Details of Berlin's role in prisoner release hazy
News analysis
Nicholas Blanford
Daily Star staff
Dec 19, 1999
The real winner in Monday's release of five resistance fighters appears to be the German government, whose role as mediator between Hizbullah and Israel furthers Berlin's efforts to restore profitable commercial and political ties with Iran after relations cooled two years ago.
The details of the prisoner release are vague, with Germany remaining tight-lipped over its role in the deal.
"There has been a mediation role but we have no further information," the German Foreign Ministry said when contacted by The Daily Star on Tuesday.
The German Embassy in Beirut was similarly taciturn.
There is speculation that Israel released the prisoners in exchange for information on the fate of Ron Arad, the Israeli Air Force navigator who was shot down over Lebanon and captured in 1986. Israel is holding 16 other Lebanese, including senior resistance leaders Sheikh Abdel-Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, as bargaining chips for information on Arad.
The Israeli airman was initially held by Amal before being snatched by members of Dirani's Believers' Resistance.
Dirani is thought to have handed Arad to Iran. As such, Israeli intelligence remains convinced that Iran holds the key to Arad's whereabouts. If true, then Germany has the potential to mediate the release of the remaining 16 prisoners by taking advantage of its traditionally close links with Iran to deliver concrete evidence on Arad's fate. Germany has a history of involvement in mediating between Hizbullah, Iran and Israel going back to the hostage crisis during the 1980s. In July 1996, Bernd Schmidbauer, a German intelligence official, brokered the exchange of two dead Israeli soldiers for 45 prisoners from Khiam detention center and the remains of 123 resistance fighters. Schmidbauer reportedly also attempted to become involved a year later in efforts to swap the remains of an Israeli soldier killed with 11 others in a Hizbullah ambush in Insariyeh. His attempts failed and France subsequently brokered the deal.
The reason was blamed on a collapse of diplomatic relations between Germany and Iran when in April 1997, a Berlin court convicted Kazem Darabi, a high-ranking official in the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, and three Lebanese for the killings of Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant. The court ruled that Iran's spiritual leader Ali Khameini and then-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had ordered the killings, a decision which infuriated Tehran.
Five months later, German businessman Helmut Hofer was arrested in Iran and charged with having illegal sex with a Muslim woman. Hofer was convicted and sentenced to death in January 1998. The death sentence was subsequently lifted but new charges were leveled at him last August, days after the German government had arrested an Iranian on suspicion of spying.
Hofer was released on bail last Thursday and is scheduled to stand trial on Jan. 20 for insulting a police officer, the same date as the trial of the alleged Iranian spy in Germany is expected to end.
Although no clear link has been established between the two trials and Germany's role in the prisoner swap, analysts and diplomats agree that Berlin is seeking a rapprochement with Tehran that would restore lucrative commercial ties. Germany was Iran's largest trading partner before relations soured. "I think Germany has struck a good deal for itself," said Professor Nizar Hamzi, the head of the political science department at the American University of Beirut. "I see this as a rapprochement policy which will boost Germany's status in the peace process as a confidant of Iran and Hizbullah, probably replacing France in this capacity."
A Western diplomat in Beirut said that he was not surprised to see Germany assuming the role of mediator in the prisoner release despite the recent strained relations with Iran. "It's important for the Germans not to prolong isolation with Iran because there's too much money to be made. It's not in their interests to play tough when everyone else is speaking of constructive dialogue with Iran," the source said.
The diplomat denied knowledge of the details surrounding the prisoner release but said that he was certain that information on Arad?s fate was not part of the deal.
"We haven't heard anything on the Arad file for two or three years. One or two people know what happened to him but they're not talking at the moment. I seriously doubt he's still alive," the source said.
The diplomat added that Iran had plenty of opportunities in the past to "play the Arad card."
"The reason they haven't suggests to me that the Iranians never had any information on Arad, otherwise they would have made good use of it a long time ago," he said.
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