FBI director Louis J. Freeh went to Saudi Arabia to take a close look at the recently completed Saudi investigation of the Dhahran bombing. Nineteen Americans were killed in that June 25 terrorist blast. When he returned, he would not tell Americans what he had learned. Significantly, Freeh would not confirm the investigators' conclusion - which the Saudis said was based on "confessions and other evidence" - that Iran had engineered that dastardly deed.
FBI officials knew that in Saudi Arabia, as in many other Arab states, suspects are routinely tortured into confessing. The FBI wanted to talk with those who had "confessed" to the crime. The Saudis did not allow it.
Hence Mr. Freeh's discussions in Riyadh centered on "other evidence" which, according to informed sources, is not much evidence at all.
Apparently the FBI can't trace the blast to Iran; if it could, it would announce it at the top of its voice and use the information to tighten the global economic squeeze on that country.
The FBI also does not want to talk about the trail it saw, which discredits the friendly Saudi monarchy sitting on the world's largest oil reserve. The suspects in the Dhahran blast, like those who killed five Americans in Riyadh earlier, are Saudis. They belong to the hard edge of a fast-growing antiregime movement, some of whose members I interviewed during trips to Saudi Arabia and Europe. They are working underground overseas and inside Saudi Arabia.
Even if the Dhahran terrorists had Iran's blessing, they did not kill those Americans for Iran's sake. They did it because they resent the US military presence in their country which, they say, shields their repressive monarchy against pressures for reforms.
But Iran and Islamic revivalism are the only sources of Middle Eastern violence that seem to interest the American government and news media. Recently, at a seminar on information technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a Pentagon official sounded the alarm that "Iran is putting out the Quran and other provocative materials on the Internet" in an effort to incite terrorism.
I hope this official's views about the Muslim holy book don't reflect the Pentagon's, but unfortunately he was not the first US official to link Islam to terrorism. Meanwhile, the US news media are looking for clues to the Dhahran blast in the Lebanese hideouts of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, showing little interest in the activities of the myriad Saudi dissident groups in Saudi Arabia and abroad or in the political suppression radicalizing some of them.
The specter of Iran and Islamic revivalism has become so pervasive in America that any serious public discourse about volatile Arab politics has become nearly impossible. Arab autocracies that depend on US military or economic support have successfully played to Americans' Iran-phobia. Egypt has announced - based largely on suspects' "confessions" - that it has unearthed Iranian links to an abortive ambush on President Hosni Mubarak during his June 1995 tour of Ethiopia. The Bahraini monarchy also says it has discovered, again based on "confessions," Iranian complicity in the continual unrest there. The report on the Saudi investigation of the Dhahran bombing fits this pattern.
The Saudi opposition movements are spearheaded by people who, though xenophobic about their brand of Islamic culture, aspire for the basic rights to assemble, speak their minds, learn about the affairs of their country, and participate in politics. They resent Americans' callousness about their aspirations.
The feeling is widespread among educated youth throughout the Gulf. In May, when Bahrainis were agitating for restoration of their parliament, dissolved since 1975, US Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili rushed to that sheikhdom to "condemn acts of violence" and announce US support for the embattled Bahraini monarchy. Not long after, a Qatari activist in London faxed me two news clips. One was about General Shalikashvili's Bahrain trip and statement. The other said an American diplomatic mission to Asia was mounting pressure on the Burmese military government to restore that country's dissolved parliament. He asked me to note the "double standard" in US foreign policy.
MANY Gulf Arabs also resent the US security cordon around the Gulf which, they say, has turned their states into American "colonies," draining their oil to maintain the West's high living standards while letting millions of Arabs and Muslims languish in poverty. To underscore the argument, they cite official American statements that US troops in the Gulf are serving "vital American interests."
Of course, they could be reminded that without the American security umbrella the Gulf might have slipped under Iraqi tutelage. Yet Americans seem less sensitive to Arabs' welfare than some European nations were to that of their colonial subjects. In many of their colonies, especially in South Asia, Europeans initiated social reforms, ensured social justice, and introduced democratic institutions.
In the Gulf today, Americans appear content to underwrite the security of repressive autocracies in exchange for oil without taking any responsibility for their repression. Many are just too busy fighting the ghost of the late Iranian Islamist leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to think about such a responsibility.
*Mustafa Malik is senior associate at The Strategy Group, a Washington-based think tank.