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United States to Compensate Families Of Iranians Killed in '88 Plane Crash

By Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times

At a time when the United States is trying to defuse tensions with Iran, the U.S. government announced Thursday that it will pay almost $62 million to families of 248 Iranians killed when an American warship shot down an Iran Air passenger plane over the Persian Gulf in 1988.

No money will go to the Iranian government.

The settlement does not signal a change in relations with Iran, said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. "There is no change to our opposition to objectionable Iranian policies such as support for terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction."

Yet it comes as the Clinton administration, alarmed that the United States and Iran may be slipping toward some kind of collision, is sending strong signals to Tehran that it does not want any kind of showdown, according to senior administration officials.

One Pentagon official said: "The political pressure in both countries has increased the rhetoric and actions in dangerous ways."

The accident settlement ends a prolonged dispute. The past three U.S. administrations have stuck to the claim that the U.S. action, which killed 290 people, was defensive. But the Iranian airbus was clearly a civilian flight.

Under the settlement, which came after Iran agreed to drop its case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the United States will pay $300,000 for each wage-earner killed and $150,000 for each non-wage-earner, Burns said. One recent cause of the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Iran came last week in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where NATO troops arrested two Iranians equipped with weapons and explosives and who appeared to be running an extremist cell.

In the Balkans, Iranian agents have been monitoring U.S. diplomats in Bosnia and Croatia. In the Middle East, Iranian covert operations have been visible in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq, where Iran has been working with the Kurdish population, Pentagon sources said.

Three other factors have sparked growing U.S. concern. First, Iran is expanding production of long-range missiles and chemical weapons - both primitive mustard gas and more sophisticated nerve gases such as sarin, the Pentagon reports.

Second, most of Iran's recently purchased conventional weaponry is offensive systems that could disrupt Persian Gulf shipping. Over the last two months, for example, Iran has tested new anti-ship missiles bought from China, according to Pentagon officials.

Third, Iran remains the most active opponent of the U.S.-orchestrated Middle East peace process. Iran continues to support and train extremist Palestinian groups that have pledged to disrupt the peace, U.S. officials said.

But the officials are also worried about recent signals from the U.S. Congress.

Last year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., called for a $20 million appropriation for covert operations designed to oust Iran's Islamic government - a move that Iran saw as a violation of the 1981 accord that brought freedom for 52 American hostages held in Tehran in exchange for a U.S. vow to keep out of Iran's internal affairs.

And Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., introduced legislation last year requiring the president to impose economic sanctions on any foreign company that sells oil equipment to Iran.