Saudi Arabia reportedly has taken custody of Ahmed al-Mughassil, accused of being a central figure in the truck bombing at Khobar Towers in eastern Saudi Arabia in 1996 in which 19 American airmen died. The report immediately raises questions about the timing of this story, the motives behind it, and the circumstances of the reported arrest. Supposedly Mughassil had been living in Beirut and somehow, in a way as yet unexplained, was turned over to the Saudis. It is probably too much of a coincidence for all of this to be unrelated to efforts, including by the Saudis, to remind people of all the reasons they should dislike Iran, as the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program is under consideration in the U.S. Congress. (Investigation of the attack at Khobar eventually led to the conclusion that it was perpetrated by Shia Saudi militants working with Iranian military officers and Iran's ally Lebanese Hezbollah.) But set those questions aside and consider some legitimate lessons that the Khobar episode has for present issues.
Notwithstanding Saudi Arabia's recent tough talk about Iran, and the (mistaken) interpretation of leaked cables supposedly showing that Saudi leaders would like the United States to cut off heads of snakes, the preferences and concerns in Riyadh in 1996 were much different. As David Kirkpatrick accurately recalls in his article in the New York Times about Mughassil's reported capture, Saudi leaders were worried back then that the United States would react too strongly against Iran, especially with reactions involving military force. The Saudis were trying to improve their relations with Tehran, and they did not want any U.S. response to the Khobar attack to upset that process. The Saudis thus dragged their feet in their part of the investigation, so much so that senior U.S. officials complained publicly about the inadequate Saudi cooperation. Saudi officials were reluctant to join the United States in blaming Iran even after indictments of the suspects were announced. The foot-dragging strategy worked; by the time the slow-moving investigation was completed, too much time had passed for a military response to be politically feasible, especially given the election in the meantime of the moderate Mohammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency.
Insufficient Saudi cooperation in investigating terrorism that claimed American lives on Saudi soil had already been exhibited in 1995, with the bombing of a military training facility in Riyadh in which five American advisers were killed. Saudi authorities arrested some suspects and beheaded them before the FBI had any chance to question them. The evident Saudi concern this time was not anything having to do with Iran but instead where an investigation of these suspects, who were Sunni extremists, would lead inside Saudi Arabia itself.
The Khobar Towers episode underscores how what the Saudi government says today about Iran is not some universal truth about Iranian behavior but instead a reflection of an unsurprising Saudi preference for other countries not to get friendly with its major Persian Gulf rival. What the Saudis are saying today to the United States about Iran is in no way incompatible with their undertaking again, as in the 1990s, their own rapprochement with Tehran. That is how triangular diplomacy can be used to advantage. (E.g., in Richard Nixon's time it served U.S. interests for there to be tension between the USSR and China at the same time the United States was cultivating its own relationships with each.) If there is for now a more combative Saudi tone to relations with Iran than there was in the 1990s this probably is because the Saudis themselves are being more physically combative and have become the most destabilizing element in their immediate neighborhood, particularly with the destructive fight they have picked in Yemen.
As for actual Iranian behavior, the Khobar Towers attack was the last terrorist attack against Americans in which an Iranian hand was established beyond any reasonable doubt. (And no, militia activity against U.S. troops in Iraq during the Iraq War does not invalidate that statement.) The attack was reprehensible, and a forceful response would have been appropriate. There is every reason to believe that the Clinton administration would have responded forcefully if Iranian involvement could have been established promptly in an unimpeded investigation. That same administration retaliated against Iraq with cruise missile strikes in 1993 when an investigation rapidly determined Iraqi government responsibility for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate former president George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait.
The Khobar attack was nineteen years ago—more than half the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That regime has changed greatly in many ways, and one of those ways is that it does not do anti-U.S. terrorism any more. For those who take the “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” approach, that change won't make any difference. But that is not the approach that the United States has implicitly taken in managing its relations with many other states, groups, and individuals. And managing relations in such a way that the other party is less, rather than more, likely to slip back into terrorism because of a lack of alternative ways of competing for influence is all to the good.
Without diminishing for a moment the reprehensible nature of the attack at Khobar, one additional lesson can be drawn concerning the circumstances that stimulated it. Anti-U.S. terrorism with an Iranian dimension always involved U.S. military deployments in the Middle East. As in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, so it was in Lebanon in the 1980s, most notably with the truck bombing by Lebanese Hezbollah of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983—the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans until 9/11. Iran and its allies are by no means the only ones who react this way to the placement of U.S. military power in their neighborhoods and their homelands. The U.S. military build-up in Saudi Arabia following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990—a build-up of which the airmen who died at Khobar were still a part—was the development that most radicalized Osama bin Laden and stimulated him to take the violent anti-American course that he did.