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Iran: TV Report Raises Question Of Tehran's Involvement In Lockerbie

A U.S. television network report has focused attention on the possibility that Iran is linked to the Lockerbie bombing. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, questions about an Iranian role have always been part of the case -- but have never been fully answered.

Prague, 6 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A report aired by the CBS network this weekend quotes an Iranian who says he has detailed evidence that Tehran masterminded the 1988 bombing of a U.S. passenger plane over Lockerbie, Scotland.

The man, now in Turkey, identifies himself as Ahmad Behbahani and says he is the former head of Iran's foreign terrorism activities. He also gives accounts of Iranian government involvement in other attacks and assassinations over the last two decades.

Since speaking to the network, the self-described spymaster has passed into the hands of the CIA, which is debriefing him to confirm his identity and his story. That means little more information about him is likely to be known for some time.

But the report is already generating widespread interest, because it focuses new attention on one of the central questions of the Lockerbie case.

That is whether the trail of the bombing ends in Libya, as prosecutors in the case maintain. A Scottish court operating in the Netherlands is currently trying two Libyans accused of placing the bomb, which killed 270 people.

When the investigation into the bombing began 12 years ago, many investigators first believed Iran was behind the attack. They cited Iranian threats to exact revenge for the U.S. shooting down of an Iranian airbus several months earlier in the Persian Gulf -- in which 290 people died. And they cited Iranian links to some radical Palestinian groups suspected of carrying out the work.

David Claridge is an analyst at Rubicon International, a London-based security advisory service. He has been closely following the Lockerbie case. Claridge says that although the Iranian track was later abandoned by the investigators, suspicions about Iran have lingered.

"The direction of the investigation for the first several years was very much focused upon the Iranian connection. It seemed logical that Iran would be involved [because it was] a significant sponsor of terrorism during that period, and Libya has never shown the kind of logistical capability that Iran has shown. [Then] the American and British authorities switched their attention away from Iran to Libya with really very little explanation as to why they felt that the Libya case was so much more plausible."

U.S. and British government investigators have said that forensic evidence found on the ground pointed convincingly to Libyan involvement, forcing them to drop the Iranian angle and look toward Tripoli instead.

But Claridge says many close to the case feel that some of the key evidence could equally point to Iran, or to both Libya and Iran.

"The physical evidence, the fragment of electronic circuit board, which is the main piece of physical evidence which is supposed to point towards Libya -- there are also plausible theories that it points toward Iran."

He says lawyers defending the two Libyan suspects in the Netherlands will be trying to use some of that ambiguity about the evidence to suggest that the prosecution's case against them is incomplete.

"[There is] some fairly hard evidence suggesting that there is involvement of Iranian sponsored Palestinian groups, possibly the Abu Nidal organization and other Palestinian groups operating out of Germany. It is certainly the case that the defense in the trial going on at the moment intends to explore the possibility of Palestinian involvement with Iranian backing. They have made it clear that they intend to make an accusation against a Palestinian with the suggestion that the Iranians have backed them."

Under Scottish law, the defense attorneys need only to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of the panel of three judges hearing the case to win an acquittal.

If the man CBS interviewed is telling the truth, the revelations would have a direct impact on the Lockerbie trial. Claridge says:

"It is perfectly possible that you could have the involvement of both the [Libyan and Iranian] intelligence services. So just because there is Libyan involvement does not preclude Iranian involvement and vice versa. Certainly, if new evidence of this kind becomes available, it is going to blow a significant hole in the prosecution's case, which is going to require significant further investigation and examination."

Many parties and potential suspects in the case have already responded to the CBS report.

Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi said today no one named "Behbahani" ever worked for the intelligence service.

The United States says it is standing by the Scottish prosecutors trying the two Libyans. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker says, "We believe the case [in the Netherlands] is very solid." But he also says Washington will fully assess the declared Mr. Behbahani's story.

Even smaller players have had their say. Palestinian radical Ahmed Jabril, to whom Behbahani said he proposed the Lockerbie job, said he knows no such man. Jabril is secretary-general of the General Command of the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Meanwhile, the Lockerbie trial -- like the speculation over the alleged Iranian connection -- continues. The trial is still in the early stage of hearing evidence, and is predicted to go on at least 12 months.