A U.S. television report quoting an Iranian who claims to be a top official able to link Tehran with the Lockerbie bombing has created a media sensation. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, questions surround the man and the person he claims to be.
Prague, 7 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When the U.S. television network CBS quoted a man in Turkey this weekend saying he has evidence linking Iran to the Lockerbie bombing, the program was guaranteed to get attention.
The man identified himself as Ahmad Behbahani and said he was a top intelligence official responsible for numerous attacks and assassinations inside and outside Iran during the past decade.
For now, it is impossible to know more than that. Immediately after the man surfaced, he disappeared into the hands of the CIA, which is assessing his story.
Still, the television report has set off a race to learn who is Ahmad Behbahani -- the identity the man has claimed.
One of the first questions is whether a top intelligence official named Behbahani ever existed.
Iran's Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi said this week that no one by that name ever worked for the intelligence service. And he called the whole story the fabrication of a man trying to gain asylum in the West by slandering the Islamic Republic.
But analysts who follow Iranian intelligence matters say a Mr. Behbahani does indeed exist and was active in Tehran's security apparatus.
Michael Rubin, an analyst at the Washington Institute in Washington, D.C., says there is good evidence Ahmad Behbahani served as head of the Intelligence Section in Iran during the 1989 to 1997 presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The evidence was compiled by the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group in 1996. Michael Rubin:
"He served as the president's coordinator for intelligence activities to identify operations and figure out how to carry them out before getting the approval of the president through the Supreme National Security Council and the Ministry of Information and Security. And also there are reports that he was a vice commander with the Quds Brigade ... which is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp special elite branch charged with exporting revolution abroad."
Rubin says that would put Behbahani in a position to know a great deal about secret Iranian government operations against both foreign targets and opponents within Iran. Rubin: "He appears to have been in a position to not only have had access over documents and information for which he was the office director or commander, but also to have access to documents for operations that were not carried out by himself personally."
The man who identified himself to CBS as Behbahani claimed he was a key figure in planning the 1988 bombing of a passenger plane that crashed near Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. He says he recruited Libyan operatives to carry it out. He also has claimed he has evidence Tehran was behind the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 soldiers, as well as many other attacks worldwide.
But some analysts say that while Behbahani served in the Ministry of Intelligence, he may not have had responsibility for such foreign operations.
Turkey has put the age of the man who says he is Behbahani at 32. Ali Reza Nourizadeh, an independent journalist in London, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that means Behbahani would have been just 24 at the time of the last suspected Iranian attacks abroad. Ali Reza Nourizadeh:
"He is now 32 years old, or 33. If he had the mission of external murders, that would have to refer to events six to seven years ago. Nobody has been murdered abroad in the past six to seven years by the Islamic Republic or its agents. And somebody at age 24 could not have been in charge of carrying out murders outside Iran."
The self-declared Behbahani told CBS he also had responsibility for internal operations and has documentation proving government involvement in assassinations of prominent intellectual dissidents.
If Behbahani did indeed have such top responsibilities, it raises the question of why he would now flee Iran to the West. The man claiming to be Behbahani says he is the victim of a power struggle, and analysts agree this could be the only reason.
The Washington Institute's Rubin says there could be a power struggle at the Intelligence Ministry connected to recent gains by reformists, who swept Iran's parliamentary poll earlier this year. Reformists have been infuriated by the slayings of dissident intellectuals and by an internal intelligence service investigation which blamed its own rogue agents. Rubin:
"Now we are seeing the stage in the power struggle where the reformists are going to try to gain control over other power circles, including the Intelligence Ministry, and so I would expect that this defection -- if Behbahani is who he says he was, he realized that perhaps people were going to try to put the blame on him and therefore, rather than to be a scapegoat, [he felt] now is the time to escape with his life."
Journalist Nourizadeh believes Behbahani may have fled Iran with the help of others in the intelligence service -- possibly because he feared being silenced for what he knows. Nourizadeh:
"He found out there was a conspiracy against his life, he got worried and escaped from Iran. He, at this stage, may have had the help of one of the officials of the Intelligence Ministry, who maybe also felt threatened."
With the self-declared Mr. Behbahani now being debriefed in secret, all the details of his identity and his motives may never be publicly known. And in the end, answering those questions may not be what matters.
Instead, what is most likely to interest investigators are the documents he says he has with him.
If the documents are convincing, they will become key evidence in trials like the Lockerbie hearings now under way in The Hague. But if they are not, whatever the presumed Mr. Behbahani says he was or did will have little value.
(RFE/RL Persian Service's Mehdi Ardalan contributed to this report)