12 June 2000, Volume 3, Number 23
TEHRAN AND LOCKERBIE. An Iranian asylum-seeker in Turkey, who identified himself as Ahmad Behbahani, said that until four months ago he was the "czar of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism and that for more than a decade he was responsible for coordinating all of Iran's overseas assassinations and terrorist operations," according to the 4 June CBS "60 Minutes" program. But within hours of the broadcast, questions were raised about Behbahani's credibility. And less that a week later, U.S. officials had announced that the man not only lied about his background, he was not even Ahmad Behbahani.
Be that as it may, "Behbahani's" reported statements have the effect of reopening questions about the current trial at Camp Zeist, the Netherlands, of two Libyan intelligence officers for their role in the 1988 destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
"Behbahani," who never actually appeared on camera and whose voice was never heard, told a CBS producer, who visited without permission a Turkish refugee camp to conduct the interview, that Iran is responsible for the destruction of Flight 103, and that he was the person who arranged it. "Behbahani" also said that Iran is responsible for the 1996 bombing in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which claimed the lives of 19 Americans, and the 1994 attack on the Jewish Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires, in which 86 people were killed and about 300 were injured.
CBS reported that "Behbahani" had arranged with Ahmed Jibril, chief of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--General Command (PFLP-GC, a terrorist organization that receives financial support from Tehran and military support from Syria), to take out the Pan Am flight, as well as several others, in retaliation for the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger aircraft by the U.S.S. Vincennes in July 1988. The PFLP-GC was to make the bomb, and Libyan operators were to mount the operation. He added that the Libyans were trained in Iran. "Behbahani" also claimed, "60 Minutes" reported, that he personally killed Abdul Rahman Qassemlou, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party-Iran, in Vienna in 1989. "Behbahani" also claimed that he had documents to support his statements.
"Behbahani's" alleged claims were taken seriously by Turkish and American intelligence organizations. Anonymous CIA officials told Reuters on 5 June that "We are reviewing what this guy has to say and so far we have not found him to be incredible." Some of things he said, however, "cast some doubt" on his credibility. A "senior U.S. intelligence official" was quoted by "The Washington Post" on 6 June as having said that "It's still early, but there seem to be a lot of holes in his story, and it looks like a rush publication by CBS. ...the signs point to far less being there than the ["60 Minutes"] piece would have led you to believe."
Meanwhile, Turkish Security Director-General Turan Genc described "Behbahani" in a 7 June interview with Anatolia news agency. He said that "Behbahani, in his interviews, said that he worked in intelligence for a while and then he quit. Apart from that he did not say anything serious. He is not a person of great significance. If, however, from now on he decides to talk and conveys serious information then it will be evaluated accordingly."
Credibility is the central issue. Many people are trying to undermine "Behbahani's" credibility or to otherwise sideline the story. But few of these sources are entirely credible either:
-- Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said nobody named Ahmad Behbahani ever worked for the MOIS, IRNA reported on 5 June. Yunesi said that people seeking asylum normally enhance their appeal through "libelous statements or slanders" against Iran. Yunesi claimed that Behbahani's claims were intended to deflect attention from the trial of 13 Jews in Shiraz or the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon.
-- Former MOIS chief Hojatoleslam Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi told the 6 June "Entekhab" that he never knew an Ahmad Behbahani.
-- Former MOIS chief Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani said that the defector's real name is Shahram Baladi Behbahani, "Entekhab" reported on 8 June. Behbahani is a con artist and thief, Fallahian said, and he cooperated with the Mujahedin Khalq Organization.
-- An anonymous MOIS official told Reuters that Behbahani was a thief who fled to Iraq, where he was arrested and later turned over to the MKO. He supposedly stayed with the MKO from 1994-1998. In 1998, he was repatriated and the Iranian authorities arrested him on charges of collaborating with Iraq and the MKO. He was imprisoned and then escaped while on furlough. According to the Iranian official, Behbahani fled to Turkey, where the MKO advised him to pretend to be a defector.
-- PFLP-GC's Ahmad Jibril told Radio Monte Carlo on 5 June that he never met Behbahani. Jibril accused Behbahani of being a CIA and Mossad agent, and he went on to say that Mossad planned the Lockerbie operation. Jibril added, in an interview with MBC television, that "We are not guilty of this accusation and the Islamic Republic of Iran is absolutely innocent and the same goes for the Libyan Jamahiriyah."
-- Iranian ambassador to Ankara, Hussein Lavasani, in response to a question about Behbahani, said "These are extremely hilarious allegations. They are the most hilarious allegations I have heard so far," Turkish TRT television reported on 7 June.
-- Iranian state television claimed on 5 June that the "American-Zionist CBS network" broadcast "a faked report" about Iranian involvement in the Lockerbie case, and this shows that "a new conspiracy, with international dimensions, has been waged by the Zionist and imperialist circles against the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Some commentators also question "Behbahani's" credibility on the basis of his age. London-based Iranian journalist Alireza Nurizadeh, for example, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that "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."
Others, however, endorse "Behbahani," albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm:
-- A man described by CBS as a former CIA official said he asked Behbahani a control question to determine his bona fides. Supposedly, only somebody working for the MOIS would have the answer to such a control question, and Behbahani's answer was satisfactory.
-- Former Iranian President Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, who has been living in Paris since fleeing Iran in 1981, also vouched for Behbahani. He told CNN TURK and other Turkish sources on 6 June that Behbahani contacted him, and "we verified his identity." According to Bani-Sadr, "Behbahani was a commander of the Qods division. He was a member of the Mujahedin Khalq and his real activity was to be in charge of terrorism actions outside Iran. Later, at the time of Rafsanjani [1989-1997] he became the coordinator of such activities. He assumed the duties of coordinator between the President's Office and the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. He accompanied Rafsanjani to Turkey. It was Behbahani himself who said that he went to Turkey with Rafsanjani. At the time, Behbahani was responsible for the president's security."
-- A 1996 British Parliamentary Human Rights Group report also discusses Behbahani. It says, Washington Institute analyst Michael Rubin told RFE/RL, that "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 Qods Brigade...which is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp special elite branch charged with exporting revolution abroad."
-- Lord Eric Avebury, author of the 1996 British Parliamentary Human Rights Group report, told Reuters that the information on Behbahani came from "Behbahani's brother, who left Iran and spilled the beans." Lord Avebury added that "What he is reported as saying now tallies with what we said in the report."
-- Journalist Nurizadeh states that Behbahani may have been in the MOIS and he may have fled Iran with the help of others in the intelligence service--possibly because he feared being silenced for what he knows. Nurizadeh told RFE/RL's Persian Service that "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 MOIS, who maybe also felt threatened."
All of these sources have their own reasons for accepting or rejecting "Behbahani's" veracity and credibility. Tehran never admits to sponsoring terrorism, especially now, when its "dialog of civilizations" and President Mohammad Khatami's detente policy have become so internationally popular. Jibril can be expected to follow the lead of his sponsors. Bani-Sadr has been a vocal critic of the Islamic regime for about 19 years. Lord Avebury wrote the 1996 report describing "Behbahani," so he probably would support his own report. And Nurizadeh broke the story of an MOIS defector several weeks ago.
In the current political atmosphere, when the White House is trying to establish a dialog with Tehran, reports of Iranian involvement in Lockerbie would not be welcome either. Also, many organizations have their bureaucratic standing at stake in the current Lockerbie trial. It would be humiliating to say that the investigations were faulty and it was the Iranians and PFLP-GC after all. Also, the White House authorized almost $8 million in funds for the establishment and functioning of the court in the Netherlands, per a 30 September 1998 Presidential Determination.
This is not to say that the Iranian angle has been ignored. David Claridge, an analyst at London-based security advisory firm Rubicon International, told RFE/RL that "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."
Indeed, the State Department said that the CIA was "'confident'" of its assessment that Iran in effect 'hired' elements belonging to Ahmed Jibril's [PFLP-GC] to carry out the bombing," "The Washington Post" reported in May 1989. U.S. government officials said in October 1989 that European investigators had both evidence and testimony linking the PFLP-GC to the destruction of Flight 103, according to "The New York Times." Scottish investigators said they had "hard evidence" implicating members of the PFLP-GC, "The New York Times" reported in December 1989. But U.S. and British government investigators later 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 this alone does not mean that "Behbahani's" claims can be dismissed. State Department spokesman Phil Reeker said on 5 June that "Concerning the reported assertion that Iran ordered the Pan Am 103 bombing, we have stated repeatedly that we will follow the evidence wherever it leads. In the meantime, the United States stands by the facts of the case, as outlined in the indictment that we presented of the two Libyans currently on trial for the attack, and we believe that case is very solid."
Indeed, counterterrorism experts from the CIA and FBI concluded that the defector was an imposter and "has been lying about lots of stuff," an anonymous "senior U.S. official" said on 10 June, "The Washington Post" reported. "He knows a few things, but nothing very much...stuff that could have possibly come from somebody else. But when it comes to serious stuff that he should know, he comes up empty. He still has not provided anything that has led CIA and FBI folks to believe his story." (Bill Samii)
FINAL DEFENSE SUBMITTED IN ESPIONAGE CASE. Esmail Nasseri, lead defense counsel in the case of 13 Iranian Jews accused of espionage on behalf of the U.S. and Israel, submitted his team's 26-page final statement to the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz on 6 June. Nasseri told RFE/RL's Persian service that "Our view is that if this case is a judicial one, the court has no other [choice] but to announce their acquittal. If it is a political case, we can only but present our defense and the verdict will be political."
Nasseri told Reuters that "We have argued that our clients are innocent and cannot be found guilty of espionage." And according to AP, Nasseri demanded that "our clients be acquitted because in the end the prosecution could not prove any acts of espionage by the defendants." IRNA, however, claimed that the defense team called on the court to "pardon their clients and deal with them in Islamic passion."
A group of American rabbis met with an official at Iran's UN mission in New York on 6 June to reiterate the Jewish community's concern about the case. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, warned that "The Jewish community is most definitely going to continue expressing, in both public and private ways, its deep concern over the fate of the 13 prisoners and its total abhorrence of a process that has been completely closed from a legal point of a view." Cooper said that a fast and prayer vigil will be held on 13 June outside the Iranian Mission in New York, and another prayer vigil would be held in Los Angeles on 18 June.
Jewish organizations are expressing their concern through petitions, too. The French Jewish Congress (Conseil Represantatif Des Institutions Juives De France) announced on 5 June that it is launching a petition calling for the immediate release of the 13 Jews. "We demand their immediate liberation, and sanctions against Iran if these innocent Jews are condemned," the text of the petition, which will be sent to French President Jacques Chirac and the Iranian embassy in Paris, says. It can be found at http://www.rkhfm.com/iran_petition.html. Other petitions can be found at http://www.modia.org/iranpetition.html http://join.virtual.co.il/cgi-win/IranPetition.exe http://groups.icq.com/group.asp?no=1391802 One Internet petition (http://www.virtualjerusalem.com/zz%5Fchannels/news/iranpetition.htm) collected 47,984 names before being placed in the hands of the World Jewish Congress.
Meanwhile, Israeli diplomatic representatives are urging the foreign ministries of the governments to which they are accredited to inform Iran that "tough sentences against the Jews will seriously harm Iran's international status and its interests," Tel Aviv's "Yediot Aharanot" reported on 31 May. And according to "Jam-i Hafteh" on 20 May, "the Zionists and their supporters have started an extensive effort in order to neutralize the effects of the disgrace of Israel's spies in Iran." These efforts include, according to the weekly, the "false story" about Iran's part in the death of Turkish journalist Ugur Mumcu, attempts to block a World Bank loan to Iran, and "extensive news censorship about the proceedings of the court and concentrating on marginal issues instead." (Bill Samii)
OIL SMUGGLING RESUMES. The international community appealed to Tehran through diplomatic channels to intercept a number of ships smuggling Iraqi oil via Iran's sea lanes on 1 June, "The Los Angeles Times" reported on 6 June. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged receipt of this information, but he told "The Los Angeles Times" that there is a limit to what Iran can do. "We told the United Nations that we would respond to the best of our ability but that we also need international assistance," Zarif said. "This is a costly and difficult exercise considering the vast area involved."
In April, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Navy seized a number of foreign-flagged vessels carrying Iraqi oil. This led to speculation that Tehran was sending a message to Washington that it was interested in improved relations, or that Tehran was warning Baghdad about its support for the Mujahedin Khalq Organization.
Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said on 6 June that Washington is trying "to figure out exactly what Iran is doing." Unnamed U.S. officials seem pretty clear on that question. They told "The Los Angeles Times" that Iran has resumed its cooperation with the oil smugglers. And Zarif's statement makes it equally clear that Tehran expects the international community to provide compensation for the money Iran loses by not facilitating the smuggling operations.
Indeed, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had said in April that Tehran wants compensation for intercepting ships smuggling Iraqi oil (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 May 2000) But as pointed out previously, compensation from the international community would go to the Iranian military, which would conduct any interceptions. And since the IRGC actually benefits from the smuggling by charging a toll of $50 per metric ton of oil, the international community would fill the gap. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN TRIES TO ROLL BACK LAWS ON WOMEN. Those attending the Special Session on Women at the United Nations General Assembly which opened on 5 June were told that several governments, including Iran's, are trying to back out of commitments they made at 1995's Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing.
Pierre Sane of Amnesty International explained that by reopening debate about the language and concepts of the Beijing agreement, these governments, including Tehran, "are almost trying to renegotiate the [Beijing] platform and declaration," Reuters reported. Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, said that many governments are reluctant to set real targets and commit resources to areas as wide-ranging as education and the economy, violence against women, and health and decision-making. "We are watching good proposals ... being diminished with the addition of phrases like 'do this, where appropriate,' or instead of 'adopting,' 'consider adopting,' or the deletion of specific dates and numerical targets...often by only a handful of very vocal delegates," Bunch said.
An official Iranian delegation led by presidential advisor Zahra Shojai attended the UN conference. But seven Iranians, who were to attend a parallel conference of grassroots activists, returned to Tehran, rather than provide their fingerprints to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We had been invited by the United Nations, so U.S. immigration officials had no right to fingerprint us," said Sediqeh Hejazi, a member of the Islamic Revolution Women's Association. "This behavior is an insult to the entire great Iranian nation. We preferred to return home and not accept this humiliating procedure."
Had they participated, these Iranian women likely would have highlighted the lack of attention women's issues currently receive from Iranian intellectuals. "Few, if indeed any, among our intellectuals have tried to champion the cause of women who, because of their gender, have suffered twice as much deprivation and injustice in our backward oriental society as men," liberal cleric Hojatoleslam Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari told the 19 April "Zanan." Eshkevari added that women's social status has worsened since 1979, but "the intellectuals and open-minded theologians" did nothing to help them.
Moreover, they almost certainly would have discussed the impact of unemployment. The women's literacy rate is climbing, "Iran Daily" reported on 5 June, but the women's employment rate is not rising proportionately. Some 56 percent of university entrants are female, but only 10 percent of the work force is female. One reason for this phenomena, according to legal expert Tahmouriz Mohammadi, is that new cultural impediments to women's employment arise daily and are then codified. Mohammadi said that "The law has envisaged facilities for men in issues such as divorce and has given men authority to prevent their wives from pursuing education or a career."
Hamideh Zarei, a legal expert on women's affairs, also discussed labor problems in the 29 April "Kar va Kargar." "There is lots of discrimination and injustice in our country in connection with women's work and employment. Even points that are explicitly mentioned in the Labor Law are not taken into consideration. Employers also pay little attention to this law out of concern for their own benefits. And finally, because the Labor Law contains some very useful articles in connection with women, different organizations and employers have to some extent become doubtful about employing women."
Because of this discriminatory situation, many of the jobs women take are classified as "illegal occupations." These are described by the Tehran Commission for Women's Affairs as peddling, drug trafficking, dealing in indecent movies and pictures, begging, and brokerage, "Iran Daily" reported on 5 June. Often, women are forced into such a situation when they are a family's sole bread-winner. Sociologist Zhaleh Shaditalab explained: "When a family man is unemployed or an addict, there is too much pressure and exploitation facing the woman. This means that since the man is not willing to work or cannot find the desired job, he forces his wife to beg or engage in equally indecent professions." (Bill Samii)