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Murder of U.S. Airmen at Khobar Towers: Iran Did it

This is old news to those who followed the 9/11 Commission report and Iran’s historic record as the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism — particularly, anti-U.S. terrorism.  (I recently detailed it, here.)  But now, a federal judge has ruled that Iran was responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in which 19 American Air Force personnel were killed and 372 wounded.The AP reports:

The Iranian government is partly to blame for a 1996 terrorist attack that killed 19 Americans in Saudi Arabia, a federal judge ruled Friday.  The ruling by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth allows the families of the victims of the Khobar Towers bombing to seek $254 million in compensation from the conservative Islamic regime in Tehran.  

Though intelligence officials have suspected a link between the Tehran government and the Saudi wing of Hezbollah, which the FBI has accused of carrying out the bombing, Friday’s ruling is the first time a branch of the U.S. government has officially blamed Iran for the deaths of Americans in the bombings.  ”This court takes note of plaintiffs’ courage and steadfastness in pursuing this litigation and their efforts to take action to deter more tragic suffering of innocent Americans at the hands of terrorists,” Lamberth wrote. “Their efforts are to be commended.”    

Lamberth relied heavily on testimony by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who investigated the bombings.  Two Iranian government security agencies and senior members of the Iranian government itself provided funding, training and logistical help to terrorists who carried out the attack on a dormitory that housed U.S. Air Force pilots and staff in Saudi Arabia, Freeh testified.  

Lamberth had previously ruled that a survivor of the blast could seek compensation from Iran but Friday’s ruling is the first time a court has said Iran was to blame for the deaths. The lawsuit was brought by the families of 17 of the 19 people killed in the attack.

The AP’s assertion that this marks the “first time a branch of the U.S. government has officially blamed Iran for the deaths of Americans” at Khobar is not accurate.  The indictment filed by the Justice Department in 2001, though it does not name specific Iranian officials, alleges Iranian direction of, and logistical support for, the attack — and notes that conspirators stated that the purpose of the attack was to strike the United States on behalf of Iran. 

Furthermore, just this May, in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said (italics mine):

I would also like to say that we as a country cannot forget one of the other major grievances that we have with Iran, and that is the terrorism issue. We do not forget what happened in Beirut to our embassy and to our Marine barracks in 1983, or to Colonel Higgins, who was serving with the UN forces in southern Lebanon in 1985. And we certainly do not forget, and I believe [Ambassador] Dennis [Ross] and I were together that day, what happened at Khobar Towers outside of Dhahran, because we were there just several hours after the blast with Secretary [Warreb] Christopher and saw what happened to over 30 Americans who were killed and to 300 American military officers who ended up in the hospital.

This echoed what State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow had said more forcefully only the week before:

During the 1990s, Iran aided terrorist groups that were targeting Americans, Israelis, and Saudis. Agents of the Iranian government were involved in the attack on the U.S. Air Force barracks at Khobar Towers, in Saudi Arabia, in 1996.

Yet, in the civil litigation brought by bombing victims against Iran, the State Department has actually intervened on Iran’s behalf, filing an amicus brief in support of the Islamic Republic’s position.

In point of fact, the Iranian role has been known to our government since the 1990s.  The Clinton administration suppressed it because, right after the Khobar bombing, President Clinton threatened to retaliate with a military attack against any nation found to be complicit.  Acknowledging proof of an Iranian role would have required doing something about it. 

By autumn 1999, evidence had emerged that was reliable enough for State Department spokesman James Rubin to state publicly:  ”We do have specific information with respect to the involvement of Iranian government officials.”  Yet, Clinton contented himself with firing off … a letter, pleading with the mullahs — who, mind you, had already spurned a similar request — for help bringing those responsible to justice. 

Reminiscent of the Bush administraton’s approach to Iran’s nuclear provocations, the Clinton administration, despite its prior rhetoric about dealing fiercely with state sponsorship of terrorism, offered all carrots (normalization of relations and an end to economic sanctions) and no sticks.  Then, as now, the mullahs laughed.


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