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U.S. seeks Iran's cooperation in inquiry
President's letter reportedly about 1996 bombing

By Barbara Slavin
USA Today
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 say.

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 500 people.

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 Towers case.

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.


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