By J.D. BINDENAGEL AND ROYA HAKAKIAN
As Iran says it plans to upgrade its main nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz, and talks on its disputed nuclear program are set to resume this month with world powers, we can look to one brilliant example — mostly unknown and forgotten — that shows that Tehran can bend to international pressure.
The year was 1992, yet in certain ways it might as well have been 2013. Iran was a leading foreign policy issue for the West, which wanted to address its concerns through peaceful and diplomatic avenues. Germany had spearheaded an initiative called the “critical dialogue” and was determined to unravel diplomacy’s Gordian knot: to engage Tehran while also addressing issues such as Iran’s arms procurement, human rights record, support of international terrorism and opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Since the mid-1980s, Germany had led the West in negotiations with Tehran, the first of which was a series of talks between Iran and several crucial members of the European Union. As Iran’s biggest trading partner in the West, Germany was an outspoken supporter of engagement with the Islamic Republic. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany’s foreign secretary, became the first Western official to visit Tehran since the Iranian Revolution, and he was also the first Western official in 1987 to publicly condemn Iraq for attacking Iran.
The U.S. embassy in Bonn watched these efforts at engagement, while the United States maintained economic sanctions. After all, the prospect was promising. Ayatollah Khomeini had died and it appeared so had the hardline era he had heralded. For the “reformist” president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, rebuilding post-war Iran after the ten-year war with Iraq — one of the costliest of the century — was at the top of his agenda. To the E.U., this was a golden moment to embrace the “moderates” in Tehran and weaken the radicals. The E.U. went so far as to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic and lift economic sanctions. Iran, in turn, helped to secure the release of all Western hostages held by Hezbollah.
In July 1992, senior Iranian and European officials convened a diplomatic roundtable, discussing a critical-dialogue initiative that would be officially announced in December 1992. However, in September, just three months before the announcement, four Iranian Kurdish leaders visiting Germany were assassinated in Berlin at a restaurant called Mykonos. While the critical dialogue still began as planned, its fate was sealed by those murders.
On April 10, 1997, nearly five years after the assassinations, Berlin’s high court convicted four men and acquitted one for their involvement. But above all, the court noted that Iran’s political leadership ordered the crime. A delegation from the American embassy attended the final day of that historic trial and listened as the verdict implicated figures in the Iranian leadership, which included the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei; President Rafsanjani; and the foreign minister, Ali Velayati, as the masterminds of the assassinations. That day, Iran felt the force of the rule of law and the principles upon which a true democracy stands. As a result of the ruling, the E.U. cut ties with Tehran, withdrew its ambassadors, and terminated the critical dialogue policy, achieving what perpetual threats of war have yet to do: Iran ceased its terror operations on European soil.
More than twenty years later, the Iranian masterminds of the Mykonos assassinations are still important figures in the regime. The surveillance and spying of exiled dissidents and political opponents continue. Governments and nongovernmental organizations have spent millions and made endless efforts to encourage a democratic movement in Iran, with little success.
These attempts have not accomplished what the Mykonos trial and the guilty verdict did in its simplicity. Iranian exiles in Berlin and the world have had a glimpse of how real democracy works to combat terrorism. The rule of law and its unequivocal message to Tehran in the form of the judgment forced Tehran to change its outlaw behavior. State-based terrorism is a feeble and illegitimate basis to govern and the regime’s survival at the time dictated that they back down and end assassinations.
Iran’s democratic movement is suppressed. But this much is certain: the Iranian regime seeks a sense of legitimacy and sympathy that it does not deserve. The painful history of the Mykonos assassinations is a luminous example of how the rule of law, clarity of message and unity of the international community — if steadfast and determined — can prevent Iranian terrorism and effectively derail Tehran in reaching its nuclear goals.
(J.D. Bindenagel is a former U.S. ambassador and career diplomat who served in German affairs at the State Department and in Germany. Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian, and “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace,” about the Mykonos trial.)