Why New Claims Won't Change Flt. 103 Trial

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If you're going to defect from a "rogue state" and are looking for the United States to provide a quick resolution of your asylum case, best be equipped with a briefcaseful of shocking state secrets. Then you'll both end up on "60 Minutes" and with red-carpet treatment from the State Department. Washington looks likely to give serious attention to the claims of Ahmad Behbahani, the self-styled former Iranian intelligence honcho who, despite being sequestered in a Turkish refugee camp, managed to get his message to the Sunday-night CBS news show. His bombshell claim: that Iran, rather than Libya, was the power behind the December 1988 Lockerbie bombing. In fact, Behbahani claims to have been personally involved in supervising the operation, alleging that it was carried out by Libyan operatives subcontracted for the job in conjunction with members of a Syrian-based Palestinian splinter group headed by super-terrorist Ahmed Jibril.

The revelations, should they prove true, are unlikely to affect the outcome of the trial, currently under way in the Netherlands, of two Libyan intelligence agents accused of carrying out the bombing. "The trial is to determine whether or not these two guys actually carried out the attack," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "It was never going to deal with the question of on whose behalf they might have acted. It had been suspected for a long time that the Libyans might have been acting for someone else, and Iran had always been the prime suspect." Behbahani suggested that the attack was a retaliation for the mistaken shooting down by a U.S. warship of an Iranian airliner earlier in 1988. "The question remains whether he'll be able to prove these allegations," says Dowell. "There's always the question of whether he's selling that story to make himself more attractive to the U.S. in his quest for asylum here."

Behbahani certainly used the attention from "60 Minutes" to throw in a few teasers about being able to prove Iranian involvement in everything from the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American troops to a 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. While they're unlikely to affect the trial, Behbahani's allegations, if substantiated, may have some impact on moves to break the diplomatic ice between Washington and Tehran. "The U.S. will certainly want to pursue these leads," says Dowell. "But even if they prove true, they're unlikely to alter the fact that the U.S. wants better relations with Iran and wants the moderates there to succeed."