Soon after the tragedy of Pan Am 103 on December 21st 1988, the investigators suspected that a Syrian-based terrorist group (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command) was responsible. It was assumed by some (known by others?) that Iran had ordered the attack as revenge for the downing of Iran Airbus 655 on July 3rd 1988.
When a joint US/UK indictment finally came in November 1991, Libya – and Libya alone according to President Bush- was the culprit.
How did they get from Iran to Libya? For one thing, the metamorphosis of the “evidence” is quite spectacular. I will provide just one example. The forensic scientists initially “were fully satisfied” that the bomb had been hidden in a white Toshiba radio. In their final report, they were fully satisfied that the item was a black Toshiba radio. Who cares? The white radio pointed to a device assembled by the PFLP-GC in Germany during October 1988. The black Toshiba radio was pointing to Libya as it had been mostly delivered to a Libyan company whose director was a person suspected of terrorism by Western Intelligence agencies.
When did the “switch” occur? Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta claimed in 1990 that the Lockerbie investigation switched from Iran to Libya following a phone call in March 1989 between George H W Bush and Margaret Thatcher.
Many observers have suggested that the “switch” was the result of realpolitik. Here is the explanation provided by the Guardian:
“The impending Anglo-American war against Iraq necessitated neutralising Iran and winning the support of Syria. Britain’s diplomatic relations with Syria were duly restored in November 1990 and the Gulf war commenced in 1991. Sure enough, the credibility of intelligence theories about the Lockerbie bombing being masterminded by the Iran- and Syria-backed Palestinian gang was soon dismantled.”
I do not subscribe to this theory. The invasion occurred in August 1990. And even if Saddam had probably made up his mind a few months earlier, the timing simply does not work.
Is the theory of a “switch” for geopolitical reasons plausible? Is there any evidence it occurred around March 1989? If so, what could possibly be the rationale?
Key Dates of the Forensic Work
Dr. Hayes began its work on December 27 1988 when he found evidence of an explosion on the lower frame of a luggage pallet. The work goes on – day after day – until March 1989 when it came to a sudden halt. Then the work resumed on May 12 1989 with the discovery of PT/35(b) recorded on the infamous page 51. Little happens next. Then on September 1989, the investigation goes to Malta and, from now on, Libya is the new focus. The PFLP-GC is officially history as far as Lockerbie is concerned.
Therefore, I consider that the “Switch Theory” is entirely plausible with a caveat. The calendar seems to point to a “Wait and See Strategy”. It appears that Thatcher recommended to ‘cool it” until events unfold. The question is: What events did she have in mind?
“Iran Air Flight 655 was Iran Air passenger flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. On 3 July 1988, the aircraft operating on this route was shot down by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes under the command of William C. Rogers III. The incident took place in Iranian airspace, over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, and on the flight’s usual flight path.” (Wikipedia)
Declassified US Intelligence documents show that the US expected that Iran would retaliate to this event which was widely understood by Iranians as an Act of War. At that time Khomeini is already very ill. (An Iranian doctor working in the hospital where Khomeini was treated has provided me with a clear description of his illness timeline.) At this very moment, the two most important figures to watch closely are Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri and Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Who are they?
In July 1988, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri is the designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who used to call him “the fruit of his life”.
Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani is the Speaker of Iran’s Parliament and also commander of the armed forces
Now these two men have opposite views on the path to follow after the downing of IRAN 655
Rafsanjani wishes to follow the diplomatic path. He argues that Iran should “not push for any revenge against the United States for shooting down a civilian jet carrying 290 people.”
Montazeri wants an open war. (Like most Iranians, he believed – rightly so – that Iran was already fighting the US in the war against Iraq.) Thus Montazeri asked Ayatollah Khomeini to order ”revolutionary forces and resistance cells inside and outside the country to target America’s material, political, economic and military interests.”
The Iran-Conta Affair
Montazeri and Rafsanjani are not exactly close friends. They were already on opposite sides of the fence when the greatest scandal of that decade erupted.
“The Iran-Contra affair was a political scandal in the United States that occurred during the second term of the Reagan Administration. Senior administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, which was the subject of an arms embargo. The profit would then be used to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Under the Boland Amendment, further funding of the Contras by the government had been prohibited by Congress.”
Mehdi Hashemi, a senior official in the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, leaked the affair to the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa The story was published on November 3 1986
Now, Mehdi Hashemi was related by marriage to the family of Ayatollah Ali Montazeri. He had nothing but contempt for Hashemi Rafsanjani…i.e. the man who turned out to be a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal!
From an American point of view, the prognosis in the aftermath of the downing of IRAN Airbus 655 was rather gloomy. Montazeri was about to succeed Khomeini soon and he wanted war.
The Fall of Montazeri
From November 1986 on, tensions between Montazeri and Khomeini began to surface in the public domain. (Hashemi was arrested and executed in 1987.) Montazeri began to criticize the State. He denounced the mass execution of political prisoners (August 88). He ridiculed the fatwa of Khomeini against Nobel Prize Salman Rushdie (February 1989). Then, in March 1989, Western media – such the BBC — began to publish his letters condemning the post-war wave of executions. That was the final drop.
On 26 March 1989, Khomeini strongly denounced Montazeri’s actions. A couple of days later, Khomeini announced that Montazeri ‘had resigned his post’. His pictures disappeared from public offices. The books were rewritten to deny his revolutionary credentials. The streets named after him were renamed.
[It is of course a bit of a mystery as to why Montazeri did not wait until he succeeded Khomeini to fix the problems. When asked that very question, he responded that, “I could not sleep at nights, knowing that innocent people were being killed.”]
The demotion of Montazeri was a “game changing” event. After March 26, it may no longer serve the US/UK geopolitical interests to blame Iran. Khomeini was rumored to be very ill. If a pragmatic new leader — “friendly” enough to seek a solution to the hostages crisis — could succeed, it would be totally counter-productive to blame Iran for the action of the old regime. This would only serve the interests of the hard-liners. Thus, ‘Let us wait and see what happens next’ became the Lockerbie policy after March 1989.
The Death of Khomeini
Ruhollah Khomeini died on June 3rd 1989. Rafsanjani was instrumental in securing a quick solution to an urging crisis.
First, Ali Khamenei was elevated from the position of hojatoleslām to the rank of Ayatollah. That title, and a modification of the Constitution which previously restricted the job to the few people such Montazeri who had the title of Grand Ayatollah, was then enough to promote him as Khomeini’s successor.
Next, Rafsanjani himself was elected Iran’s president on August 3rd 1989. Rafsanjani would not disappoint Western powers and their business interests.
“Rafsanjani quickly garnered increased powers for a previously weak executive office, and he showed considerable political skill in promoting his pragmatic policies in the face of resistance from Islamic hard-liners. Rafsanjani favoured reducing Iran’s international isolation and renewing its ties with Europe as part of a strategy to use foreign investment and free enterprise to revive the country’s war-torn economy.”
By September 1989, blaming Iran for Lockerbie would not serve the geopolitical interests of the US and UK. Justice was not served. But as Marcel Pagnol wrote: “A wise man does not look for the culprits of a crime. A wise man chooses the right culprits.”
And the obvious “culprit” was Libya. An indictment – without a chance of a trial — was the perfect solution. The US would easily obtain — with a bit of “wheeling dealing” — a UN resolution against Libya, thus making an example of their favorite “punching bag”.
For Thatcher, it was a path to end the supply of Libyan weapons to the Provisional IRA who had almost succeeded in assassinating her and came very close to destabilize a state.
If there ever was an era of “Unilateralism”, it was that period. In some circles, the final “Lockerbie Solution” must be viewed as a brilliant strategic victory. For those who wanted the truth, it is a bitter story.