The Argentinian and Iranian tango
One can’t help but ask why, after 18 years of mishandled investigations, corruption charges and coverups, talks on the 1994 Buenos Aires terror attack are taking place now.
AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires Photo: REUTERS
The Iranian and Argentinian governments are meeting this week to discuss and
ascertain Iran’s role in the 1994 terrorist attack on the Jewish community
center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Argentinian government has officially
blamed Iran for orchestrating the attack, a charge Iranians have repeatedly
One can’t help but ask why, after 18 years of mishandled
investigations, corruption charges and coverups, these talks are taking place
What are the political and economic interests involved? Who stands
to gain from this initiative? And what ability, if any, will these talks have in
bringing the perpetrators of the bombing to justice? It’s clear to most
observers that in the aftermath of the bombing, Iran’s role has been primarily
to obstruct the investigation. To that effect, they have used their money and
influence to take advantage of corrupt Argentinian politicians and officials in
a cynical attempt to derail the pursuit of justice. While Argentina has mostly
paid lip service to its stated desire to find and punish the perpetrators of the
attack, behind the scenes machinations clearly demonstrate a political
infrastructure only too happy to accept Iranian trade and bribes in exchange for
effective complicity in the murder of Jewish citizens of Argentina.
the question remains, why go through the charade of these bilateral talks? Iran
has never admitted its culpability and in any case, would never extradite its
leading citizens to face trial in Argentina or anywhere else for that matter.
What possible endgame do the Iranians and Argentinians hope to achieve that will
both satisfy critics of Argentina’s horribly bungled investigations, and absolve
the Iranian government of blame? July 18, 1994, is a date steeped in infamy for
most Argentinians. On that day, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden
vehicle into the largest Jewish community center in South America, the
Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) and Delegación de Asociaciones
Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA) building.
The attack left 85 people dead and
hundreds wounded in what is still the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s
The Argentinian government launched an investigation into the
attack and the trail of evidence led unequivocally to Tehran and
It is noteworthy that two years earlier, the Islamic Jihad
organization, believed to be tied to Iran, claimed responsibility for the
bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina. In a sign of things to come, the
investigation into this attack, with its 29 dead and over 250 wounded, led to no
The story of the Argentine investigations following the attack
read like many of the political scandals plaguing the Latin American continent,
and were marred by misconduct and corruption on multiple levels.
were several reports of sabotage, mismanagement, cover-ups and bribery leading
all the way up the presidential office.
The justice in charge of the
original investigation was later impeached for destroying incriminating evidence
and offering to bribe a witness. A former investigator claimed that he had been
kidnapped, tortured and warned not to proceed with his investigations.
Argentinian courts later implicated then-president Carlos Menem, who is of
Syrian descent, in sabotaging the investigation and destroying crucial evidence.
Reports rumored that Iran had deposited US $10 million dollars to a Swiss bank
account belonging to Menem.
Menem, along with his brother and a number of
state security officials, are set to stand trial for “perverting the course of
justice,” although no trial date has been set.
Despite the severity of
the attack, the official investigation failed to lead to any arrests. Former
Argentinian president Nestor Kirchner called the investigation “a national
disgrace,” claiming that the government at the time withheld “crucial
information that could have solved the case.”
In 2005, a new chief
prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, was appointed to take over the case. Thanks to his
leadership, Argentina had gathered enough evidence to officially accuse several
individuals in the highest echelons of the Iranian government for orchestrating
the attack and using its proxy Hezbollah to carry it out.
seeking the extradition of former Iranian president Akbar Rafsanjani, his former
foreign minister, former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and former
intelligence minister, among others.
Nisman’s evidence was so credible
that Interpol upheld Argentina’s request and issued “red notices” for these
Iranian nationals. Iran has refused to extradite any of its citizens to
Argentina, or to any other thirdparty country.
Argentine newspaper Perfil
reported that during a visit to Syria in 2010, Argentina’s Foreign Minister
Hector Timerman allegedly told Iranian ally and Syrian President Bashar Assad
that Argentina would suspend the AMIA/DAIA investigations in exchange for
strengthened economic ties. A leaked Iranian cable allegedly confirmed that
Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, stated “Argentina is no longer
interested in solving those two attacks, but in exchange prefers improving its
economic relations with Iran.” Timerman denied these allegations.
September 2012, at the UN General Assembly, Argentinian President Cristina
Kirchner used her limited time at the podium to announce that Argentina and Iran
would for the first time hold bilateral meetings relating to the AMIA/DAIA
The announcement and its platform caught many by
surprise, coming as it did when much of the world was focused instead on Iran’s
Their respective foreign ministers met for initial
talks and negotiations in New York. They then followed up with another meeting
in Geneva and scheduled a third meeting for the last week of
Although relations between Argentina and Iran have remained
tense throughout these 18 years, that hasn’t stopped them from engaging in
significant bilateral trade. In 2007, Argentina exported $319m. in goods to
Iran. In 2011, Argentinian exports to Iran totaled $1.068 billion, making
Argentina Iran’s second largest trading partner in Latin America.
significantly isolated and sanctioned by numerous global players, is looking for
allies who can help ease their economic difficulties.
Iran’s currency has
been hard hit by UN economic sanctions. Coincidentally, the week that Iran
proposed talks with Argentina was the same week that the value of the Rial fell
to the lowest levels ever recorded.
Argentina wishes to emerge from the
economic and diplomatic shadow cast by its neighbor and competitor, Brazil.
Brazil has increasingly become a player on the world stage, recently attempting
to broker with Turkey a resolution to the Iranian nuclear
Meanwhile, Iran has been expanding its presence on the South
American continent through friendships and high-profile visits to Venezuela,
Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador and Brazil.
It views Latin America – with its
weak judicial systems, rampant corruption, widespread anti-American sentiment
and left-leaning governments seeking to battle US hegemony in the region – as an
ideal staging ground for its illicit activities.
is also one of the 35 states that sit on the United Nation’s International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions
have been a major source of IAEA activity and Iran needs all the allies it can
Survivors of the AMIA attack and victims’ relatives founded
Memoria Activa, a group committed to bringing the perpetrators to justice. In
1999, Memoria Activa sued the Argentinian government for the crime of “violation
of the right to obtain justice” and there initiatives have gained wide support
across the country. Each year thousands of people and international leaders hold
a vigil to mark the anniversary of the attack. President Cristina Kirchner is
walking a fine line, attempting to make progress in solving the case, while at
the same time expanding Argentina’s trade and political influence in the Middle
Iran is riven by domestic political and economic turmoil. The
populace is suffering as international sanctions begin to affect more and more
Dissatisfaction is growing with the government and its
international intrigues. In order to counter this, the government needs to show
that it is not completely isolated from the global community. Furthermore,
certain elements in Iran wish to shed its terror-sponsoring reputation as a way
to make further headway and improve global standing. These are the
considerations that drive Iranian policy in Argentina.
struggling with competing interests, it seems unlikely that Iran will hand over
its high-ranking government officials to Argentina. Instead, Argentina will tout
the negotiations as a sign of positive progress, but in reality, it will simply
continue to (mis)lead the victims of terror by providing them with false hope
for a just resolution.
The writer is a 2012-2013 Israel Research Fellow.
She holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University focusing on cultural
studies and international business. She spent three years working for the US
State Department, which included a placement at the US Embassy in Argentina.