The United States and Western Europe are reacting very differently to Washington's recent linking of Iran to a 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. While the linkage appears certain to further chill relations between Washington and Tehran, it has attracted only mild interest in Western European capitals, which are focused on rebuilding their ties with Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.
Prague, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The indictment by the U.S. Federal Grand Jury last week linking Iran to the 1996 bombing of a military housing complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, has received wide attention in the United States as a new indication that Iran supports worldwide terrorism.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said last week the indictment shows that "elements of the Iranian government" inspired, supported, and supervised members of the Saudi radical group that carried out the bombing.
The 1996 attack on the Al-Khobar Towers housing complex killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded another 372 Americans. The indictment accuses 13 Saudi citizens and one Lebanese of carrying out the bombing as part of an effort by a little-known Saudi Shiite group -- the Saudi Hizbollah -- to drive U.S. forces from the Gulf region.
The indictment makes numerous references to the Saudi Hizbollah's ties to Iran and to some of the suspects receiving money from unnamed Iranian sources. Ashcroft said:
"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 linking of Iran to the Al-Khobar bombing has raised tensions between Washington and Tehran, which has rejected any role in the attack. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid-Reza Assifi, said recently that implicating Iran in the indictments would make things more complicated between the two countries.
But the quarrel has attracted little attention in Western Europe, where political commentators have largely ignored the issue or greeted the U.S. allegations of Iranian involvement with skepticism.
Germany's "Suddeutsche Zeitung" wrote that Washington had blamed Tehran for the Al-Khobar bombing without naming names and that this makes the charges unconvincing. The paper's commentator, Wolfgang Koydl, said that "the charge sheet contains absolutely no mention of Iran and not one single Iranian citizen faces trial."
Olivier Roy is a regional expert at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Study, or CNRS) in Paris. He told RFE/RL this week that to many Europeans, the U.S. linkage of Iran to the bombing looks more like a political statement than a legal charge.
"The Europeans are not convinced that such an indictment is based on legal evidence. It looks more like a political statement. The fact that there is no precise proof or evidence given [and] the fact that no leading present political authorities of Iran are mentioned [makes] Europeans think that it is just American gesticulation against Iran."
Western Europe has had its own serious rows with Iran over state sponsorship of terrorism, most recently in the mid-1990s. European fears of terrorism were fueled in 1992 by the assassination of Iranian-Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin meeting-place known as the "Mykonos." After an investigation, Germany determined that the killings were ordered at the highest levels of Iranian government and, as a result, European Union ambassadors temporarily withdrew from Tehran and relations were largely frozen.
But the election of moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 -- and a later statement by the Iranian government that it would not carry out an Islamic death sentence on British writer Salman Rushdie -- served to warm up relations. Both sides have stressed a desire for greater economic ties ever since. Roy says:
"For the Europeans, Iranian terrorism is a thing of the past. [The terrorism] went [out in] two stages. The first stage was the end of the Iranian actions against Western, or at least European, targets in the end of the 80s. But for some years [afterwards], the Iranians went on with terrorism against Iranian opponents in Europe and this led to the Mykonos case."
"The consequence of the Mykonos case is that Iran has pledged to the Europeans to stop any kind of terrorist attempts against its own citizens in Europe. So, the Europeans think that the deal is going on and there is no Iranian threat either against European targets or against Iranian citizens or political refugees living in Europe."
Instead, Western European attention to Iran has changed focus and now seeks to encourage reform efforts by Khatami's liberal allies and to express concern over human rights issues. A crackdown on Iranian dissidents who attended a reformist meeting in Berlin last year, and the subsequent jailing of many of them, has delayed a visit by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to Iran, following a visit by Khatami to Germany last summer.
With Western European concerns over Iranian terrorism apparently resolved, EU governments now increasingly regard as misplaced Washington's own efforts to continue to isolate Tehran politically and economically as a terrorist-sponsoring state.
Roy says that many European governments feel Washington's enmity toward Tehran is now largely motivated by concerns that Iran, which reject's Israel's right to exist, fuels the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Roy says:
"The real motivation of the American position is about the Iranian role in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. And the Europeans do not feel concerned by this element. They want to have bilateral relations with Iran, they don't think that Iran is directly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so they do not see the need to keep a leverage against Iran."
For the last five years, Washington has kept Tehran under sanctions that aim to punish any foreign firms that make substantial investments in Iran's energy sector. The sanctions, known as the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, or ILSA, are due to expire in August, but the U.S. Congress has given every signal they will be renewed.
The U.S. House of Representatives' International Relations Committee voted 41 to 3 last week in favor of renewing the sanctions for another five years. The matter has not yet gone to the Senate, where a majority of senators also favor renewal.
Over the past five years, Western European and other non-U.S. energy companies have routinely ignored the ILSA sanctions and Washington has refrained from taking punitive actions against them.
Recent Western investment in Iran's energy sector began with the French company Total -- now part of TotalFinaElf -- challenging the ILSA sanctions in 1997 to develop Iran's Sirri offshore field. Since then, the Western European multinational Shell group, Italy's Eni, Russia's Gazprom, and Malaysia's Petronas have all followed Total into Iran. Eni is now hoping to sign a new Iranian oil field development project valued at some $1 billion, while Spain's Cespa is eyeing another Iranian field.