered Tehran a way out - but also a warning. "We don't have a holywar against Iran, and we don't see their system as intrinsically perverse.We have to live with states - even delinquent ones. And independent ofwhat the United States chooses to believe, our dialogue with Tehran istruly critical. But if the Iranian regime or its agents take any sort ofviolent action against Germany in retaliation for the Mykonos verdict,Tehran needs to understand that we will stand by our German allies - aswill every EU member state. The same goes if Iran is shown to have beendirectly involved in the Khobar Towers [Dhahran] bombing in Saudi Arabia.""If there is any Iranian retaliation for the verdict," otherEU officials said, "we will respond collectively and at the EU level.
In the worst case - a violent attack against the German embassy in Tehranor renewed terrorist attacks on European soil, - we would seriously considera break in diplomatic ties with Tehran. This would be regrettable, butit would become necessarily and unavoidable." Given the dire predictionsTehran's friends in Europe are making, it is difficult to understand howEurope can maintain its "critical dialogue" with a regime thatconsiders terrorism to be a legitimate policy tool. The Mykonos trial,and the exemplary German court that has conducted it, have shown once andfor all that this regime cannot be reformed, and that even so-called "moderates"such as President Hashemi-Rafsanjani fully support the terror machine.Now it is time that Europe drew the appropriate conclusions and supportedconcrete measures aimed at punishing the regime for its unacceptable behavior,and at encouraging Iranians from the democratic opposition to change theregime.
Mr. Timmerman is director of the Middle East Data Project, Inc.,a strategic trade consulting firm in the Washington, DC area, and is ExecutiveDirector of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, a human rights monitoringgroup.