Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Mysterious Iranian Defector in Turkey Prompts Reassessment of Origins of Pan Am Flight 103 Bombing

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Mysterious Iranian Defector in Turkey Prompts Reassessment of Origins of Pan Am Flight 103 Bombing

Article excerpt

Mysterious Iranian Defector in Turkey Prompts Reassessment of Origins of Pan Am Flight 103 Bombing

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Iranians aren't particularly big people, but on June 6 members of the National Council of Resistance of Iran's Washington, DC press office all seemed to have grown a couple of feet taller since I'd seen them previously. And why not?

They had been increasingly out of the Washington limelight ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran they had vowed to overthrow by force elected as its new president moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami in 1998. Iran seemed even further along the road to peaceful political evolution this spring after moderates in Iran's parliament, the Majlis, became a majority following free, or nearly free, elections.

The moderates didn't quite attain, or weren't allowed to attain, the two-thirds majority necessary to change Iran's constitution, which still gives a religious "supreme authority" veto power over any action by the parliament or the president. Increasingly, however, it looked like democratic evolution was going to avert another revolution in the country where a popular uprising overthrew the shah's heavy-handed rule in 1979.

But now, suddenly, a May 24 NCR press release seemed about to turn the Middle East topsy-turvy--threatening Iran's gradually warming relations with its Arab neighbors and the United States. And at the same time making it appear that perhaps Iranians, not Libyans, should be on trial in The Hague on charges of blowing up Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, causing the deaths of all 259 passengers and another 11 Scottish villagers on the ground.

The NCR press release charged that Brig. Gen. Ahmad Beladi Behbahani, a relative of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Iran's deputy intelligence minister for counterintelligence, a man who coordinated all of Iran's terrorist activities abroad, "is in Turkey," and it called upon "the government of Turkey to put [him] under immediate arrest." What was most sensational from the American viewpoint was the NCR allegation that Behbahani had been "President Rafsanjani's liaison with the Intelligence Ministry and also had detailed information about the Lockerbie bombing."

Such was the low state of the NCR's credibility in Washington that the release was virtually ignored by the mainstream U.S. media. But not totally. America's most widely viewed television news program, "60 Minutes," perhaps the only one left in the nation that seeks to deal with reports on both Israelis and Arabs objectively, sent a team to eastern Turkey to follow up the report. CBS celebrity reporter Leslie Stahl was accompanied by a retired CIA officer who was prepared to ask the Iranian questions he felt an imposter would not be able to answer correctly.

When they arrived, however, Turkish officials would not allow the CBS team to enter the guarded camp for Iranian refugees in which Behbahani, who by now was being described as a defector from Iran, was housed. So the team, who had brought with it Iranian-born associate CBS producer Roya Hakakian, used her as an infiltrator rather than an interpreter as planned, sending her surreptitiously into the refugee camp, where she was able to contact Behbahani. She asked him enough questions to convince herself that he probably was a genuine defector.

Then, after she emerged with her account of the interview, the CIA retiree sent her back in with the questions to which he believed only persons with inside information would know the answers regarding such acts as the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in which 19 American servicemen were killed, and a long series of assassinations in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey of domestic enemies of the clerical regime, including Iranian Kurds and officials of the NCR and its affiliate in opposition, the People's Mojahedin of Iran. …

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