30 years ago, on April 18, 1983, a truck loaded with 2000 pounds of explosives crashed into the American Embassy in Beirut, causing the collapse of the building's central section and killing 63 people, mostly Lebanese. The "Islamic Jihad," an affiliate of Hezbollah with strong political and organizational ties to Iran, claimed the attack as "part of the Iranian Revolution's campaign against imperialist targets throughout the world" and promised to continue. In a war-stricken country, where various states and non-state actors engaged in acts of violence against civilians, these victims were scarcely more than statistics. Thirty years later, the persistent official silence surrounding the event, and the fear, indifference, and unjustifiable political considerations impeding efforts to talk to victims or to get information from experts is striking.
Iranian leaders had the motives and the means to carry out such an attack in Lebanon and had no qualms about stating their goals. They claimed that confronting America, a bulwark against their ambitions in the region, was a religious duty. The U.S. support to Iraq in its war against Iran, the 1982 U.S.-brokered truce between Israel, Lebanon, and the PLO, and the presence of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force in that country strengthened their resolve.1 They acknowledged the fact that they were creating a resistance movement in Lebanon and had sent a contingent of 1500 Revolutionary Guards to fight Israel and help rid Lebanon of the Imperialist presence.2
The investigation of the embassy attack uncovered evidence of Iran's involvement, including communications between Tehran and Iranian diplomats in Syria and Lebanon that authorized an attack on an American target and allocated funds to pay for the operation. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's analysis of the explosives pointed to the involvement of a state actor. Similar and even stronger evidence, including satellite imagery, connected Iran to later bombings in 1983 and 1984.
It is thus no surprise to hear the Iranian leaders boast about the departure of the Multinational Force or their success in the attacks carried out against American targets in Lebanon. During a visit to a plant producing military material in 1987, Mohsen Rafiqdust, who commanded the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1983, stated:
"In the victory of the revolution in Lebanon and many other places, America feels our power on its ugly body; and it knows that it was the combination of explosives and ideology that, in one blast, sent to hell 400 officers, NCOs, and soldiers at the Marine Headquarters. Both its TNT and its ideology had come from Iran." Newspaper Resalat, July 20, 1987.
The embassy bombing was indeed the first of several deadly attacks against American (and French) targets in 1983 and 1984. And yet, the United States and Lebanese governments released very little information from their investigations. It was only 20 years later that, in the course of lawsuits filed against Iran in Washington, D.C., experts went on the record to detail the evidence implicating the Islamic Republic of Iran in the bombings. That testimony and that evidence, buried as it was in opinions of the courts, garnered little public attention. Altogether, clear and public acknowledgments of Iran's responsibility remain few.
The 30th anniversary of the bombing, commemorated in Beirut, was no exception to this rule. Secretary of State John Kerry and the United States Ambassador to Lebanon, Maura Connelly, gave speeches to honor the memory of victims and to underline U.S. determination to remain in Lebanon. Secretary Kerry also emphasized "the resolve of the United States to fight terrorism and to bring terrorists to justice." In spite of the stated U.S. decisiveness to hold perpetrators accountable, neither speaker made any reference to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The media, when it remembered the bombing, failed to report on the investigation or notice the official silence surrounding it.
The desire to reduce tensions with Iran, or concern for further alienating its leaders, may contribute to this kind of deliberate amnesia. If security concerns and hope for engaging Iran motivate the official silence, one might wonder what this policy has achieved since the bombing. Iranian leaders have continued targeting civilians to advance their foreign policy goals throughout the 1980's and beyond. They have shown little commitment to respecting their international obligations or settling their disputes with the U.S. Silence has, however, encouraged impunity and acted as an obstacle to victims' efforts to heal and overcome their fears.
Justice begins with the truth. Failure to mention the state responsible for the bombing indicates continuity in U.S. policy and inaction when it comes to the Islamic Republic's involvement in such attacks. The April 18 bombing brought about extraordinary and long lasting suffering for the relatives of the 17 Americans, the 43 Lebanese, and the 3 nationals of Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia who died and for the 120 people who survived their injuries. Honoring the victims, including the 53-year-old William Reynolds McIntyre, father of three who had dedicated his career to public service, the 27-year-old Ghazi Kabbout, a Shi'ite from the south of Lebanon who worked at the cafeteria, and the 54-year-old Syrian-born Antoine Abi Najem, father of five and skilled woodworker, requires more than words. Secretary Kerry should be true to his words and initiate a real effort to bring those responsible for such crimes to justice, and, at a minimum, to ensure respect for victims' rights to truth and effective remedy.
1 "Movement in Lebanon as tantamount to the occupation of Khorramshahr's Dezh garrison, the Dezful site or the Hamid garrison; we will not tolerate it. We declare now and will do so again that the political, military and economic forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran will employ all their might to confront this act of aggression launched by the Zionists, imperialists and the reactionaries of the region against Lebanon. ... And we also have the capability to formally embark on a jihad against Israel alongside our Arab and Muslim brothers." Speaker of the Parliament, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Session 320, 6 June 1982, Etela'at, 7 June 1982.
"The country's officials have repeatedly announced to Islamic governments in the region that Islamic Republic of Iran is based on Islamic justice and is fully committed to it. Therefore it is not permissible to invade anyone's territory and oppress, and this divine commitment underpins an Islamic system and the Islamic Republic [of Iran]." Ayatollah Khomeini, 11 February 1983, Jamaran, Tehran.
"Muslims' problems are all caused by great powers and their insinuations and suggestions to their stooges in the region... and these problems will not be resolved unless we rid ourselves from them. Is it not shameful for Muslims that a ... government which is considered the enemy of Islam and the enemy of humanity, reaches out from the other side of the world to determine the fate of Muslim countries...? [Is it not shameful that] No one asks, why are you interfering in Lebanon? Why are you interfering in Egypt? ....America pursues its corrupt goals through governments dependent on it, through wicked writers and speakers, and Muslims are just sitting [doing nothing]... Is it not our duty? Don't Muslims have any duties any longer in this day and age?"Ayatollah Khomeini, 2 January 1983 , Jamaran, Tehran.
2 "Last night you learnt that late into the night the two sides agreed to a ceasefire in southern Lebanon. We would not have made any serious comments had we been only remotely involved or had it had nothing to do with us. However, in the case of Lebanon and its invasion by Israel, we are today actively engaged against Israel. Some of our militant forces, too, are currently on the frontline, and there are more on their way. ... The ceasefire is drafted in a way that completely serves the interests of Israel but is contrary to the interests of Muslims and Islam; and it has been accepted. ... It is a sin for us to ignore the slaughter of so many defenceless people, to step on their blood and accept the ceasefire. ... With the assistance of Islamic states, in particular the resistance front that we are creating, we must resist, stay and fight in a bid to deal with Israel once and for all. Moreover, we must not be afraid of confronting America. If America becomes embroiled in this war with Muslims, it would be in our interest, and it would end America's intervention in the region." Speaker of the Parliament Hojatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speech before Parliament of June 13, 1982, Session 321, Notqha-ye Qabl Az Dustour, pages 128-130.