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.

Argentine bombing (photo credit: REUTERS)
Argentine bombing
(photo credit: 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 denied.
One can’t help but ask why, after 18 years of mishandled investigations, corruption charges and coverups, these talks are taking place now.
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.
Thus 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 history.
The Argentinian government launched an investigation into the attack and the trail of evidence led unequivocally to Tehran and Hezbollah.
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 arrests.
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.
There 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.
Argentina is 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.
In 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 terrorist attack.
The announcement and its platform caught many by surprise, coming as it did when much of the world was focused instead on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
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 November.
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.
Iran, 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 imbroglio.
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.
Additionally, Argentina 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 find there.
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 East.
Iran is riven by domestic political and economic turmoil. The populace is suffering as international sanctions begin to affect more and more people.
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.
Overall, while 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.