December 12, 1996 in Nation/World

Punitive Strikes Planned If Iran Tied To Saudi Barracks Bombing

Los Angeles Times

The United States is planning possible punitive actions against Iran, including retaliatory strikes on military targets, and could act if a Saudi theory proves true - that Iran was responsible for the June 25 bombing that killed 19 American troops.

U.S. law enforcement and Pentagon officials tentatively have concluded that Saudi Shiites were responsible. But they cautioned that the conclusions are preliminary, noting that Iran and Syria were tentatively thought responsible for the 1988 bombing of Pan American Airways Flight 103 over Scotland - conclusions later found to be wrong.

“A lot of people would like to bash Iran and the Saudi case fuels their desire to do it,” a senior U.S. law enforcement official said Wednesday. “But any conclusion, not to mention any action, is very premature.”

This time around, U.S. officials are saying they still lack sufficient proof to support Saudi Arabia’s contention that Saudi Shiites - trained, supported, financed and armed by Iran - are behind the deadly attack on the Khobar Towers military apartment in Dhahran. The Saudis claim that those responsible met with Iranian intelligence and traveled to Iran.

Although the Pentagon always maintains contingency plans for counterstrikes and defense of strategic interests, senior U.S. officials said the current, “well-advanced” planning is for a tailor-made reply to Iran’s long record of sponsoring extremism in the region, with the Khobar bombing in mind.

Ultimately, the president decides from a list of options. But the current military list includes strikes on facilities that would send “a powerful and specific” message to Tehran, the sources added.

On the diplomatic front, the list includes a call for the most punitive international sanctions imposed since the 1979-81 hostage ordeal when Iran was ostracized and isolated by the outside world. Among the recommendations is the proposal for a United Nations resolution that would ban all arms sales and nuclear technology transfers and reduce the number of personnel allowed at Iran’s diplomatic missions abroad.

Officials said the plans support broader U.S. objectives in dealing with Iran, specifically to weaken its military buildup of weapons and to disrupt its propaganda and sabotage campaigns, which are often run out of embassies.

As in previous terrorism cases, U.S. officials said that the vague Iran link so far is indirect, tied more to Tehran’s influence on Shiite brethren in the adjoining Arab world than to direct instigation of the attack. “We’re a long way from saying that Iran knew about the bombing in advance, ordered it or gave the green light,” a Pentagon official said. “We have no evidence of that.”

Meantime, on Wednesday, the Air Force general in charge of the base in Saudi Arabia where the airmen were killed has been cleared of culpability in the terrorist bombing, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday. The finding on Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier was in a report issued by Lt. Gen. James Record, who was given the authority to decide whether Schwalier should be disciplined or face court-martial proceedings.

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