Denmark Takes the Lead on Iran

Wall Street Journal-Europe, Oped page, Nov. 27, 1996

by Kenneth R. Timmerman

Washington, DC - The Danish parliament has taken a courageous step bycalling on the government to open a dialogue with democratic Iranian oppositiongroups. The resolution, voted on Nov. 14, marks the third time since Augustthat Copenhagen has broken ranks with the European Union over how to dealwith the clerical regime in Teheran.

On Aug. 15, the Danes announced they were suspending their "bilateral"dialogue with Teheran because of Iran's abysmal human rights record. Andon Oct. 28, they threatened to veto a European Commission plan to retaliateagainst U.S. trade sanctions on Iran, because the proposed measures wouldhave compromised Danish sovereignty.

The Danish overture toward the democratic Iranian opposition - whichis comprised of a grab bag of organizations ranging from the former Marxist-LeninistPeople's Fedayeen (Majority) to the conservative Constitutionalists Movementof Iran - is a hesitant first step toward the creation of a new, more pro-activeapproach toward the Teheran regime.

Gert Petersen, the foreign affairs spokesman of the Socialist People'sParty, was one of the driving forces behind the parliamentary move. "Wehave asked the government to insist that Iran's leaders respect internationallaw, human rights, and democratic standards," he told me. "Wewant to stress that for us, human rights have a higher priority than economicinterest."

In this, Denmark remains alone among its European partners, who clearlyhave just the opposite priorities. Italian steelmaker Danieli announcedon November 9 it was signing a $1 billion contract to set up two new steelplants in Iran, that would be financed by a consortium of European andJapanese banks. The Italian government is said to be contemplating extendingexport credit guarantees to back the sale.

During a recent trip to Paris, an Iranian deputy foreign minister, MahmoudVaezi, claimed that French Foreign Minister Hervé de Charette toldhim France "wished to become Iran's number one trading partner."Vaezi ticked off a whole laundry list of items Teheran was seeking to purchasefrom France - from communication satellites worth $500 million, to 10 Airbusaircraft worth more than $1 billion.

Germany, of course, remains Iran's number one trading partner. Lastyear, German companies delivered more than $1.6 billion worth of goodsto Iran, primarily sophisticated machine-tools and manufacturing gear,much of which can be used in the dozens of military plants built by Germanfirms over the past decade. If it weren't for the oft-criticized U.S. economicsanctions against Iran, which have forced the regime in Teheran to cutimports to pay off its debt, German companies would undoubtedly have hada better year. In 1993, they racked up $2.7 billion in sales to Iran, andin 1992 a whopping $5 billion. As usual, the overwhelming majority of thegoods were "dual-use" items, meaning they have recognized militaryapplications.

Germany has tried to sugar-coat its aide to a brutal, undemocratic regimeby boasting it has used its leverage to raise humanitarian cases with Teheran.The Chancellor's Intelligence Coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer, has beenin charge of this delicate task, and has made several trips to Teheranthis year. His latest efforts have focused not on the fate of Iranians,but on that of Israeli aviator Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down overLebanon in 1986 and whom the Israelis believe is being held in Iran. Sourcesin Teheran say Schmidbauer made a discreet trip to Teheran on Oct. 27 todiscuss Mr. Arad. He may also have been trying to quell tension over theallegations made in a German court that top Iranian officials were involvedfor 1992 gangland-style killing of dissident Kurds in the Mykonos restaurantin Berlin. The German state prosecutor has already issued an arrest warrantfor Iranian intelligence boss Ali Fallahian, and last week publicly accusedSupreme Leader Ali Khamene'i and President Hashemi-Rafsanjani of havingordered the killings.

But if Germany made any efforts to soothe the Iranian concerns, he obviouslyfailed - angry crowds have encircled the German embassy in Teheran severaltimes over the past ten days. The demonstrators have threatened to takeGerman diplomats hostage in a repeat of the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, andhave asked the regime to issue a death edict against the German state prosecutor,"just as was done with [Salman] Rushdie."

Europe's so-called "critical" dialogue has brought no reliefto the millions of Iranian women who must still obtain their husband'swritten permission if they wish to travel abroad, and who can be sold into"temporary marriage" for a night to suit the whims of a relativeor friend. Nor has it won any concessions from the regime in its treatmentof its Kurdish, Balouch, or Turkoman minorities. Religious oppression againstthe Sunni Muslim minority and against Baha'is has actually worsened overthe past year, according to the latest report from the United Nation'sSpecial Rapporteur for Iran, Professor Maurice Copithorne.

The regime feels so brazen in the face of European "criticism"that it has now taken to harassing dissident writers. The most recent caseis that of Faraj Sarkouhi, who was last seen at Teheran's Mehrebad airporton November 3 as he was about to board a flight to Frankfurt. He has notbeen heard of since. The opposition Iran Nation's Party in Teheran claimshe was taken to an Intelligence ministry safe house, tortured, and killed.These allegations are now being repeated by Iranian exiles in Europe andthe U.S.

Even the one gain Europe can show for its "critical" dialogue- money - is uncertain. Teheran's rulers have proven themselves to be unreliable,prone to late payment and adept at using coercion to win concessions. Theyhave canceled signed agreements with a flick of the wrist and have kidnappeddiplomats and foreign businessmen as a coin of exchange.

Denmark's principled stand is reminiscent of the role its Swedish neighborplayed in the 1970s and 1980s in mounting an international campaign againstanother heinous regime - the apartheid government in South Africa. Swedenestablished very warm relations with the opposition African National Congress,promoting their cause in international assemblies and secretly providinghundreds of millions of dollars in covert funding.

European leaders argue, of course, that there is no Iranian Nelson Mandelafor them to support. But they miss the point. While Sweden was supportingthe ANC, Nelson Mandela was in jail and reduced to silence. The NelsonMandelas of tomorrow's Iran are also in jail. But there are democraticopposition groups who are fighting just as hard for freedom in Iran asthe ANC was fighting against apartheid in South Africa. It is the dutyof principled free people to support them. Denmark has showed the way.

Mr. Timmerman publishes The Iran Brief,a monthly investigative newsletter on strategy and trade, and is ExecutiveDirector of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, a human rights advocacygroup. Send your comments to: