Terror in the Shadow of the Holocaust

By Sohrab Ahmari
Friday, February 10, 2012

For most people, "Mykonos" evokes sunny holidays on the Greek coast.  But for the Iranian diaspora, the word is a warning that the murderous arm of the Islamic Republic can reach Iranian immigrants even when they find new homes in the democratic West.  Mykonos was the name of a nondescript, now defunct, Greek eatery in Berlin where, on September 17, 1992, a team of Islamic Republic agents murdered four Iranian dissidents in an act of terror.  Mykonos shattered the German illusion that Iran was a moderate regime amenable to reason and negotiation.

Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, Iranian-American journalist Roya Hakakian's book on the Mykonos killing, was published this fall just as news emerged of an Iran-backed plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington.  Some skeptics dismissed U.S. claims about Iran's role; but Hakakian's meticulously documented account of the Mykonos incident is a powerful rejoinder, as well as a lesson in ruthlessness and conscience.

After the first Gulf War, the United States and its allies imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and gave Iraqi Kurds a respite from decades of Ba'athist terror.  Tehran, fearing that the sight of this freedom might embolden Iranian Kurds in their own centuries-long quest for autonomy, stepped up its efforts to silence Iranian Kurdish dissidents abroad.  Having previously disposed of a charismatic Iranian Kurdish leader in Vienna in 1989, Tehran placed his successor, Sadegh Sharafkandi, in its crosshairs.  Upon learning of his plans to visit Berlin to address German social democrats, the regime activated one of its many European cells to liquidate Sharafkandi, two of his aides, and a fourth advocate of the Kurdish cause.

The assassination team was composed of an Iranian intelligence officer, three Hezbollah jihadists, an Iranian-German businessman tasked with coordinating the killers' efforts, and a young Lebanese named Yousef Amin, who was assigned the role of watchman.  German federal police, following physical evidence, arrested Amin.  He made a confession, then tried to take it back.  But thanks to the information he supplied, plus brilliant investigating by a German prosecutor, the Iranian-German agent and one of the jihadists were apprehended and put on trial.

Yet, despite evidence that the Mykonos killings were directed by the highest Iranian echelons, Germany's political leadership looked the other way and even attempted to derail the investigation and trial.  At the time, Hakakian explains, Germany took pride in its role as a "global broker among Iran, Israel, and the United States.  German officials had initiated a continental effort to recast the image of Iran as an authentic, albeit imperfect, democracy."  Mykonos threatened to throw a wrench into this rebranding effort.  So, German politicians tried to frame Mykonos as a product of intra-Kurdish rivalry rather than an act of the Iranian state.

Their effort was part of a broader phenomenon.  Throughout the 1990s, European officialdom failed to respond firmly to Islamist terror originating from Iran.  This failure set the stage for far greater catastrophes in the next decade. "The fact that the international community didn't pay attention," Hakakian told me, "enabled and empowered copycats who later came on the scene and hatched bigger plans."  Islamist terror, she says, finds its first victims among immigrants from Muslim lands but never stops there: "You can't be dismissive of what's happening to those who are powerless in your community—immigrants and exiles—because the crimes that victimize them will inevitably come to you if not handled with due justice."

Mykonos and the European opportunism it represented added to the suffering of an already traumatized diaspora.  In capturing the pain of these exiles, many of whom had helped bring the ayatollahs to power, Hakakian's narrative shines.  The dissidents, finding themselves on the losing end of a "historic failure of infinite proportions," as one of them put it, feared that unscrupulous Western governments would abandon them in favor of "dialogue" with the mullahs—and investment opportunities in Iran.

But in this case the exiles' pessimism was misplaced. Thanks to the heroism of a handful of German professionals—ministers, judges, prosecutors, and journalists—the Mykonos investigation and trial, spanning half a decade, ended in a remarkable victory for the diaspora.  The Iranian regime stood indicted for murder in a court of law and the court of European public opinion.

The heroes of Mykonos included Alexander von Stahl, Germany's chief prosecutor, who jeopardized his career to ensure that "the streets of his country would not be turned into rogues' gaming grounds, be the victims German or not."  At personal risk, Bruno Jost, the tireless prosecutor on the case, sought an arrest warrant for the Iranian minister of intelligence, an unprecedented move.  The trial judge, Frithjof Kubsch, despite threats on his life, patiently persevered through the defendants' every dilatory tactic and meritless motion.

What inspired these and other German profiles in courage?  Sympathy for the victims was of course a factor.  But after hundreds of hours of interviews, Hakakian concludes there may have been another force behind their remarkable conduct.  When she asked them why they acted against their professional advantage, Hakakian told me, "they all mentioned knowing the price of a guilty conscience.  It was very clear that everybody was alluding to the crimes of Nazi Germany. They felt that no matter what the price they would do the right thing."  For the older lawyers in the case, the Mykonos case unfolded in the shadow of the Holocaust.  Men like von Stahl, Jost, and Kubsch "wanted to make sure that their corrupt politicians wouldn't influence the trial—that Germany would not end up on the side of political evil again."

Opportunism is one prominent element of postwar Europe, but the Mykonos victims were indirect beneficiaries of another post-Holocaust phenomenon: guilt for the greatest mass murder in human history, transformed into personal and collective responsibility toward victims of political evil.  Today, with the Iranian regime's drive toward nuclearization threatening the entire Mideast, that sense of responsibility is more vital than ever.

Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American journalist and a nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

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