July 20, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 64

Iranian and Saudi Reactions to the US's Indictment of the Khobar Terrorists

July 20, 2001
Saudi Arabia, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 64

On June 21, 2001 the US announced its decision to indict fourteen suspects of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, in Daharan,Saudi-Arabia, in which 19 American soldiers were killed and approximately 400 people injured. The announcement was followed byanger against the US in Iran and Saudi-Arabia.

Iranian Involvement in the Khobar Bombing

The suspects are thirteen Saudi citizens and one Lebanese, who were operating under Iranian auspices. The Saudis are members of the Saudi Hizbullah organization, which is active among the Shi'ite population in Saudi Arabia, and was outlawed by the Saudi authorities. The Lebanese citizen, a chemist, who reportedly assisted in building the bomb,[1] is suspected to be a member of the Lebanese Hizbullah organization.

According to the indictments, Iranian officials supervised and instructed the Saudi Hizbullah members to track the American presence in Saudi Arabia in order to identify vulnerable American targets.

While announcing the decision to indict the suspects, US Attorney General John Ashcroft said that officials affiliated with the Iranian government "inspired, supported and supervised" the bombing perpetrators.[2]

According to the indictments, the Iranian embassy in Syria was an "important source for logistics and support to the [Hizbullah] Saudi members, going to and from Lebanon," for example, it provided a Mercedes to one of the suspects in order for them to travel to a military training site in Lebanon in 1989. Beginning in 1993, the Saudi Hizbullah surveillance of the Americans in Saudi Arabia began, with the suspects reporting to Iranian officials. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that the recruitment of suspects by Iran was carried out in Damascus and instructions were sent to them at the last coordination meeting in Beirut which was under Syrian control.[3]

The indictments reveal that after reporting about an American military camp as a potential target in 1994, one of the perpetrators got "a phone call from a high ranking Iranian official who inquired as to the progress of their surveillance activity."[4]

Hani Abd Al-Rahim Al-Sayegh, a Saudi citizen who was deported from Canada to the US in June 1997, is suspected of being directly involved in the bombing. He initially agreed to a plea bargain, admitting that while living in Iran for educational purposes, he was enlisted as a Saudi Hizbullah member by Iranian security officials and received military training in Tehran.[5]

In his interrogation, Al-Sayegh said that a high ranking Iranian official was involved in organizing terrorist cells in Saudi-Arabia as well as in other Gulf states.[6] According to the Saudi weekly Al-Majallah the Iranian "Revolutionary Guards," provided Al-Sayegh with a fake Saudi Passport and assisted him in organizing his frequent tours to Syria.[7] Later on, Al-Sayegh withdrew from the plea and was extradited to the Saudi authorities.[8]

The chances of prosecuting the suspects in the US are remote since Iranian-Saudi relations have undergone a considerable rapprochement following Khatami's election in 1992.

On the other hand, relations between the US and Saudi Arabia have lately been deteriorating and Washington, for its part, wishes not to damage them further. Although the outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh, who headed the investigation claimed that "Diplomatic considerations did not play a role" in the decision to indict the suspects, American sources say the decision not to indict Iranians is "politically and not legally motivated" to prevent further escalation in Iran-US relations.[9]

The Iranian Reaction The American decision to indict the suspects caused an uproar mainly within the conservative press and establishment. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Riza Asefi, strongly denied US accusations of Iran's involvement in the bombing as "lacking any legal validity." "…The accusations are an additional step in the unyielding American efforts to pressure Iran." He added: "It is a surrender to the Zionist lobby and its influence."[10]

The Iranian Foreign Ministry sponsored daily, Tehran Times, which reflects 'The Supreme Leader' Ali-Khamenie's positions, stated that the American judicial system is not independent, but serves the US executive branch.[11]

The daily also hinted to a change in the US' policy toward Iran after the departure of President Clinton, who wished to thaw American-Iranian relations. Tehran Times also said the American decision to indict the suspects was "… a malicious Zionist lobby conspiracy, a lobby that acts like a malignant cancer in the American body."[12] In another article the daily called to bring the US to court for raising "baseless accusations" against Iran.[13]

There have been strong Iranian reactions regarding the US Congress' intention to prolong the Iran Libya Sanctions Act [ILSA]for another five years. The Bush administration only wanted to prolong it to another two years. But Asefi stated that: "… A sanction is a sanction whether for five or two years… and it proves the influence of the Zionist Lobby in the US…"[14]

The Conservative Iranian press also praised the firm Saudi position "… as a slap in the face of Washington…" and proudly referred to the deterioration of Saudi-US relations[15]

While Majlis members chanted in the parliament "Death to the US and Israel" – Mustafa Tajzadeh, a confidant of President Khatami and prominent reformist Majlis member, stated that Iran can now conduct a dialog with the US "from a position of strength…"[16]

The Saudi Reaction

In response to the American decision to indict the suspects – Saudi authorities stated that only Saudi Arabia is allowed to investigate and prosecute the suspects. Saudi Minister of Defense [and brother of King Fahd], Crown Prince Sultan Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, was enraged by the "US' intervention in domestic Saudi Issues" … "This is a matter that relates only to Saudi Arabia."[17]

The Saudi Minister of Interior, Prince Nayef Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, told the Saudi daily Al-Riadh that no evidence connecting Iran to the bombing was found. Prince Nayef also denied the existence of a Saudi-Hizbullah organization.[18] In a later interview, he stated that "Saudi Arabia will not extradite the Saudi suspects to the US," which he blamed of "violating its promises [to Saudi Arabia] regarding security cooperation."[19]

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iran Media Project.

[1] LA Times, June 22, 2001.

[2] New York Times, June 21, 2001.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, June 27, 2001.

[4] LA Times, June 22, 2001.

[5] The Washington Post, June 18, 1997.

[6] The Washington Post, September 9, 1997.

[7] Al-Majallah Weekly (Saudi Arabia), April 26, 1997.

[8] The advisor of Former Intelligence Minister, Ali Fallahian, reaffirmed that several of the accused spent time in Iran in the early 90s', among them Hani Al-Sayegh , Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, June 25, 2001.

[9] LA Times, June 22, 2001.

[10] IRNA, June 22, 2001. American high-ranking officials criticized Saudi Arabia for the limited access and cooperation they afforded the FBI.

[11] Tehran Times, June 24, 2001.

[12] Tehran Times, June 25, 2001.

[13] Tehran Times, June 24, 2001.

[14] IRNA, June 22, 2001; Kayhan, June 23, 2001; Ettelaat, June 23, 2001.

[15] IRNA, June 24, 2001.

[16] Al-Hayat (London), June 27, 2001.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, June 23, 2001. Washington Post, June 23, 2001.

[18] Al-Riyadh, June 23, 2001.

[19] New York Times, July 2, 2001. American high-ranking officials criticized Saudi Arabia for the limited access and cooperation they afforded the FBI.

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