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A recent exchange of high-level threats between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, was heavy in symbolic numbers. Trump took to Twitter, threatening to strike 52 sites in Iran. Rouhani responded using the same medium: "Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655 Never threaten the Iranian nation.”  

The 52 refers to the number of American hostages taken by Iran in 1979. The 290 refers to the civilians killed in July 1988, when the US Navy accidentally shot down Iran Air flight 655 in the Persian Gulf. But was Rouhani’s riposte an implied admission that Iran played a role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103?

In December 1988, I was a foreign policy adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy when Pan Am flight 103 was bombed in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland. 270 people, including 189 Americans, died on the plane and on the ground. Because many of the senator’s constituents in Massachusetts were killed, we became heavily involved in all aspects of the case, including the quest for the truth on behalf of the families of the victims. 

In 1991, two Libyans were indicted for the bombing. A decade later, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi turned the two over for a trial before a specially convened Scottish court at the Hague in the Netherlands.  Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted in the bombing and was sentenced to life in prison. In 2009, Megrahi was returned to Libya on “compassionate” grounds and died more than two years later.

A small number of people have long believed that Megrahi was not guilty. I was never one of them. Ken Dornstein, whose brother David was killed on Pan Am flight 103, found further compelling evidence of Megrahi’s guilt in the summer of 2011, when he went to Tripoli at the height of the Libyan revolution. His journey is chronicled in a 2015 series, My Brother’s Bomber, on PBS’ Frontline.

But Libya’s guilt and Iranian involvement are not mutually exclusive.

In April 1994, Senator Kennedy wrote to Tony Lake, President Clinton’s National Security Adviser, not only calling for the two indicted Libyans to be brought to justice, but to enlist the administration’s assistance with the many unanswered questions regarding possible Syrian and Iranian involvement. It was never ruled out that Iran may have financed the attack, that Syrian-based terrorists planned the operation, and that the Libyans placed the bomb on the plane.

The most widely held theory at the time was that Iran, seeking revenge for that July 1988 downing of Iran Air flight 655, sponsored Ahmed Jibril, the Syrian-based leader of the PFLP-GC, to carry out the bombing. (Following that downing, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini vowed that the skies would "rain blood".  At the time, Hassan Rouhani was the deputy commander of Iran's Armed Forces.) Jibril's plans were disrupted in the fall of 1988, when the German government raided his terrorist cells in Germany. After Jibril's cells in Germany were disrupted, it was believed that he went to Tripoli, where he handed off the project to the Gadhafi regime. Gadhafi would have been all too happy to back an act of revenge for the Reagan Administration’s bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi, which itself was retaliation for Libya’s 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque which killed two American soldiers and one civilian. 

We felt that, upon indicting the two Libyans, the Bush administration was too quick to drop the Iran and Syria links. Why would that be? It may have had something to do with bigger geopolitical considerations.  It is worth remembering what was going on at the time. In November 1990, Brent Scowcroft, President George Bush’s National Security Adviser, said on "This Week with David Brinkley," that President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker asked Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to turn over Jibril to the United States to face charges for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. But by 1991, Syria was part of Gulf War coalition and Iran remained neutral. By mid-1991 the Pan Am flight 103 investigation, which had been pointing to Syria and Iran, was redirected to Libya. When the two Libyans were indicted in 1991, Syria and Iran were quickly absolved by President Bush and, within a month, four American hostages and one British hostage were released by pro-Iranian captors in Syria. 

Tony Lake, the CIA, and Robert Mueller, who was President Clinton’s US Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, all told us that they wouldn’t say that Iran and Syria were not involved, it was simply a matter of having solid evidence on which to indict the Libyans.

In Rhythm Section, a film recently in theaters, Blake Lively plays a woman whose entire family was killed in an orchestrated plane crash.  Her character personally tracks down and kills those responsible. That’s only in the movies. A journalist in the film tells her, “You’re another victim. You’re just not dead yet.” There are plenty of living victims of the bombing of Pan Am 103, and they deserve the truth. It is time to take a fresh look at the case.

Trina Y. Vargo is the president of the US-Ireland Alliance and the author of Shenanigans  The US-Ireland Relationship in Uncertain TimesThe views expressed are the author's own.