- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2000

''Surely, the time has come for America and Iran to enter a new season in which mutual trust may grow and the quality of warmth supplant the long cold winter of our mutual discontent," said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in March.

Unfortunately, Iran seems partial to the long, cold winter and White House efforts to improve relations may have caused harm to national security. A recent report by a bipartisan commission on terrorism faults the administration for having failed to win international help in pressuring Iran to cooperate with an investigation into the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American servicemen. "U.S. efforts to signal support for political reform in Iran could be misinterpreted in Iran or by U.S. allies as signaling a weakening resolve on counterterrorism," the report also said.

Surely, this is a dangerous signal to send. The administration's policy towards Iran has been based on wishful thinking, eloquently summed up by Mrs. Albright's statement. The White House has sought to support Iran's reformist movement by reaching out to Iran's official government. Although recent legislative elections reflect the desire of the Iranian people for closer ties with the United States, this is not the will of the Ayatollah Khamenei, who has effective control of the army, judiciary, intelligence agencies and, of course, the theological establishment.

Those levers of power have apparently been used to wage terrorist acts against U.S. citizens. If an Iranian dissident interviewed by the CBS News program "60 Minutes" is to be believed, Iran masterminded not only the Khobar Towers housing complex bombing in Saudi Arabia, but also the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

The dissident, Ahmad Behbahani, claimed that he has documents to back up his claims, but Turkish authorities prevented him from giving them over to "60 Minutes." Mr. Behbahani, who was being held in a Turkish camp, said that he preferred to hand these documents over to the media, rather than the U.S. government, for fear that the White House would "bury" them. Robert Baer, a terrorism specialist formerly at the CIA, substantiated the dissident's concern, and said that having to react to proof of Iranian terrorism would be the White House's "worst nightmare." The administration "would like to leave a legacy in the Middle East. They would at least like to move a little bit … farther forward with Iran and Libya," said Mr. Baer. He added that if Mr. Behbahani's version of events was accurate, then "that would fall apart very quickly."

Mr. Behbahani may not be telling the truth. A U.S. intelligence official quoted anonymously in The Washington Post said, "When it comes to serious stuff that he should know, he comes up empty." Still, his account would appear to substantiate widespread speculation in the intelligence community that Iran played a key role in these two vicious attacks. Michael Scharf, who served as counsel to the State Department's counterterrorism unit from 1989 to 1991, told The Washington Times in May that U.S. intelligence sources are convinced that Iran was involved in the Lockerbie bombing, and that it chose a U.S. target four days before Christmas in retaliation for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian commercial airliner by the USS Vincennes. Of the 290 people killed in that Airbus accident, 250 of them were Iranians.

But publicizing U.S. intelligence on Lockerbie the points to Iran would only prolong that discontent which the administration is keen to assuage. For an administration that places its legacy-building ambitions above the security of Americans, this would be most inconvenient.

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