Tony Badran

The ghosts of Lockerbie

Al Jazeera’s provocatively-timed documentary places the blame for the bombing squarely on Iran

Policemen look at the wreckage of the 747 Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, 22 December 1988

Last week, Al Jazeera aired a documentary on the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. Although the bombing has been blamed squarely on Libya, the documentary made the case that the operation in fact was commissioned by Iran and executed by the pro-Syrian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

The argument itself is not new. In fact, it had been the prevailing view in the media and in US intelligence assessments in the couple of years following the Lockerbie bombing. Yet it was the Al Jazeera documentary that was first to publicize the testimony of a defected former Iranian intelligence officer, Abolghasem Mesbahi, who contends that the plot was commissioned by the top leadership in Tehran and sanctioned by Ayatollah Khomeini himself. But what’s most curious about Al Jazeera’s revelation is its timing.

The documentary’s broadcast coincided with Israel’s seizure of the Iranian arms ship, the Klos-C, which was carrying Syrian-made rockets to Gaza. The Israelis used the interception to highlight Iran’s support for terrorism at a time when the US is seeking rapprochement with the regime in Tehran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference in Eilat, with the contents of the ship displayed behind him, and criticized the US and the EU for falling for Iran’s “fake smiles” and illusory moderation. “They would like to continue to build up the illusion that Iran has changed course, but the facts we see on this pier prove the exact opposite,” Netanyahu said. Insofar as Al Jazeera is an information arm of the Qatari government, it’s possible that Doha, too, sought to message the Americans on the Iranian regime. But what both the Israelis and US-allied Gulf Arabs should have realized by now is that this message would fall on deaf ears in Washington.

Al Jazeera’s documentary established the context for the years preceding the Lockerbie bombing. Iran’s immediate motive for the operation was revenge for an Iranian commercial flight that was accidentally shot down by the cruiser USS Vincennes in the Gulf in July 1988. Khomeini vowed retaliation and American intelligence at the time established that days after the Iranian flight was downed, the Iranians went to Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC in Beirut and contracted them for the job.

The man who quarterbacked the operation was Iran’s former ambassador to Damascus, then Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashami, who according to a 1989 Defense Intelligence Agency memo “conceived, authorized and financed” the operation. To be sure, Mohtashami’s prominence in the story hardly precludes a role for the Libyans and the Syrians. In fact, Mohtashami sat at the intersection of Iran’s relations with Libya and Syria, as well as with the various groups operating within their orbit.   

Mohtashami is best known as the godfather of Hezbollah, and during his tenure as ambassador to Syria, Mohtashami helped organize and supervise the group. From his perch in Damascus, he coordinated the 1982 entry of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards contingent to the Beqaa, which, under the command of current Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, trained Hezbollah and guided its attacks on US and Western targets in Lebanon. Even after he assumed his post at the Ministry of Interior in 1986, Mohtashami remained deeply involved with the party and with managing Iranian policy in Lebanon.

Mohtashami also belonged to a faction of Iranian revolutionary cadres that had cultivated strong ties to Libya since before the success of the revolution. The faction, led by Mohammad Montazeri until his killing in 1981, worked closely with the Palestinians and maintained an alliance with Libya, from which they would later procure arms. Montazeri also established the Office of Liberation Movements (OLM), which developed ties with militant groups abroad. Mohtashami, like most of the founding figures of the OLM, had lived and trained with the Palestinians in Lebanon in the 1970s.

With his long history in Lebanon and his posting in Damascus, Mohtashami was a point-man with militant groups like the PFLP-GC operating there. And while the PFLP-GC answered first and foremost to Damascus, it also intersected with Libya and Iran.

In the mid-1980s in particular, Jibril’s group was a beneficiary of Libyan largesse. For example, in November 1987, the PFLP-GC, using motorized hang gliders provided by Libya, infiltrated northern Israel from Lebanon and killed six Israeli soldiers. In 1987-88, PFLP-GC officials, including Jibril, often met with senior Iranian officials in Libya, but their sojourn there would end a year later. When Moammar Gaddafi cut off financial support to the group and shuttered its Libyan offices and camps in late 1989, Jibril’s reliance on Iranian patronage increased. The PFLP-GC became part of the panoply of Iranian-sponsored Palestinian groups opposed to peace talks with Israel and dedicated to “resistance,” and the relationship persists to this day.

The Al Jazeera documentary cast light anew on this enduring relationship, and on Tehran’s role in terrorism against the US. This focus may have been an attempt to prod the Obama administration, which has identified Sunni terrorism, and not Iran-sponsored terrorism, as the number-one threat to the US. The Saudis similarly have been trying for months to highlight Iran's relationship with Al-Qaeda. The message of Washington's traditional allies, then, is simple: Iran's the problem. But if indeed there ever was a desire to influence the White House’s approach to Iran with the Lockerbie documentary, then it didn't really stand a chance. Likewise, the Israeli public diplomacy campaign over the Klos-C was never going to elicit any interest whatsoever from the White House, which responded swiftly that its approach with Iran was “entirely appropriate” regardless.

In truth, the Israelis and Washington’s Arab allies should have long ago figured out that nothing would change President Obama’s decision to engage the Iranians. The telltale sign was Obama’s reaction to the Mansour Arbabsiar affair – the 2011 Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington and to bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in DC. Although Attorney General Eric Holder at the time declared that the administration was “committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions,” the White House did not take any measures against Tehran in response to the plot. The episode faded quietly as though nothing had happened.

The reaction to the Arbabsiar plot should have made plain Obama’s determination to push ahead with his Iran policy. The fact that the Arbabsiar operation was planned when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still president, and that the White House nevertheless began secret talks with the regime well before Hassan Rouhani’s election, should have been telling signs. It was as clear an indication as any that the American president had made up his mind to make a deal with the Iranians and that nothing – not messaging campaigns from the Israelis, nor a reminder regarding who was behind a horrific act of terror against US citizens – would shake his resolve.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Al Jazeera resurrects the memory of Iran-sponsored terror. (AFP Photo/Roy Letkey)

"The Al Jazeera documentary cast light anew on this enduring relationship, and on Tehran’s role in terrorism against the US."

  • jrocks

    now whether that translates into something good or bad for lebanon remains to be seen!

    March 20, 2014