Prague, 22 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Washington's linking of elements of the Iranian government to Saudi suspects charged with a 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel is likely to further complicate prospects for improving relations between the United States and Iran.
The linking in an indictment of the suspects -- 13 Saudi and one Lebanese -- by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) yesterday comes close on the heels of a U.S. congressional panel voting earlier this week in favor of extending sanctions against Iran and Libya, because of concerns both countries continue to sponsor terrorism.
The U.S. House of Representatives' International Relations Committee voted 41 to 3 on Wednesday (20 June) in favor of renewing for another five years the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, or ILSA, which seeks to curb foreign investment in the oil and natural gas sectors of both countries. The Senate has not yet taken up the issue.
But many analysts say the renewal of ILSA when it expires in August is almost certain, because a majority of U.S. senators and representatives have previously indicated they favor the step. And yesterday's indictment appears almost sure to strengthen, rather than weaken, that sentiment.
The indictment blames members of a little-known radical Saudi Shiite group -- the Saudi Hizbollah -- of carrying out the 1996 bombing of the Al-Khobar towers, a housing complex on an air base near Dhahran on Saudi Arabia's east coast. In the bombing, 19 U.S. airmen died and 372 other Americans were injured in what the FBI describes as an effort by the group to drive U.S. soldiers from the Gulf region.
The indictment does not name or charge any Iranian suspects in the case. Nor does it directly accuse the Iranian government of legal responsibility for the attack. But it makes numerous references to the Saudi Hizbollah's ties to Iran and to some of the suspects receiving money from unnamed Iranian sources. It also says an unnamed member of the Iranian military directed surveillance of some potential U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia by the group's members and stayed in contact to follow their progress.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the indictment accuses "elements of the Iranian government" of inspiring, supporting, and supervising members of Saudi Hizbollah.
"The indictment alleges that the charged defendants reported their surveillance activities to Iranian officials and were supported and directed in those activities by Iranian officials."
The indictment is not only likely to be followed by a full renewal of the sanctions on Iran when Congress votes on ILSA this summer. It also is likely to assure Iran remains on the U.S. State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
That status currently severely limits steps that any U.S. administration can take toward easing restrictions on U.S. energy firms trading with Iran.
David Mack, a regional expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told RFE/RL recently that the suspicion that Iran was involved in the Al-Khobar Towers' bombing has long been a central reason for Tehran being included in the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors.
"Many of the things which people would like the U.S. to do [to improve U.S.-Iranian relations] and which could be justified in terms of U.S. economic interests, are constrained by the fact that Iran is on the terrorism list and will probably stay on the terrorism list as long as people still are concerned that there may well have been a direct Iranian involvement in the Al-Khobar bombing."
"The fact that Iran is on the terrorism list [means] as a matter of law [that it] cannot therefore receive aircraft or aircraft spare parts or credits for trade activities, U.S. government credits. There would have to be waivers on all these things."
Iran has repeatedly denied any involvement in the Al-Khobar bombing. In a recent statement, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi "categorically rejected" allegations that Iranian officials had played any role in the bombing. He also said that implicating Iran in the indictments would "make things more complicated" between the two countries.
This week's dramatic return of the subject of terrorism to the forefront of the U.S.-Iranian debate comes only days after Iranian President Mohammed Khatami won re-election on 8 June.
Since his re-election, some reformist supporters of the president have signaled they are ready to seek a U.S.-Iranian dialogue, but that they see lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran as a prerequisite.
Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the president's brother and a leading reformist member of parliament, said recently that any congressional renewal of ILSA when it expires in two months would "destroy all the bridges and all the efforts we have been making."