U.S. seeks Iran's cooperation in inquiry
President's letter reportedly about 1996 bombing
By Barbara Slavin
September 28, 1999
WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has asked Iran's President Mohammed
Khatami to cooperate in the investigation of the bombing in 1996 of a U.S.
military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, former and current U.S. officials
Analysts suggested that Iranian cooperation could lead to an improvement
in U.S.-Iranian relations that have been strained since the takeover of
the U.S. Embassy by Iranian extremists in 1979.
Vince Cannistraro, former head of counterterrorism for the CIA, said
an emissary for the U.S. government passed along the administration's message
in Paris this summer. Cannistraro said that the letter involved the investigation
into the Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 U.S. airmen and injured
David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, confirmed
that a presidential letter had been sent, but declined to divulge its contents.
He also strongly denied reports appearing in the Arabic and Iranian
press that a senior member of the National Security Council had met with
an Iranian envoy.
Iranian and Arabic newspapers also reported earlier this month that
the message asked Iran to expel several suspects in the Khobar Towers bombing.
Iran has publicly rebuffed U.S. calls for an official dialogue with
the United States, but there have been an increasing number of contacts
between former U.S. officials and influential Iranians.
State Department spokesman James Rubin also confirmed that a letter
had been sent from the White House to Khatami.
"We have ways to communicate diplomatically with Iran, but I cannot
comment on any specific message," he said.
U.S. and Saudi law enforcement officials have long suspected Iran of
harboring and possibly sponsoring the bombers, who are believed to be members
of the Shiite Muslim minority in Saudi Arabia.
Officials believe that Saudi Shiites are involved in the incident. However,
their evidence, extracted from suspects under duress in Saudi custody,
might not hold up in a U.S. court, U.S. officials say.
The Clinton administration, hoping to improve relations with the Khatami
government, has moved cautiously on the case and sought to make a distinction
between the Khatami government and its predecessors after Iran's Islamic
revolution in 1979.
Since Khatami's election in 1997, Iran appears to have ceased support
for anti-U.S. terrorism and for Shiite dissidents across the Persian Gulf,
although it continues to support anti-Israel groups and remains on a State
Department list of terrorism-sponsoring states.
"The FBI has concluded that the bombing was supported and possibly
ordered by the Iranian intelligence service" under Khatami's predecessor,
Hashemi Rafsanjani, said Cannistraro, who has closely monitored the Khobar
Analysts said Iranian cooperation in the investigation could improve
long-strained relations between Washington and Tehran.
The FBI declined comment, saying the investigation was in progress.
Some U.S. officials said Iran had responded negatively to the letter and
denied any involvement in the bombing.
The Iranians also asked the United States to send to them for prosecution
the captain of the USS Vincennes, which accidentally shot down an Iran
Air passenger plane over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing all 290 aboard.
Admission of responsibility in the Khobar Towers bombing would be difficult
for the Khatami government, which has been struggling to assert control
over Iran's security services and judiciary.
U.S. officials are hoping that parliamentary elections in February will
strengthen Khatami and allow him to complete reforms in Iran's internal
and external policies.