AMMAN — Sentences handed down by a German court yesterday accuse Iran's leaders of ordering the assassination of Iranian dissidents in Berlin in 1992. But the case will have far more impact than a typical murder trial.
By implicating Iran's spiritual leader and its sitting president, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in ordering the attack, German prosecutors have struck a blow at European relations with Iran and raised questions about how the West should deal with state sponsors of terrorism.
With the perpetrators of the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, still at large in Libya, and few hard leads in the more recent Al-Khobar blast in Saudi Arabia that left 19 US servicemen dead, the details about Iran's hit squads abroad have been difficult to find.
Iran has for years been high on the US State Department's list of states that support terrorism - along with Libya, Iraq, Cuba, Sudan, North Korea, and Syria - and Washington's policy has been to isolate Iran with unilateral sanctions, threatening further retaliation if ties to the Al-Khobar bombing are found.
But the new revelations underscore a dilemma as Western nations try to stamp out terrorist acts.
Is "critical dialogue" with suspect states the best way to change their behavior? Germany has been at the forefront of this European policy toward Iran, which calls for high-profile demands on human rights and terrorism while still doing business with Iran.
The US has called for total isolation of Iran and clings to sanctions that may most harm US businesses. But Washington seems to be rethinking its strategy.
"Neither policy has worked," says a Western diplomat in Tehran during a recent interview. "Germany has been made to look bad, and the Americans and everybody else are unable to change a thing."
The convictions of four men for the killings at Berlin's Mykonos restaurant, however - about which German presiding Judge Frithjof Kubsch said "Iran's political leadership ordered the crime" - has brought the dilemma into sharp focus.
"It is proven that there was an official liquidation order," Mr. Kubsch said, to the cheers of Iranian dissidents outside. The court found that orders came from a secret council for special operations, he said, adding that both Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Rafsanjani sat on the council.
Iran has denied involvement, and taken offense at the use of the testimony of high-ranking former officials, now in exile, for key evidence linking current top officials to the killings. Still, Britain's parliamentary Human Rights Group last year found a pattern in which Iran's agents killed 11 critics of the regime in the first five months of 1996, more than in all 1995. It counted 215 overseas attacks since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, in which more than 350 critics in 21 countries were killed or wounded.
The State Department and CIA also tabulate victims of bombings against US and other targets, including Lebanon in the 1980s and suicide bombings in Israel and the Occupied Territories, all carried out by groups claiming allegiance to Tehran. More than 1,000 people have died in such attacks since the Islamic revolution.
Prosecutors say Tehran made threats toward Bonn in 1993 in an effort to keep the case from coming to trial, and issued a warrant for Iran's Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahiyan.
After the verdict, Iranian exile leader Massoud Radjavi spelled out the German predicament: "There is now absolutely no justification for the continuation of the 'critical dialogue' policy and for the appeasement of this regime."
Still, in Tehran, an Iranian government official found the case to be ridiculous. Though German prosecutors said they did not want to "bend" to political pressure to find Iran guilty, an Iranian official was dismissive: "They believe the testimony of people whose sole mission in life is to discredit the regime."