EXPEDITING THE RETURN OF SALAH AL-DIN

By Yossef Bodansky

With scant attention being paid in the US, Saudi Arabia announced the results of its investigation into the June 1996 Khobar bombing in which 19 American servicemen were killed. The Saudi investigators, Prince Nayif, the Saudi Interior Minister, told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai Al-Amm, that evidence conclusively proved that the Khobar bombing "was executed by Saudi hands." "No foreign party had any role in it," he stated.

Prince Nayif added that Riyadh now rejects any implication of Iranian and Syrian involvement. At the same time, Prince Nayif's interview leaves many issues unresolved, including such basic issues as the extent of Riyadh's knowledge as to whom were the actual perpetrators, let alone whether they were arrested, tried, and given the Saudi customary carriage of justice, and summarily beheaded.

Still, the release of these findings by Prince Nayif is extremely important, not for setting the record straight, because there is air tight evidence that Iran and Syria were the masterminds and facilitators of this terrorist strike, as a key political-strategic event. Prince Nayif's assertion that no foreign power was involved in Khobar bombing formally absolves Iran of any involvement in terrorism against Saudi Arabia and as such constitutes a major event in the consolidation of a Tehran-led all-Islamic front.

Prince Nayif's statement is the latest milestone in a series of events unfolding over the last six months. This process has already led to former Iranian President Hashemi-Rafsanjani's dramatic visit to Riyadh in March 1998. The visit had the declared objective of opening a new era in Saudi-Iranian relations, with emphasis on common stands concerning regional and economic (oil price) policies. The driving force on the Saudi side has been Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz who is striving to reconcile Riyadh's need for US forces as protection against Iranian and Iraqi strategic aspirations, and the realization of the threat of the rapidly expanding, indigenous Islamist opposition that derives strength and popular support from the widespread grassroots opposition to the American presence.

Riyadh's conclusion from these contradictory trends is to reduce the need for US presence by improving relations with Tehran and thus enhancing internal stability.

Crown Prince Abdallah initiated the Saudi drive for rapprochement with Iran when he attended the eighth Summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Tehran in December 1997. He came from the several meetings he held with Iranian leaders, convinced of the sincerity of Iranian hosts. Crown Prince Abdallah's visit led to a series of bilateral agreements such as the resumption of direct scheduled flights between the two countries, the signing of a $15 million industrial cooperation deal, and the formation of a joint economic committee to formulate strategies to raise the price of oil. In early March 1998, the new relationship was formalized in the brief visit to Saudi Arabia of Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Kharazi had an audience with King Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz -- a major honor for a minister-level official Riyadh accords only to allies and superpowers -- who extended a formal invitation to President Muhammad Khatami.

However, the turning point was the subsequent ten-day visit to Saudi Arabia by former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who is now the Chairman of Iran's Expediency Council. On the public side of his visit, he performed the Hajj and visited other holy shrines of Islam, including the main mosque in Madina where Hashemi-Rafsanjani was subjected to an attack on Shi'ism by the local Imam, yet he disregarded it in order not to insult his Saudi hosts. However, the Saudi authorities fired that Imam soon afterwards.

Most important were the meetings Hashemi-Rafsanjani held with King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdallah, Defense Minister Prince Sultan, Interior Minister Prince Nayif, and Prince Turki who is in charge of intelligence, anti-terrorism and security matters. Hashemi-Rafsanjani held extensive, wide range talks with them covering all key aspects of the Saudi-Iranian bilateral relations, "practical" co-operation in stopping the continued decline in oil prices, as well as regional and global issues.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani surprised his hosts with a revolutionary offer in the name of the highest authorities in Tehran: The Islamic Republic of Iran formally pledged to stop all its terrorist and subversive activities against Arab countries -- particularly Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf Shaykhdoms, Egypt and Jordan -- in return for Riyadh's joining the all-Islamic campaign to determine an Islamic future for the region. He vowed Tehran would end its support to the regional Islamist terrorist organizations once these governments adopt "proper" Islamic policies.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani stressed that Tehran has nothing in principle against the House of al-Saud, or any of the other governments presently under assault by Iran-sponsored Islamist subversion, except for their reneging on the sacred duty of Jihad. Hence, once any of these governments resumes living up to its Islamic obligation to contribute to the liberation of al-Quds [Jerusalem] -- the destruction of Israel -- Iran will have no reason to encourage Islamist terrorism and subversion against it. Significantly, this message was also elucidated by HAMAS leader Shaykh Yassin and his entourage during their triumphant tour throughout the Arab World. Shaykh Yassin repeatedly endorsed governments that still oppress their own Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organs -- most notably the Assad regime in Syria -- solely because they actively contribute to the armed struggle against Israel.

To drive his point home, Hashemi-Rafsanjani not only gave the Saudis "full and formal" assurances about Iran's "determination and pledge" to stop sponsorship of terrorism against them, he also delivered a letter from President Khatami affirming that Tehran had decided "to stop exporting the revolution, supporting terrorism, undermining the Middle East, or destabilizing neighboring countries" under the right circumstances." The only exceptions are the organizations fighting Israel -- such as the HAMAS, the Islamic Jihad, the HizbAllah -- all of which are financed, equipped, and backed by Iran. The Saudis, who currently provide extensive financial and organizational help for the HAMAS and other Palestinian Islamist terrorist organizations, have no problem with these exceptions.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani's discussions with the uppermost leaders of Saudi Arabia also touched upon the Khobar bombing. Evading explicit acknowledgment of Tehran's involvement or responsibility, Hashemi- Rafsanjani could tell both Prince Nayif and Prince Turki that the terrorists' motive was despair over Saudi Arabia's cooperation with the US and virtual peace with Israel, and not a challenge to the al- Saud's hold over power. Hence, he suggested, the available evidence should be closely studied by Riyadh and Tehran to ensure that it is not misinterpreted in a way that will only aggravate an already delicate situation. To ensure that no such misunderstanding happens and to show their "good will," Riyadh provided the Iranians with a copy of their findings. (Incidentally, Saudi Arabia has adamantly refused to share this information with the US despite several personal requests by senior officials visiting Riyadh.)

The "clarification" of the Khobar issue led to an immediate improvement in the intelligence and security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Toward this end, the Iranian Interior Minister Abdollah Nuri visited Saudi Arabia in early April at the invitation of Prince Nayif. With the Khobar issue "resolved," Nuri declared in Riyadh that both governments now "believe that if more rapprochement takes place between the two major countries in the region, we will be able to achieve security and peace of mind for the people of the region." He highlighted the new era of cooperation between Riyadh and Tehran in which "the two interior ministries can discuss ways to fight drugs and terrorism, security cooperation, the movement of both countries' citizens, and the exchange of information to help clarify the positions."

The new rapprochement is being endorsed by the highest echelons in Tehran. Even Ayatollah Khamene'i expressed his "satisfaction" of the state of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in a public speech in mid-April. He then called for the "further promotion and development" of co-operation between the two regional powers. For Tehran, the primary common objective of Iran and Saudi Arabia is to further reduce mutual tensions and strive for better cooperation in the anticipated campaign to evict the "Great Satan" [=US] from the region and destroy its "Illegitimate Offspring" [=Israel] as preconditions for the Muslim liberation of al-Quds.

Meanwhile, the rapprochement among Arab and Muslim states is explained in an anticipation for fateful events. Most significant is the frequent invoking by Arab leaders of the legacy of the Muslim defeat of the Crusaders in describing the challenges currently facing the Arabs in their confrontation with Israel. For example, Yassir Arafat recently compared his position vis-a-vis Israel to that of Islam's conquerors who defeated both the Jews of Arabia and the Crusaders. "We respect agreements the way that the Prophet Muhammad and Salah al-Din respected the agreements which they signed," Arafat explained. The truce agreements in question were signed at a time of weakness and unilaterally violated by both leaders once circumstances were ripe for defeating their enemies. Arafat uses these examples as justification for the principle of a unilateral violation of his agreements with Israel in order to revive the war against Israel whenever the Arabs are ready.

Islamist leaders are even more explicit in comparing the current circumstances in the Middle East with these of the days of the Crusaders when the entire Muslim World united behind a single (non- Arab) leader -- Salah al-Din -- in order to defeat and evict the Crusaders, and liberate al-Quds. In Jordan the Islamic Action Front [IAF] issued a statement in mid May that stressed this point: "The conspiracy partners are Zionists and Crusaders, who are helped by the fact that the Arabs are divided among themselves and dominated by colonialist powers." The IAF stresses the all-Islamic character of both the historic struggles and the forthcoming one: "The causes of Jerusalem and Palestinian people never were the exclusive concerns of the Palestinians; they are the concern of the entire Ummah." Neither 'Umar bin-al-Khattab nor Salah-al-Din al-Ayyubi or Qutuz hailed from Palestine. All were Muslims whose Islamic faith and responsibility toward their God prompted them to surmount all the obstacles that had blocked their path as they sought to liberate Palestine." The same commitment and effort should be embarked upon by the Muslim World, the IAF argues.

Concurrently, Shaykh Yassin emphasized the significance of an all- Muslim unified front in order to destroy Israel, again comparing the prospects of such an alliance to the Muslims' triumph against the Crusaders under the leadership of Salah al-Din. In striving to liberate Palestine from the Israeli occupation, Shaykh Yassin explained in mid-May, "the Ummah can play an effective role. I have not lost confidence in this Ummah. Who liberated Palestine from the Crusaders? The Arab nation of course, specifically Egypt and Syria when they united and formed a strong force and front that Salah al-Din used in his battle against the Crusaders. The Arab and Islamic Ummah can play this role at present. However, this requires the unification of the ranks and the achievement of more freedom and justice for their people so that mercy and victory may come from Almighty God." And it is exactly this kind of all-Arab rapprochement and, possibly unity, that the new Iranian initiative to suppress support for Islamist terrorism and subversion in the Arab World is aimed to expedite."

Meanwhile, oblivious to the reality in the Middle East, and following Saudi "advise" and in line with the pro-Arab tilt of its policy, the Clinton Administration hails the "moderation" of Khatami's Tehran and seeks rapprochement with Iran. Toward this end, the US not only lifted the threat of sanctions off Europeans doing business with Iran, but made it easier for US companies to use European "fronts" as well. Little wonder that even the most conservative Arab leaders no longer fear Washington's wrath as they strike deal with Tehran to reduce the Islamist threat to themselves while joining the all- Arab/all-Muslim quest to defeat the contemporary Crusaders and liberate al-Quds. [I&GN, May 26, 1998]

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Yossef Bodansky is the Freeman Center's world terrorism analyst.



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