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Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 21:18 GMT 22:18 UK
Analysis: US accuses Iran over Khobar
Khobar bombing
Saudi Shias trained by Iran are alleged to be behind the attack
By Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

On 25 June 1996 a truck packed with explosives blew up close to a military base in Dhahran, on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia.

Nineteen American servicemen were killed, making it one of the most serious attacks against a US target in the Middle East for many years.

Louis Freeh became convinced Iranian Government officials had planned the attack

What followed was a long and often frustrating five-year investigation led by Louis Freeh, the head of the American FBI. Mr Freeh quickly ran into two main problems.

One was the reluctance of the Saudi Arabian authorities to co-operate with his officials.

The Saudis - always sensitive to outside interference in their affairs, even from such a close ally - initially refused to let the FBI interview any of the hundreds of Saudis who were arrested in the aftermath of the bombing.

His other difficulty was that there were sharply conflicting theories as to who had been behind the attack.

Iranian connection

Many pointed the finger at Osama Bin Laden, the exiled Saudi-born dissident, who had declared a jihad, or holy war, against the American presence on the soil of Arabia.

FBI Director Louis Freeh
Louis Freeh led the five-year investigation
A rival theory held that Saudi Shias had carried out the attack, possibly with backing from Iran.

Eventually FBI officials were allowed to put questions to the suspects.

Over time, Louis Freeh became convinced Iranian Government officials had planned the attack and trained Saudi Shias to carry it out.

Changing relations

But now his objective - to identify the bombers and bring them to justice - came into conflict with the foreign-policy priorities of the Clinton administration.

Following the election of a reformist cleric, Mohammed Khatami, as Iranian president in 1997, President Bill Clinton began to explore the possibilities of rapprochement with Tehran.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia's relations with Iran had begun to improve significantly.

It seemed as if Bill Clinton and the Saudi ruling family had a common interest in closing the Khobar file.

But having changed once when Mr Khatami became president of Iran, the geopolitical picture changed again when George W Bush entered the White House at the beginning of this year.

Last chance

Mr Freeh, who had decided to retire as FBI chief, knew he had one last chance to present indictments against the men he was sure had carried out the attack.

In issuing indictments against 14 suspects - 13 Saudis and a Lebanese - US officials have made it clear that they hold elements within the Iranian Government responsible for planning and directing the attack.

This is bound to have serious implications for future US-Iranian relations.

On coming to office, President Bush ordered a review of relations with Tehran. He appeared sympathetic to the oil and business lobbies who were arguing for normalisation of relations.

That is now out of the question. America's conviction that Iran is one of the world's principal sponsors of international terrorism can only be reinforced by the Khobar indictments.

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See also:

21 Jun 01 | Americas
US brings Saudi bombing charges
13 Jun 01 | Americas
Saudi bombing charges 'close'
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Bomb suspect sent to Saudi
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How the US became a target
24 May 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
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