At least 60 critics of the regime in Iran have been murdered in Europe since Iran's 1979 revolution, but until an April 10 decision by a German judge, no European court had blamed Iran for the crimes.
Now Europeans must decide how sharply the German case will alter their own relations with the regime. Hours after the Berlin verdict, 14 of the 15 members of the European Union (EU) recalled ambassadors from Iran and formally suspended a five-year "critical dialogue" with that country. On Tuesday, European foreign ministers will meet to decide whether to lift the suspension or to take stronger punitive action.
Until the Berlin ruling, Europeans had argued that there was no evidence to support the American claim that Iran is committing terrorist acts in Europe. The German judge left little doubt: The 1992 order to assassinate four Iranian Kurd leaders in a Berlin restaurant came from the "Committee for Special Operations," he said. That committee includes Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Secret Service chief Ali Fallahian, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Easing tensions with US
Washington applauded the decision as a vindication of its own policy of isolating Iran as a "rogue state" that sponsors terrorism around the world. This week, a US State Department delegation visited The Hague, Paris, Bonn, and London to urge Europeans to "take advantage of the opening we all have to reengineer a common policy against Iran."
A day after the Berlin verdict, Washington also agreed to shelter European companies from provisions of the D'Amato law, citing the speed of the European response to the German case. The US law penalizes foreign companies investing in Iran and Libya and has been a major sticking point in US-European relations.
While Europeans welcome the more conciliatory American attitude toward Europe's Iran policy, they are unlikely to back stronger measures against Iran at next week's meeting. Instead, they are likely to agree on a coordinated return of ambassadors and set terms for a new talks with Iran. "It's important to keep some form of dialogue with Iran. The US policy of containment has not been an effective method," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Yves Doutriaux Wednesday. "But we've made it very clear to Iran that they can't use European territory to settle political accounts."
"Commerce and politics should be kept separate," adds a French official.
German diplomats have also rejected joining an economic embargo on Iran in retaliation for terrorist acts. "The 'critical dialogue' may be at an end, but Germany and Europe must maintain contact with Tehran. With 65 million inhabitants, Iran isn't a small state, but a regional power in the Persian Gulf, a military power, and one of the principal actors in in the Middle East," argued the influential Munich Daily Sddeutsche Zeitung last week.
"Down the line, Iran is going to be the key market and superpower in the region. That's where the deals will be made, and competition is keen among Europeans to have a piece of it.... They may take a baby step backwards after [the Berlin verdict], but they will be right back in the game very soon," says James Bill, an Iran expert and director of international relations at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Change of pace for Iran?
But the legal implications of the Berlin decision for curbing terrorist acts in Europe may have more of an impact in Iran.
In the past, Tehran has pressured European governments to blunt the impact of terrorist investigations in Europe, citing Iranian help in obtaining the release of European hostages or, indirectly, threatening reprisals in Europe such as the 1986 wave of terrorist bombings in Paris. The Berlin ruling broke the assumption that no European court would dare implicate the Iranian government in terrorist acts.
For example, in December 1993, France refused to extradite two suspects wanted by Swiss courts in connection with the 1990 murder of Kazem Radjavi, the brother of an Iranian resistance leader, citing "the superior interests of the state." This was in spite of the fact that the Swiss judge investigating the case had argued that preliminary evidence suggested that one or more official Iranian services were directly involved in the assassination.
A French court investigating the 1991 killing of Chapour Bakhtiar, a prominent dissident and former Iranian president, in Paris condemned the murderers, but stopped short of naming Iranian government officials as responsible for the killings - a point praised by the official Iranian press, which followed the case.
Iranian dissidents say that a 1990 French presidential pardon for Anis Naccache, a terrorist convicted of a first attempt to murder Bakhtiar, was a signal that Iran could strike again with impunity. Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon had demanded the release of Mr. Naccache in exchange for the release of French hostages in Lebanon.
Iran tries to squelch case
Tehran publicly pressured the German government to squelch the Berlin case, citing the help Iranian diplomats had provided in obtaining the release of German hostages in Lebanon. But foreign ministry officials say they refused to try to influence the case.
He also solicited testimony from a wide range of Iranian exiles, including former Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr.
Mr. Bani-Sadr's testimony, along with that of a former Iranian intelligence officer, was key to establishing the involvement of top Iranian officials in the Berlin case.
"There is very little doubt that Iran has been involved in violent activity in Europe for control of the revolution. But ... it's important to look at the whole mosaic," says Professor Bill.
"In a regional context, Iran has been a responsible and constructive force for peace in Central Asia, where it has mediated talks between coreligionists and former Communists - and where it is in a position to stir up trouble if it wanted to," he adds.