Europe, Iran & Sarkuhi


Ray Moseley
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

A Berlin court will rule soon in a case that could mark the end of Europe's "critical dialogue" with Iran as a means of influencing its behavior.

After a three-year trial, the court will judge five men accused of gunning down four Iranian Kurds who were in Germany for a meeting of the Socialist International. The men were slain in 1992 at the Berlin restaurant Mykonos.

Witnesses have told the court that Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian spiritual leader, gave the orders for the assassination of the Kurds, who had been campaigning for regional autonomy in Iran.

If the court accepts that as fact, then German prosecutors are expected to indict the two leaders.

In Germany, no one is quite sure what the Iranian reaction would be. Informed guesses range from a wave of terrorism to little more than howls of protest.

Few believe German-Iranian relations will not be downgraded if the Lebanese men accused of being the hired killers of the Kurds are convicted.

Germany is Iran's biggest trading partner and has been one of the leading European advocates of a "critical dialogue" with Iran--a policy that is followed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by other European Union member states.

In recent months, German relations with Iran have been in a dive because of a series of Iranian actions, the most serious of which was the arrest of Iranian editor Faraj Sarkuhi at Tehran's Mehrabad airport on Nov. 3.

German authorities believe Sarkuhi, who is accused of spying for the West, is being used as a pawn by the Iranian government to try to blackmail Bonn into softening the expected Mykonos verdict.

Iranian authorities have warned Germany not to meddle in the affair. Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel has argued Germany has a legitimate interest because Sarkuhi's wife and children are in Germany.

In the view of some foreign policy experts, the Mykonos trial and the Sarkuhi case have all but driven the last nails into the coffin of "critical dialogue" with Iran as far as Germany is concerned.

Kinkel says a phase of "active influence" is going to start, but exactly what he means by that, and whether recent developments will lead to a reduction of trade trade with Iran, remain uncertain.

German imports from Iran last year totaled $691.7 million, a decrease of 7.4 percent from the previous year; exports went up fractionally to $991 million.

Overall European trade with Iran has been declining slightly. Imports from Iran totaled $6 billion in 1991 but had dropped to $5.65 billion by 1995, the last year for which figures are available from the European Commission in Brussels.

Exports, which had reached $7.5 billion in 1991, fell much more sharply to $3.4 billion.

Karl Becher of the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn said European companies generally have discovered the business atmosphere in Iran is not good, profits are uncertain and risks are high.

The Clinton administration does not oppose dialogue with Iran. Yet, while the U.S. is prepared to talk, it does object strongly to economic relationships with a regime that it holds responsible for promoting terrorism, seeking to undermine the Middle East peace process and aiming to acquire nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.

It argues that countries that trade with Iran are sending an unintentional signal to Tehran that it can act as it wishes and not pay a price for its misbehavior.

Europeans contend, on the other hand, that sanctions would only encourage Iran to continue acting irresponsibly. When the U.S. first raised the issue several years ago, the Europeans pointed out that American companies were the leaders in trade with Iran.

"There was some truth in that," a U.S. diplomat said. Consequently, President Clinton imposed a unilateral embargo on trade with Iran in October 1995 and appealed for other nations to join. Europe ignored the appeal.

Congress has since enacted legislation that would penalize foreign companies for investing more than $40 million a year in Iran.

So far no European country has, so the legislation has not been invoked, but it represents an important irritant in U.S.-European relations.

Just two weeks ago, the German news magazine Der Spiegel revealed that a CIA official in Germany, whom it identified as Peyton Humphries, had been given until May to leave Germany.

Its initial report suggested he had been spying on Germany, but later the magazine said he had tried to recruit a government official to provide lists of German high-tech companies doing business with Iran and to supply information on German government loan guarantees for Iranian exports.

Kinkel has been Germany's leading advocate of dialogue with Iran and of improving relations with the Islamic world generally.

Early last year he tried to organize an Islamic conference in Bonn, but he was forced to cancel it after Tehran praised suicide bombers from the Palestinian radical organization Hamas who killed 62 Israelis.

In March last year, as a result of testimony at the Mykonos trial, German prosecutors issued a murder warrant against Iranian Security Minister Ali Fallahian, who had made an official visit to Germany.

Iran demanded that the German government have the warrant quashed. Bonn pointed out that the government does not interfere with the independent prosecutor's office.

Late last year Bernd Schmidbauer, the head of German intelligence, flew to Lebanon to try to negotiate between Iran and Israel over the fate of a captured Israeli flyer.

Since then he has been under heavy criticism in parliament because it was revealed he had negotiated with Fallahian.

In the same period, Iranians broke into the Tehran house of the Germany Embassy's cultural attache, who had assembled a group of dissident writers to talk about their work.

Whether this was done at the behest of the regime, or by a faction seeking to damage German-Iranian relations, was unclear.

Since the shah's overthrow in 1979, more than 350 critics of the regime in 21 countries have been killed or wounded, with two-thirds of the attacks coming in the last seven years, according to Britain's parliamentary human rights group.

All of this suggests to American officials that "critical dialogue" has not worked.

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