- Following the recent terrorist attack in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province, Iran appealed to Interpol for assistance in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Yet Iran has persistently refused to cooperate with Interpol over the five Iranian citizens wanted for the bombing of the AMIA centre in Buenos Aires in 1994.
- The bombing in 1994 caused the death of 85 people, and came after Argentina cancelled nuclear contracts which it had agreed with Iran. After a long and troubled Argentine investigation, Interpol issued ‘red notices’ against five Iranian suspects and one Lebanese suspect in 2007.
- One of the suspects, Ahmad Vahidi, an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander at the time of the bombing, was recently appointed as defence minister by Ahmadinejad. Argentine objections were ignored, and instead Vahidi’s appointment was hailed as a ‘slap to Israel’.
- The AMIA bombing and the appointment of Vahidi are issues that should have been raised during Ahmadinejad’s visit to South America last week. Iran should not be allowed to get away with exporting terrorism to Latin America without so much as an objection being raised.
Following the recent terrorist attack in the province of Sistan-Balochistan, in south-eastern Iran, which killed 42 people, the Iranian government asked for the assistance of Interpol in arresting those responsible. Jundullah (“Soldiers of Allah”), a Baloch Sunni group based in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, across the border from Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan, claimed responsibility for the blast. Iranian officials blamed the attack, predictably, on Pakistan, “the Great Satan America and its ally, Britain,” and the “Zionist regime” in Israel. 
But the individual Iranian authorities were most interested in apprehending after the atrocity was Jundallah leader Abdel Malik Rigi, and it was Rigi that Iran’s national Interpol bureau has appealed to Interpol for help in apprehending, according to the Iranian Fars news agency. Iran alerted Interpol to the fact that Rigi uses fake identities and aliases while travelling in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and also alleged that Jundullah gets financial assistance, weapons and intelligence from “a number of countries,” including the United States. 
The irony of Iran’s appeal to Interpol for assistance was that since 2007 Iran had refused to cooperate with Interpol after it issued ‘red notices’, the equivalent of placing a suspect on a most-wanted list, for five Iranians and one Lebanese citizen in connection with bombing of the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish Community centre, in Buenos Aires in 1994. That attack killed 85 people and injured hundreds more, and fifteen years on no-one has been brought to justice. Iran blamed Interpol’s actions on “Zionist intrigue.” 
Iran has not only failed to hand over any of the suspects; it recently appointed one of them to its government. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s choice for defence minister, Ahmad Vahidi, was one of the five Iranians subject to an Interpol red notice over the 1994 AMIA bombing. Vahidi is a former commander of the Quds Force, a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for operations outside of Iran, and was accused of planning the attack, believed to be carried out by the Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese organisation. He was confirmed as defence minister by the Iranian parliament to chants of “death to Israel.” 
The AMIA bombing
On July 18, 1994, a Renault van bomb loaded with ammonium nitrate fertiliser and fuel oil was detonated in front of the AMIA building in a densely constructed area of Buenos Aires. The blast caused the near-total collapse of the building. Eighty-five people died, and more than 300 others were wounded. The attack came two years after the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29. The day after the AMIA attack, a suicide bombing on a Panamanian commuter plane killed all 21 passengers. One week later, the Israeli Embassy and Balfour House in London were car-bombed.
Motives for the attack
The common factor linking the attacks was that they were all aimed at Israeli and Jewish targets (the majority of the passengers on the Panamanian plane were Jewish). Argentina has the largest Jewish population in Latin America. Yet it has also been argued that the terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires were also part of a deliberate ‘retaliation’ against Argentina specifically, after Argentina halted exports of nuclear materials to Iran. Argentina and Iran had reached three nuclear agreements in the late 1980s, as revealed in the Argentine prosecutor’s report into the AMIA bombing. The first involved help in converting a nuclear reactor in Tehran so that it could use 20%-enriched uranium, and included the shipment of the 20%-enriched uranium to Iran. The second and third agreements were for technical assistance, including components for the building of pilot plants for uranium-dioxide conversion. In January 1992, after US objections, Argentina announced the suspension of the shipments of nuclear materials to Iran. Argentine president Carlos Menem later cancelled the nuclear contracts with Iran. Former Iranian intelligence officer Abdolghassem Mesbahi claimed that motive for the 1994 bombing was Iran’s desire to retaliate against Argentina for cutting off its supply of nuclear materials. At the same time, Menem’s government was realigning its foreign policy more closely with that of the United States, for example by sending warships to the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War in 1991, further offending the Islamic Republic. 
The investigation into the bombing
The initial investigation into the bombing by Argentina’s security service, the Secretaría de Inteligencia (SIDE), concluded that the attack was the work of a suicide bomber, Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Lebanese Hezbollah fighter who had spent time in Iran. This verdict was later supported by the US Congress. 
Beyond this, the Argentine investigations were slow and ineffective. Investigating judge Juan José Galeano, who was later impeached for ‘serious irregularities’ and his mishandling of the case, had twenty Argentine police officers from the Policía Bonaerense (Buenos Aires Provincial Police) arrested on suspicion of forming a “local connection” for the bombing. They were all subsequently cleared.  Menem, meanwhile, was even accused of taking a $10million bribe from Iran to cover up the truth behind the bombing. 
It therefore took years before arrest warrants were issued for the attack. In 2005, Argentina’s new president Néstor Kirchner’s called the unresolved investigations a “national disgrace.”  Suspects were finally named in 2006, when an Argentine judge issued arrest warrants for nine Iranian suspects, including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.  New prosecutor Alberto Nisman said the bombing decision “was made not by a small splinter group of extremely radical Islamic functionaries, but was instead a decision that was extensively discussed and was ultimately adopted by a consensus of the highest representatives of the Iranian government at the time.” 
In 2007, Interpol issued red notices against five Iranian suspects, who did not include Rafsanjani, and one Lebanese suspect. As well as Ahmed Vahidi, warrants were issued for former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps leader Mohsen Rezai, and two diplomats based at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires in the 1980s, Mohsen Rabbani and Ahmad Reza Asghari. The Lebanese suspect was Imad Mughniyah, a senior Hezbollah figure who was also on the FBI’s most-wanted list for a plane hijacking in 1985. He was killed by a bomb blast in Damascus in 2008.  An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman denounced the move, saying: “The new fabrications are conducted within the framework of a Zionist plot,” which was intended to divert “world attention from the perpetration of crimes by the Zionists against women and children in Palestine”.  Needless to say, Iran refused to hand over any suspects. Tehran also tried to warn Kirchner not to raise the issue at the UN General Assembly, saying that this would mean that Argentina was “siding with Iran’s enemies”. Kirchner ignored this warning, and criticised Iran at the UN for not co-operating with the investigation. 
Ahmed Vahidi was announced as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s choice for defence minister in his new cabinet after the stolen presidential election this year. His appointment had to be approved by the Iranian parliament in September. The Argentine government described it as “an affront to Argentine justice and to the victims of the brutal terrorist attack” and “harshly condemned” the move, while Barack Obama described it as “disturbing”.  Iran again called criticism of the nomination “a Zionist plot,” and foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi accused Argentina of interfering in Iran’s internal affairs, adding: “It is an insult to the intelligence of the Argentinean people that their judicial system pursues judicial cases in line with interests of the Zionists.” 
The response of Iranian parliamentarians was little different. The chairman of the Iranian foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said that the allegations “will not have any negative impact on the assessment” of General Vahidi: “Rather, it may increase his vote.” During the hearing in parliament, one member, Hadi Qavami, declared that he had initially opposed the nomination but changed his mind after “the Zionists’ allegations” and would now vote for him. This comment drew praise and chants of “Death to Israel!” from other deputies. Not a single deputy spoke against his appointment. 
Although three of Ahmadinejad’s candidates were rejected, in what was interpreted as a political setback for the president, Vahidi was endorsed overwhelmingly.  His appointment was greeted with chants of “death to Israel” by deputies, while Vahidi himself described it as a “decisive slap to Israel”.  Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor, stated: “It’s significant, this nomination, but not surprising. Iran has always protected terrorists, giving them government posts, but I think never one as high as this one.” 
Iran’s appointment of one of the suspects of the AMIA bombing to its government of course comes at a time when Iran in under renewed scrutiny over its nuclear programme. The matter of the AMIA bombing may seem small by comparison. Yet it is not only in the interests of justice but in the broader interests of the international community in trying to stop Iran from exporting terrorism that pressure should be put on Iran over this incident, and not only by Argentina. Israeli special forces recently seized a cargo ship carrying 500 tonnes of weapons from Iran to Lebanon.  The AMIA affair is a reminder that Iranian-sponsored terrorism does not just affect Israel and the Middle East, but has a global reach. If states fail to cooperate with each other and unite in a universal effort to stop Iran’s exporting of terror, and instead insist on viewing its many different manifestations as isolated cases, this will only make things easier for Iran, both to continue sponsoring terrorist movements and to avoid stronger international action over its nuclear programme. Pressure must be maintained on Iran over all areas, not only over its nuclear programme, as international pressure is the only course which has a chance of changing the regime’s behaviour. The regime’s crackdown on Iranian opposition supporters since the disputed presidential election has shown that taking a conciliatory line with the regime only emboldens it.
Iran’s mistreatment of Argentina is all the more striking given its efforts to expand its influence in Latin America, through trade, investment, oil deals and diplomatic alliances.  As one of Latin America’s worst ever terrorist atrocities, the AMIA bombing should be a matter not just for Argentina, but for other governments in the region and for pan-American institutions such as the Organisation of American States. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited last week. He has made the first visit by an Iranian president to Brazil, meeting Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.  It has been argued that Brazil’s hosting of Ahmadinejad has given him legitimacy: this was Brazil’s opportunity to challenge him over the appointment of Ahmad Vahidi and other subjects. As the emerging regional power, this was an opportunity that Brazil should have taken if its hosting of Iran was to serve any useful purpose. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Instead, da Silva used the meeting to announce that he would “recognise Iran’s right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme” and to urge Ahmedinejad to “continue engaging interested countries to seek a just and balanced solution on the Iranian nuclear issue.”  Later, Ahmadinejad visited his allies in the region, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Unsurprisingly, they did not raise either the AMIA bombing or any other challenging questions, despite their rhetoric about Latin American unity. It is disturbing that Iran is seeking to expand its influence in an area where it has conducted and got away with a series of peacetime terrorist attacks, and then appointed one of the perpetrators to its government. How the countries of the region respond to this will be a test for Latin America. Current indications are that they are likely to let Iran get away with it.
Peter John Cannon is the Latin America Section Director of the Henry Jackson Society.
Source:The Henry Jackson Society