Speaking in Washington at the annual dinner of the American Jewish Committee in
May 2007, Argentina’s then-senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner publicly
reiterated her unwavering commitment to justice for the victims of the 1994 AMIA
bombing, an Iran-sponsored terror attack against the Jewish cultural center in
Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead and 229 wounded. But since becoming
president, Kirchner has pursued an entirely different course. In January she
signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran that will inevitably deny Iran’s
For Iran, the motivation is clear. There is the immediate
gain for most senior officials – including Ali Akbar Velayati, who was then
foreign minister, and Mohsen Rezai, who was then the Revolutionary Guards’
commander. Velayati was indicted by an Argentine judge for the attack and
Interpol issued an arrest warrant for Rezai. Though neither succeeded in their
bid for president in Iran’s recent elections, they still maintain a high profile
in Iran’s power structure and a negotiated deal would rid them of this
unpleasantness. More broadly, whitewashing Iran’s involvement would give Tehran
– a primary sponsor of terrorism across the globe – a dubious but technically
clean bill of health that would further facilitate Iran’s entrée in the
Argentina is also an important strategic addition to Iran’s Latin
Iran’s booming relations with the Bolivarian republics –
Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela – are well documented. Since 2005, Iran’s
outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Latin America at least once a
year and opened new embassies across the continent – including in Bolivia, which
appears to be the gateway to Latin America for Iranian spies, with reportedly
145 Iranian accredited diplomats.
All these countries offer Iran
opportunities for political influence – they provide sympathetic votes in
international forums – and an array of instruments to evade international
sanctions. Iran, in turn, uses its soft power to help its Latin American
partners – mostly developing countries and members of the non-aligned movement –
to develop infrastructure, which brings hard currency to Iran’s
sanctions-battered financial system. Establishing cultural centers and mosques
is also buying Iran influence among the small but influential population of
Muslim immigrants and their descendants.
None of this, however, matches
the potential of renewed friendship with Argentina – as evidenced by the fact
that Iran’s bilateral trade with the Bolivarian republics is almost
non-existent; by contrast, 96 percent of its trade is with Argentina and
Argentina and Brazil are in truth Latin America’s regional
powers. Since Brazil’s former president Ignazio Lula de Silva left office,
bilateral relations between Tehran and Brazil have significantly cooled, with
Lula’s successor, Dilma Vana Rousseff, distancing herself from president
Ahmadinejad both in word and deed.
Argentina, meanwhile, is blessed with
natural resources, a robust industrial infrastructure and advanced technology.
But unlike Brazil, years of economic mismanagement have brought Argentina back
to the brink of bankruptcy. Seeking to rebound, the country’s leadership views
Iran as a means to gain access to a trading partner that is starved for both raw
materials and manufactured goods because of sanctions and international
Bilateral trade has already boomed in recent years – with
Argentine exports to Iran hovering around $1 billion since 2008 and peaking in
2010 at almost $1.5b., providing Argentina with a large trade
Improved relations could also solve the problem of Argentina’s
desperate need for energy. With a prolonged and difficult debt restructuring
process and a growing protectionism that makes its economy less competitive,
Argentina has found it increasingly difficult to buy energy to satisfy its needs
– despite having been a net energy exporter until 2010.
tried to solve this problem by nationalizing Spanish-owned energy company YPF
but the move only worsened Argentina’s energy predicament and compounded its
credibility problem with international markets. Iran, with oil sales drastically
down due to European and US sanctions, is looking for buyers.
not all. Argentina is, alongside Brazil, the only nuclear power in Latin
America. Iran briefly obtained nuclear fuel from Argentina in the 1980s, but
that relationship ended by the early 1990s due to concerns over Iran’s nuclear
Argentina is also a leader in missile technology – something
Iran covets for its own program, but finds difficult to obtain elsewhere due to
sanctions and growing international scrutiny over its imports.
Argentina, with its historic ties to Spain and Europe, still has a robust trade
with the EU. Setting up shop in Argentina can enable Iran to leverage this Latin
American hub as a transhipment point for technology, which it can pay through
barter with its own oil.
Everyone could gain then – Argentina would get
energy without the need to pay debts, get a better credit rating or drop
protectionist measures. Iran would get a new friend and trading partner in Latin
America that has the added value of offering European- quality
Until recently, the major impediment to a full rapprochement
was the 1994 AMIA bombing and Argentina’s legal advocates, who would not forgo
justice in return for their president’s misguided realpolitik. In one fell
swoop, President Kirchner can now make sure that nearly 20 years of
investigation, standing indictments and international arrest warrants can be
swept under the rug.
With that, Iran and Argentina are actively drawing
closer. Iran has found a way to break out of its international isolation, while
Kirchner has made it clear that her promise for justice takes a back seat to the
promise of economic recovery.
The author is a senior fellow at the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.