Déja Vu

Iran’s Assassins in Berlin

The determination of the prosecutor, the press, and the Iranian exile community made all the difference in Germany, where the courts ruled against Iran’s highest leaders.

03.27.15 9:15 AM ET

The Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman died mysteriously in January while trying to prove that the Argentine government helped cover up Iran’s responsibility for the horrific bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires more than 20 years ago. On Thursday, the country’s federal appeals court dismissed Nisman’s accusations, as many expected it would. Whatever the legal merits of Nisman’s arguments, it has been clear for a very long time now that the case against Iran would go nowhere in Argentina.

Elsewhere in the world, however, the cause of justice has been better served.

Nisman had a predecessor in Germany named Bruno Jost (pronounced Yost). Like Nisman, Jost was at the peak of his career when he was handed what he quickly recognized to be “the case of a lifetime.” Like Nisman, Jost was assigned to investigate a major crime, the 1992 assassination of three Iranian Kurdish leaders and their close friend at a restaurant named Mykonos in Berlin. Also like Nisman, Jost determined that Iran masterminded the crime while his own government was standing in the way of the pursuit of justice. Today, Jost lives. He’s retired and delights in beekeeping and looking after his grandchildren. But Nisman is dead. Two parallel cases, yet two vastly different destinies for their investigators.

The reasons are many, the most obvious of which are the very different histories that separate the two countries. But even in Germany, the pursuit of justice came at a very high price and was never guaranteed.

It came, in a small but important part, because Germany has historically been home to a robust community of exiled Iranian dissidents and veteran political activists who relentlessly and unceasingly organized and kept the story from fading into oblivion. Within hours after the assassinations, they were demonstrating beyond the police lines at the restaurant, their verdict scrawled on placards: “Tehran—guilty!”

Germans, however, needed more convincing. The next morning, some dailies ran headlines implicating Saddam Hussein by way of his longstanding animus toward the Kurds, while others raised suspicions about a rivalry over power among competing Kurdish groups.

Ironically, Tehran was the most unabashedly forthcoming. In an interview on national television a week before the killings, the minister of intelligence, Ali Fallahian, threatened to hunt and eliminate all enemies of Iran, especially the Kurdish leadership, no matter where they lived. The following June at a press conference, when asked whether Iran had a hand in the assassinations in Berlin, the interior minister, Abdollah Nouri, announced that Iran was merely taking action against a group of terrorists.

Yet it took the discovery of the murder weapons to sway German public opinion. The stash, sloppily thrown away, was recovered under a used Audi at a car dealership. Forensic tests showed that the weapons had been sold to Iran’s royal army by Spain in the 1970s, which meant the killers’ supply had come from the post-revolutionary military.

When, in April 1993, Bruno Jost submitted his indictment implicating Tehran, naming Fallahian the chief architect of the crime, rumors spread that the timing of his findings was part of a larger conspiracy to halt the “Critical Dialogue” between Iran and the West. Comparable to the current nuclear negotiations, the Dialogue was a series of talks which Europe had begun with Iran weeks before the assassinations took place.

Germany, the Dialogue’s chief engineer, was determined to make Iran palatable for the European community. It’s the least Germany, having replaced the United States as Iran’s greatest Western ally, could do for her. Trade between the two nations had reached $5 billion in 1991. Iran’s shares in German stocks exceeded $200 million. The two countries had exchanged more than 300 political, economic, cultural, and legal delegations, half of which included parliamentary members from both sides.

Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl regarded the opening to Iran as a major diplomatic opportunity for Germany to show leadership in the Middle East. But in time the Dialogue proved to be tangential to the overriding desire, to the need, in the German society to see the judiciary work.

Jost had a major advantage. He was investigating in the shadow of the World War II blunders and the fundamental transformations that the German justice system had undergone. By the time the trial was set to begin, Tehran was no longer the focus of popular attention. Now, it was Germany, herself, on trial, with something grand to prove about her own credibility and the authenticity of her reformation.

A cast of brilliant and unyielding journalists was committed to keeping the story alive. Over time, they learned to reach out to the highly knowing but socially alienated Iranian dissident refugees for additional clues. A perfect storm of forces came together. Exiles, who knew well how to organize, organized. Journalists whose business it was to subject the conduct of their politicians and government to grueling scrutiny did so. And a judiciary that had been overhauled to never again be influenced by politicians proved inured to influence.

Tensions from all sides reached a crescendo by May 1993, putting an end to a few storied careers. In June, the uncompromising chief federal prosecutor, Alexander von Stahl, once one of the rising stars of Germany’s conservative politics, was forced to resign. Von Stahl had disobeyed the justice ministry’s demands to keep the scope of the investigation small, and signed off on the indictment which implicated Tehran.

The intelligence czar Bernd Schmidbauer secretly met with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Fallahian, in October. Fallahian had brought offers to release several Western hostages in Lebanon in exchange for preventing the trial from starting. When Schmidbauer told Fallahian he did not have the power to influence the court, his disbelieving counterpart stormed out in anger.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

The trial did start. Schmidbauer was subpoenaed to testify about the leaked news of his secret visit with Fallahian, which until then he had publicly denied took place. The testimony was a major blow to him and branded him as agent “008” for years to come.

It took a four-year-trial, which cost $3 million and placed 176 witnesses on the stand in 246 sessions, for the historic judgment from the court to come forth in April 1997.

The case is among Germany’s most notable legal landmarks since the Nuremberg Trials: The judgment named the names of Iran’s highest leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In response, a unified European Union cut ties with Iran and recalled its ambassadors, blanketing her in a diplomatic blackout, which, unlike the loss of ties with the United States, was no longer publicly defensible or justifiable by Tehran.

The valor that Bruno Jost showed despite the fatwas against him and his family was on par with that of the fictional Atticus Finch. Yet, accepting the Federal Bar Association’s first Rule of Law Award in New York City in February 2014, he self-effacingly insisted that he was not a hero, but a public servant who had merely done his job.

Terrorism, the most dangerous epidemic of our time, has proved highly contagious. But, if the Mykonos trial is any indication, the rule of law can serve as a potent vaccine. By upholding the truth, the court in Berlin gave justice to the victims and their families, stared down the Iranian regime, exposed corruption and abuse of power among German politicians, and proved to the public that it had truly exorcised its past demons. A host of other significant fallouts also resulted. Witnessing the judgment they had never expected to come forth, the disaffected exile community became far more invested in German and European citizenship. The system had proved it could work for them, that it did not use them as pawns, that it was loyal to them, and so they became loyal to it.

A butterfly fluttered its wings in a court in Berlin, and a storm followed in Tehran. 1997 was an election year. A little-known candidate named Mohammad Khatami had entered the fray, but was lagging in the polls. Then came the judgment that April, forcing Iran to recognize the need for a major facelift. By July 1997, the era of reform had officially been heralded in Iran, and its face was the smiling face of the newly elected Khatami. The reforms ultimately failed, true, and Khatami proved, albeit benign, tragically ineffectual. But the opening was a breakthrough which momentarily lifted censorship and elevated the public discourse, electrifying an entire generation.

I once asked Alexander von Stahl why he risked his career on a single case. His response—simple, elegant, and unforgettable—revealed the spirit that guided the course of the case even after he was booted: “I could not allow the streets of my beloved country to turn into the playpen of rogues.”

Whether the same spirit can cross over into another continent to move the course of the Argentines’ investigation is to be seen. But this much is for sure: The sum of the 1994 AMIA bombing, Iran’s lethal role, the misconduct of former President Carlos Menem, an alleged conspiracy to halt the nuclear negotiations, the mysterious murder of Alberto Nisman, and the alleged corruption of President Cristina Kirchner or the Argentine Intelligence all add up to something larger. It is about Argentina herself, the state of her republic, and whether the ghosts of its dirty past are truly buried or still lurking in the shadows.