(animated sunrise)Foundation for Democracy in Iran

Dealing With Iran

Wall Street Journal-Europe (editorial page), August29 1996

© Copyright 1996 by PeterW. Rodman

As in 1992, this year's presidential campaign seems to be focusing almostexclusively on domestic policy. But foreign dangers may yet disturb ourtranquility. One of the biggest dangers, of course, is Iran. What makestoday's situation particularly vexing is that when it comes to Iran, we'reon a collision course not only with the mullahs but with some of our closestallies.

For many years, the U.S. has been seeking to isolate and weaken themullahs' regime by maximizing external pressures on it. But our allies,especially in Europe, have been eager to maintain normal relations withIran, in the hope of moderating its behavior. What's surprising is thatwhen Washington escalated the pressures with the recently enacted Iran-LibyaSanctions Act, Israel stepped in as a seeming vindicator of the Europeanapproach. It was one of the first foreign policy stumbles of the new Netanyahugovernment.

The German-Israeli Connection

The occasion was the trade, in mid-July, of several dozen Lebanese Hezbollahprisoners held by Israel for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held byHezbollah in Lebanon. The exchange was negotiated over several months throughIranian and German mediation.

Swapping prisoners either for bodies or for other prisoners is an Israelihumanitarian tradition, an act of loyalty to soldiers who risk all forthe nation. It should be readily understandable to Americans who remembertheir own countrymen missing in action in Vietnam. When a humanitarianrecovery can be arranged, Israel has not been fussy about the ransom itpays or the adversaries it deals with. Israel's adversaries have ampleother reasons not to mistake the ad hoc humanitarianism for strategic weakness.

This was not the first time Israel has engaged the Germans in such mediation-- nor the first time that the Germans' conduct should have set off alarmbells. In 1993, Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, made a discreet inquiryto German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's intelligence coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer,to see whether Bonn's contacts with Iran could provide any informationabout an Israeli Air Force navigator shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Tothe Israelis' surprise and consternation, Mr. Schmidbauer invited the architectof Iranian state terrorism, Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Fallahian-Khuzestani,to visit Bonn, where Mr. Fallahian was lavishly received in October 1993.Ever since, the Germans have suggested -- falsely -- that the welcome toMr. Fallahian was at Israel's request.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung, a Munich-based newspaper, has reported thatMr. Schmidbauer arranged secret direct contacts between Israeli and Iraniandiplomats in Bonn in 1995. In light of last month's successful bodies-for-prisonersswap, the Germans now claim complete vindication, predicting that theirrelations with Iran will ultimately lead to more information about IsraeliMIAs. "We will continue our discussions with the government of Iran,"Mr. Schmidbauer proclaimed in Jerusalem. "This is the chance for Iranto accept humanitarian measures, and this will aid Iran in getting supportfrom the West." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned ChancellorKohl, thanked him for Germany's role and encouraged him to continue.

What accounts for the German -- and European -- interest in Iran? Vulnerabilityto oil and terrorist blackmail is a big part of it. So is trade: Germanexports to Iran reached $6 billion in 1993. For Europeans eager to seethemselves as playing a geopolitical role in the Middle East, there isalso the temptation of filling a vacuum left by the U.S. Germany has tieswith Iran going back to the 1930s, so nostalgia plays a role too. The EuropeanUnion has adopted a common policy toward Iran, called a "criticaldialogue." It means, in theory, a critical posture toward Iran's misbehaviorwhile maintaining normal commercial and political relations.

The Europeans seem beyond embarrassment in their devotion to the "criticaldialogue." Not Iran's continuing military buildup, nor its activesupport for terrorism, nor its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,nor its active hostility toward the Arab-Israeli diplomacy has dampenedEurope's enthusiasm. The British are only slightly deterred by the mullahs'reaffirmation of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa against SalmanRushdie and the reports in April 1994 that Iran had aided the Irish RepublicanArmy.

The Germans' honored guest, Mr. Fallahian, is now the subject of anarrest warrant issued by a German court. He is suspected of having plannedthe 1992 murders of four Iranian Kurdish exiles at a Berlin restaurant,part of a series of such murders going back to 1987. Mr. Schmidbauer reportedlyintervened to ensure that Mr. Fallahian would not be asked about any ofthe murders on his 1993 visit. Leaked documents make clear that Germanauthorities have a mountain of evidence that the killings were organizedby the Bonn station of Savama, the Iranian foreign intelligence service,operating out of the third floor of the Iranian Embassy, with branchesin the Iranian consulates in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, and Munich. InAugust 1995, two Iranian "diplomats" were expelled from Germany.

The embarrassment continues. This April an EU troika of foreign ministersvisited Tehran hoping to obtain an official statement from the IslamicRepublic condemning terrorism. They came home disappointed. The same month,an Iranian freighter out of Bandar Abbas, destination Hamburg, was interceptedin Antwerp, Belgium carrying disassembled mortars -- a special 320mm mortarcapable of firing 275-pound shells a half mile. Last month Siemens AG --long rumored to be involved in aiding Iran's nuclear power development-- was embarrassed by press reports of a radiation accident at a powerstation in northern Iran injuring at least seven Siemens engineers. Themost recent press leak was of a German sale to Iran of five Dornier transportaircraft, usable for reconnaissance missions.

The new Israeli government is rapidly becoming disillusioned with theGerman policy, despite Mr. Netanyahu's initial reaction to the prisoners-for-bodiesswap, the negotiations for which had begun under his Labor Party predecessors.The Israelis now stress their determination to separate the humanitarianfrom the strategic, and fear that part of the ransom for the most recentMIAs was paid in strategic coin: They see clearly how Germany is usingthe Israeli interest in MIAs as a weapon against the U.S. in the runningbrawl with Europe over Iran. Ze'ev Schiff, the respected defense editorof the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha'aretz, warned that these MIA negotiations,by undercutting the U.S. in its dispute with Europe, were "an essentialcontradiction of strategic policy" -- that is, Israel's own overwhelmingstrategic interest in combatting state terrorism and the Iranian threat.Even as the government was celebrating last month's swap, Israeli militaryofficials were disclosing that fresh Iranian arms shipments had arrivedin Damascus, bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Thug Regimes

The United States should stick to its guns. The Europeans have no ideahow absurd they look across the Atlantic as they defend, as if it werethe highest moral principle, their right to treat with the most despicablethug regimes on the planet (Iran, Libya, Cuba). Is this the high watermark of European civilization? Is the vaunted EU so weak that it dependson this trade?

It is possible that European attitudes will change in light of the newalarm in the West about the terrorist threat, and the mounting evidenceof Iranian misbehavior. Far more important than new airport security measuresor law-enforcement cooperation (valuable as they are) is a common strategicpolicy toward Iran. The time for it is now.

American pressures have already had some effect on European policies.The allies are quietly cooperating on restricting weapons sales and newloans to Iran. Iran's arms imports are down -- and indeed Germany's overalltrade with Iran is down by two-thirds -- because of the mullahs' shortageof cash. The squeeze is working. Analysts of Iran, even those unsympatheticto American policy, are increasingly struck by the internal dissensionand demoralization in Iran and now speak openly of the possible eventualcollapse of the regime.

All this is a vindication of the American policy of maximizing all pressures.If the West stands firm together, as we did against Soviet communism, wemay not have to wait 74 years for this revolutionary movement to run outof steam.

Peter W. Rodmanis Director of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center for Peaceand Freedom and a Senior Editor of National Review. Mr. Rodman also servesas a member of FDI's board.