Khobar Bombing Indictment Highlights Bush Iran Dilemma

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U.S. and Saudi military personnel survey the damage to Khobar Towers

Attorney General John Ashcroft has assured the relatives of the 19 U.S. servicemen killed in the bombing of Khobar Towers that justice will be done. But the indictment issued Thursday for the bombing suggests that even if the U.S. managed to round up any of the accused, the resulting trial would be about as satisfying to the victims' loved ones as the Lockerbie trial was to the families of those killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103. Two Libyan intelligence agents were tried for that crime, but nobody doubted that the real author — there are not too many individuals in Libya with the authority to order an outrage of such profound international consequences — was never in court.

The indicted men are mostly Saudi members of the Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrilla movement, and the indictment alleges that unnamed Iranian officials "inspired, supported and supervised" the accused men in their surveillance activities preceding the attack. And it doesn't take an intelligence analyst to figure out that an organization "supported and supervised" by Iran would not attack the world's most powerful military in a traditionally hostile neighboring country unless someone pretty powerful in Tehran had signed off on the strike. And although outgoing FBI director Louis Freeh had accused the Clinton Administration of soft-pedaling on the case in order to avoid crossing swords with Iran's emerging reformist leadership, no Iranian officials were named in the indictment. Freeh insists the reason was insufficient evidence rather than any geopolitical squeamishness.

Iran's struggle for change

Courtrooms, of course, are an afterthought in the war on terrorism, which is generally fought through a combination of intelligence and security work and diplomatic leverage. Although Iran remains on the State Department's list of states sponsoring terrorism, thereby making it subject to a range of automatic sanctions, there has been widespread recognition in the West that the fledgling reformist government of President Muhammad Khatami has moved to end support for terrorism. The problem is that while the recent election showed Khatami commands overwhelming public support, his real power is limited to the point of paralysis by a political system that puts unelected conservative clergymen in charge of the apparatus of power.

Ever since Khatami's dramatic election victory in 1998, Western governments have grappled with how to deal with an Iran whose people were clearly signaling their preference for peace and engagement with the West while their ultimate overlords fought a vicious battle to retain control of a closed society. The Bush Administration clearly wants to reinforce the reformist trend, but at the same time remains concerned about the activities of the hard-line elements who are still effectively in charge — particularly their headlong rush to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and the missile technology to deliver those over great distances. Moving in any direct way to retaliate against Iran for Khobar Towers would almost certainly weaken the hand of the reformists, and force them to close ranks with the hard-liners.

And as much as they cooperated in compiling the current indictment, the Saudi authorities are reportedly also nervous about any U.S. retaliation, particularly given their proximity to Iran and recent efforts to improve relations.

A policy question mark

Still, an indictment that implies Iranian authorship of an attack that killed 19 Americans may raise pressure on the Bush Administration to take some form of action. At the very least it will stiffen resistance to any rapprochement with Tehran. And that makes it a complicating factor for a U.S. administration that has not yet resolved its Iran policy. Unlike the case of Iraq, where the Bush team knows what it wants to do but is unsure whether its goals are achievable, in the case of Iran it's not yet sure what it actually wants to do.

In the short term, of course, Washington is unlikely to do anything differently as a result of the indictment. After all, none of the accused is even in U.S. custody right now, and this administration is unlikely to create a major international crisis in response to an indictment rushed through just before the statute of limitations on the case ran out. But it may serve as a reminder of the dilemma posed for the West by the power struggle in Tehran.