(animated sunrise) Foundation for Democracy in Iran

Dealing With Iran

Wall Street Journal-Europe (editorial page), August 29 1996

© Copyright 1996 by Peter W. Rodman


As in 1992, this year's presidential campaign seems to be focusing almost exclusively on domestic policy. But foreign dangers may yet disturb our tranquility. One of the biggest dangers, of course, is Iran. What makes today's situation particularly vexing is that when it comes to Iran, we're on a collision course not only with the mullahs but with some of our closest allies.

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

The German-Israeli Connection

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

Swapping prisoners either for bodies or for other prisoners is an Israeli humanitarian tradition, an act of loyalty to soldiers who risk all for the nation. It should be readily understandable to Americans who remember their own countrymen missing in action in Vietnam. When a humanitarian recovery can be arranged, Israel has not been fussy about the ransom it pays or the adversaries it deals with. Israel's adversaries have ample other 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 alarm bells. In 1993, Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, made a discreet inquiry to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's intelligence coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer, to see whether Bonn's contacts with Iran could provide any information about an Israeli Air Force navigator shot down over Lebanon in 1986. To the Israelis' surprise and consternation, Mr. Schmidbauer invited the architect of 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 to Mr. Fallahian was at Israel's request.

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

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

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

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

The embarrassment continues. This April an EU troika of foreign ministers visited Tehran hoping to obtain an official statement from the Islamic Republic condemning terrorism. They came home disappointed. The same month, an Iranian freighter out of Bandar Abbas, destination Hamburg, was intercepted in Antwerp, Belgium carrying disassembled mortars -- a special 320mm mortar capable 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 power station in northern Iran injuring at least seven Siemens engineers. The most recent press leak was of a German sale to Iran of five Dornier transport aircraft, usable for reconnaissance missions.

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

Thug Regimes

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

It is possible that European attitudes will change in light of the new alarm in the West about the terrorist threat, and the mounting evidence of Iranian misbehavior. Far more important than new airport security measures or law-enforcement cooperation (valuable as they are) is a common strategic policy 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 new loans to Iran. Iran's arms imports are down -- and indeed Germany's overall trade with Iran is down by two-thirds -- because of the mullahs' shortage of cash. The squeeze is working. Analysts of Iran, even those unsympathetic to American policy, are increasingly struck by the internal dissension and demoralization in Iran and now speak openly of the possible eventual collapse 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, we may not have to wait 74 years for this revolutionary movement to run out of steam.


Peter W. Rodman is Director of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom and a Senior Editor of National Review. Mr. Rodman also serves as a member of FDI's board.