A story Wednesday about a letter from President Clinton to the Iranian government misspelled the name of Bruce Riedel, the top Middle East specialist on the National Security Council. (Published 10/01/99)

President Clinton last month sent a secret letter to Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi in which he held out the prospect of better relations between the two countries if Iran helps U.S. investigators find the culprits behind the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia, administration officials said.

Because the United States and Iran have no diplomatic ties, the letter was carried to Paris by a senior White House official and given to an emissary from the tiny Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman, who passed it to Tehran.

U.S. investigators have long suspected that Iran was linked to the June 25, 1996, truck bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen and wounded more than 500 other people. At the same time, the Clinton administration is eager to explore the possibilities for dialogue with Khatemi, a moderate cleric who was elected in May 1997--nearly a year after the bombing took place--and has called for better relations with the West.

The request from Clinton was based in part on intelligence reports linking the bombing to three Saudi men who have taken refuge in Iran, a senior official said. The three men are thought to be affiliated with a Shiite Muslim extremist group known as Saudi Hezbollah. Shiite Muslims constitute a minority in Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim, and many Shiites feel at least a spiritual kinship with the Shiite clerics who rule Iran.

What direct role, if any, the three Saudis played in the bombing has yet to be determined, administration officials said, but it is assumed they could help jump start the long-dormant FBI investigation of the Khobar attack.

Clinton's request to Khatemi for help on the investigation was first reported Sept. 10 by Kuwait's al-Watan newspaper. At the time, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin confirmed that Clinton had indeed passed a message to Khatemi, but he declined to say how the letter was transmitted or provide any details of its contents. USA Today yesterday cited current and former U.S. officials as confirming Clinton's request for Iranian help in the Khobar investigation.

David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to discuss details of the letter or to say whether it had produced an official Iranian response.

An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the letter "should not be seen as a larger diplomatic initiative of warming relations" between Iran and the United States. On the other hand, the official said, the letter did couch the request for cooperation in the context of "the overall relationship."

Clinton's letter--his first direct message to the Iranian government--also repeated language from his previous public statements to the effect that Iran and the United States are "great civilizations" that should have a natural affinity for one another.

A senior administration official characterized the message as part of an effort to suggest various steps that Khatemi could take that would result in improved relations. "We show him several doors he can go through, and any movement in any of those directions is something we can take as a positive sign," the official said.

Administration officials believe that most Iranians have tired of the virulent anti-Western views that have characterized Iran's foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution that deposed the American-backed shah. They have called on Iran to begin a government-to-government dialogue aimed at addressing, among other things, Iran's support for Islamic fundamentalist groups opposed to the American-sponsored Middle East peace process.

Khatemi, however, is under intense pressure from religious hard-liners and has yet to respond to Washington's offer. U.S. officials fear that anything they say in support of the Iranian president will be used by the conservatives to undermine his authority in advance of crucial parliamentary elections in February.

"At least until the . . . elections, relations with the United States are going to be held hostage to the internal struggle," a U.S. official said, adding that if Khatemi's supporters do well at the polls, he may "feel more confident to engage in a dialogue."

U.S. diplomats have occasionally met with their Iranian counterparts at multinational forums affiliated with the United Nations. But the two governments have yet to conduct any direct talks. Low-level diplomatic business is conducted through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. Clinton's request for help was transmitted to the Omani official in Paris by Bruce Reidel, the senior Middle East specialist on the president's National Security Council.

Suspicion fell on Saudi Shiite extremists almost immediately after the Khobar bombing. But the FBI quickly ran into roadblocks when Saudi authorities refused to let U.S. investigators interrogate witnesses and potential suspects; FBI agents had to make do with the accounts of interrogations conducted by Saudi authorities.

The only break in the case came in 1997 when Canadian officials turned over Hani Abdel Rahim Sayegh, a Saudi dissident who fled to Canada seeking asylum. Sayegh initially claimed to have information pointing directly to the involvement of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Khobar bombing, but he later reneged on a plea agreement with the Justice Department. He is now in deportation proceedings.

In 1998, the FBI cut back on the number of agents assigned to the investigation after concluding that it had all but run out of leads.

After more than a year of U.S. diplomatic protests, the Saudis relented last spring and allowed U.S. investigators to witness interrogations of people held in relation to the Khobar bombings. These sessions produced further indications of an Iranian role in the terrorist attack but no concrete evidence.

Staff writer Nora Boustany contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Soldier guards Khobar Towers in 1996. U.S. investigators have long suspected that Iran was linked to the truck bombing in Saudi Arabia.