The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition April 15, 1997 Review & Outlook The Truth About Iran

In what should be considered an indictment of European policy toward Iran, President Hashemi Rafsanjani dismissed the current diplomatic row between his country and Europe as merely a passing storm. He said that European countries would soon return their ambassadors to Tehran, just like they did following their abortive protests against the bounty placed on Salman Rushdie's head in 1989.

The prediction is chilling both because it is probably true, and because Mr. Rafsanjani himself was one of the men accused by a Berlin court Thursday of having directed the assassination of a prominent Kurdish dissident and three colleagues in Berlin in September 1992. Given the overwhelming evidence and the astonishing witnesses produced by the German state prosecutor, the verdict in the "Mykonos" case (named after the restaurant where the assassinations took place) was what most observers were expecting. Life sentences were given to Kazem Darabi, an Iranian intelligence agent, and his Lebanese trigger man.

Shorter prison terms were given to two other members of the hit squad. But the most significant aspect was the court's finding that prosecutors had proven that the assassination had been ordered by Iran's "Committee for Special Operations," comprised of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, President Rafsanjani, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Information and Security Minister Ali Fallahian. The court said the logistics of the operation were overseen by Mr. Fallahian, and since the court had previously issued an international arrest warrant for him, the case remains open.

One of the prosecution's star witnesses was former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani Sadr (1980-81), whose testimony implicated the "Committee for Special Operations" and led to the arrest warrant for Mr. Fallahian. The charges were corroborated by "Witness C," now known to be Abol Ghasen Mesbahi, who served until 1995 as an aide to Mr. Rafsanjani and as a senior intelligence official in charge of foreign terrorist networks. He said that Messrs. Rafsanjani and Khameini had personally signed the assassination order. At a minimum, the verdict should disabuse people of the seductive belief that there are powerful "moderates" within Iran who can benefit from Western support.

Mr. Rafsanjani, after all, was supposed to be their leader. Even if one discounts the evidence of his involvement in these murders, his description of the findings of an independent German judiciary as an insult manufactured by an international conspiracy led by Israel and the U.S. are hardly the words of a reasonable man with any respect for the institutions of liberal democracy. There are undoubtedly moderates in Iran, but they aren't in power.

Thus we suppose we should applaud the decisions of the EU members who chose to recall their diplomats from Iran. But that was really the minimum they could do to ensure their safety in the face of angry mobs egged on by Iran's leaders and state-controlled press. And although the EU has announced it will end its policy of "critical dialogue" with Iran, it is not clear that such semantic changes will mean any long-term change of policy. Most EU members, for example, completely reject the idea of imposing any trade sanctions. If the end of "critical dialogue" simply means Europe will keep supporting Iran minus the pretense that verbal criticism can be effective, this shift in policy will be hollow indeed.

The Berlin revelations lend weight to those in the West who argue that the Iranian regime is incorrigible and must therefore be punished by isolation to the extent possible. We are not great fans of economic sanctions but if these are the only tools that Western policy makers are bold enough to use, they are perhaps better than nothing.

Europe, however, has not been prepared to go even that far. The Foundation for Democracy in Iran, for example, suggests that Europe should stop providing preferential bank loans and export-credit guarantees to Iran; Europe should halt trade that supplies Iranian arms factories and oil fields; and Europe should work to dismantle Iranian terrorist networks operating out of embassies and "Islamic study centers." Europe also owes at least moral support to the thousands of Iranian dissident and exiles working to change the regime. While the verdict was read on Thursday, hundreds of Iranian exiles celebrated outside the courthouse. They are the face of the kind of Iran we would like to see in the future.

The question, of course, is how to bring about change in a benighted nation that sits in a strategically important corner of the world. There is very little evidence that "critical dialogue" has accomplished anything. If Europe would join the U.S. in applying serious squeeze we would at least see whether maximum pressure would have any effect. Such a squeeze backed with U.S.-European solidarity on demands for internationally supervised elections and renunciation of state-financed terror could hardly be ignored. Whatever one thinks of trade sanctions, it is clear that the world cannot continue to do business as usual with a regime that regards murder as a legitimate way to neutralize the opposition. The Mykonos verdict only highlights the urgency to decide what the new policy will be.