Court Trial in Germany Spells Trouble in Tehran

US-Iran ties may be effected by outcome of murder case

Massive protests outside a Western embassy in Tehran evidently orchestrated by elements of Iran's government. Eggs and tomatoes flying. Threats to invade the embassy, and strained diplomatic ties.

If all of the above seem like events that led to an Iranian takeover of the US Embassy in 1979, think again.

Such actions taking place outside the German Embassy in recent days may look dramatic, but they reveal a different kind of tension between Iran and a Western state.

And the outcome may very well spell the success or failure of a possible rapprochement between Iran and the US.

The source of the tension is the so-called Mykonos murder case, in which five intelligence agents of Iran are on trial for the 1992 slaying of Iranian Kurdish leader Sadiq Sarafkindi and three colleagues in the Mykonos restaurant, a Greek eatery in Berlin. German prosecutors have also explicitly accused Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, of directly ordering the murders.

The Tehran Times has hinted that the German Embassy in Tehran could be taken over as the American Embassy there was in 1979. Most observers discount that possibility, but they don't rule it out, either.

Efforts made to calm tensions

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl reminded Mr. Rafsanjani of his responsibility to protect German citizens in Iran, the 38 German diplomats and their dependents, along with some 400 other Germans. There are signs that both leaders are trying to calm the tensions. The chancellor sent a letter to Rafsanjani stressing the independence of the German judiciary from political influence, adding, "Far be it from the government or German justice to injure the religious sensibilities of your people and their spiritual leaders."

But if the verdicts in the case, expected in January, come down "guilty," the century-old special relationship between Germany and Iran is likely to suffer permanent damage. Earlier this year a federal court issued an arrest warrant for the chief of the Iranian secret police, Ali Fallahiyan, implicating him in the murders. A federal court is considering the Mykonos prosecutors' motions for arrest warrants for Rafsanjani and Mr. Khameini.

Like the earlier warrant, these would be a political gesture. But in both countries, they would be "an absolute sensation," says Wolfgang Wieland, an associate prosecutor in the Mykonos case.

All this means that the controversial policy of "critical dialogue" with Iran - long a sore point in European relations with the United States, which favors isolating Iran - may be up for revision.

Uwe Hiksch, a Social Democrat in the Bundestag and a critic of German policy, says the Mykonos trial has been "decisive" in changing minds on Iran. The Iranian government's demand that the trial be halted was seen as an unacceptable attack on the justice system, he says.

And the prosecutors' charges of orders from the top have made many Germans question the value of "dialogue" at any price. Mr. Kinkel has been insisting that "critical dialogue" remains German policy, but even within the coalition government he may be losing support. German officials are backing away from the term "critical dialogue" in favor of something that translates more like "active engagement."

Justice Minister Edzard Schmidt-Jortzig, a party colleague of Kinkel's in the centrist Free Democrats, pronounced himself "outraged" Wednesday at the call by Iranian clergy and theology students for a fatwa for the Mykonos prosecutors - a death warrant like the one on British writer Salman Rushdie.

The protest demonstrations, at the German embassy and elsewhere, along with security forces' efforts to contain them, are seen as signs of a power struggle within Iran, between those favoring further isolation of Iran and those favoring some kind of outreach to the West, including the US.

Johannes Reissner of the Science and Politics Foundation in Ebenhausen, Bavaria sees the public demonstrations in Iran as a way to let off steam: "Better to have some demonstrations now, and a resolution in the parliament [condemning the trial], than to have nothing happen now, but something much worse down the line."

Long history of strong ties

The current phase of German-Iranian relations goes back to 1979, when the US Embassy takeover resulted in the rupture in US-Iranian relations. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher saw (depending on one's point of view) either a geostrategic need or a realpolitik opportunity to close a diplomatic gap with Iran, a major Middle Eastern player.

But the German-Iranian relationship goes back to the closing years of the last century. Iran was never colonized as were other Middle Eastern countries but endured a "semicolonial" status under strong influence from Russia (subsequently the Soviet Union), and, after the discovery of oil in Iran, from Britain.

Iran reached out to Germany as a geopolitical counterweight to these other two powers. "The Iranians were always striving to get out of this 'sandwich position,' " says Udo Steinbach of the German Orient Institute in Hamburg.

All this means, Professor Steinbach says, that guilty verdicts in the Mykonos case will be a more credible indictment of the Iranian government than American criticisms.

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