The verdict that shook Iran and Europe
They say a good news story is like an onion. The more one peels it, the newer and fresher are the layers that surface. If depth and longevity are the gold standards for a news story, then the assassinations of four Iranian opposition members at the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin in September 1992 surpasses that standard. That story is more like a cluster bomb: 20 years later, it continues to explode. The verdict that was issued in Germany five years after the killings, and the subsequent decision by the European Union to cut ties with Tehran in 1997, achieved what perpetual threats of war have not.
What was the achievement? To a multitude of Iranian exiles, first and foremost, it was the bestowing of an elemental human gift – safety. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s henchmen were methodically killing a list of 500 dissidents – artists, writers, intellectuals and opposition members – against whom the Ayatollah had issued fatwas. These “anointed” individuals were not safe whether they were in Washington, Rome, Paris or Geneva.
As European governments turned a blind eye, the assassins crossed border after border and accomplished their diabolical missions one after another. With dozens dead, a generation of patriotic and brilliant future leaders was lost. Until the Berlin court’s 1997 verdict, which implicated Tehran’s top leadership in masterminding the killings, the luxury of European Union safety belonged only to its native citizens.
What followed safety was dignity. Disaffected Iranian immigrants, who in Germany and elsewhere in Europe had forever felt dispensable and invisible, were empowered by the court’s nod of acknowledgement. They were able to step out of the shadows, and many invested in notions of citizenship and civil participation in their adopted communities. They were far more inclined to fully stop at the red light when the protection of the law extended to them in their adopted lands.
Western policymakers and non-governmental organizations have spent millions of dollars in efforts to circumvent Tehran and fund individuals and NGOs inside Iran to cultivate a democratic movement there. But most of these convoluted and ultimately questionable attempts never accomplished what the Mykonos trial did in its elegant simplicity.
The Mykonos case gave its spectators a glimpse of how real democracy works. Among the audience members at the trial were former Iranian political prisoners whose own trials, which had banished them to years of incarceration, had begun and ended within an hour. Their lives and dreams of an ideal society had been transformed by three and a half years of spectatorship. These dreams of an ideal society were given voice by attorney Otto Schily, later Germany’s interior minister from 1998 to 2005, who, in his closing remarks to the court, said: “For much too long, European governments have watched Iran’s violent behavior. A regime that touts terror and even commands it must not be the recipient of our loans or red carpet receptions.” Schily had hoped the judges would realize that “we all have a shared duty. All of us – citizens, men and women, and even those who are our guests – must live in safety and without fear.” The judges ruled that the Iranian government was responsible for the 1992 murders in Berlin.
We can see how effective the Mykonos verdict was simply by looking at Tehran’s treatment of it. A regime that never fails to boast (it annually marks the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy with great fanfare and has printed portraits of terrorists, such as the assassin of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, on postal stamps) has kept mum about the Mykonos case. When Tehran’s spin doctors saw that they could not spin this one, they did their best to bury it altogether. But they did not fail to register its magnitude.
The laws of political survival dictated that Tehran’s leaders retool and recast their message and image. After all, 1997 was an election year. That April, the presidential candidate, Mohammad Khatami, was lagging in the polls. By the end of June, he was elected to the presidency, beginning two unprecedented years of political openness that, for better or worse, marked the dawn of the “reform era.” In those two years, a handful of books set the national debate on a new trajectory. The most significant of these followed in the footsteps of the German prosecutors and investigated the killings of a few leading Iranian dissidents. These books drew the same conclusions that the Berlin trial had.
Is it hard to tell where Iran’s democratic movement is heading. But this much is certain: Rather than shying away from the tales of its 30-year suffering, it needs to proudly claim them as the pillars of its legitimacy. In that painful history, the Mykonos case is a luminous example of how suffering can lead to dignity and justice. It is also a guide to how the West can use a transparent approach to be on the right side of that struggle.