Keeping Iran in the Dock: A Setback in Argentina?

Alberto Fernandez (center) and Cristina Kirchner de Fernandez (Presidencia de la Nacion Argentina via Wikimedia Commons)

by Eldar Mamedov

One of the key elements of the Trump administration’s case against Iran is the accusation that Tehran is the “world’s foremost global sponsor of terrorism”. The centerpiece of this strategy is the allegation that Iran, acting through its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, is the mastermind behind the biggest terrorist attack in the history of Argentina—against the Mutual Argentine-Israelite Association, better known under its Spanish acronym AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) in 1994. As, however, is amply documented by Lobelog contributor Mike LaSusa, the allegations of Iranian involvement in the AMIA attack were never conclusively proved. As even the American ambassador in Argentina at the time himself admitted, those were peddled more in order to “keep Iran in the dock” rather than based on any real evidence.

AMIKeeping Iran in the dock is more easily said than done, particularly when based on transparently political rather than legal arguments. That, however, does not exclude occasional diplomatic successes for Trump. Such was, for example, the recent designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by the country that suffered that heinous attack in 1994—Argentina. 

Unlike Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), Hezbollah is not on the United Nations Security Council’s list of terrorist organizations. Despite long-standing U.S. pressure to proscribe it, Washington’s closest allies in the European Union only recognize Hezbollah’s military wing as terrorist, and continue dialogue with its political wing. Other than Argentina, no nation in Latin America officially considers it terrorist either. So, the designation by Argentina was a favor the country’s right-wing president Mauricio Macri delivered to the visiting United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July 2019, marking the 25 anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA. Following this step, right-wing American pundits such as Joseph Humire, a self-styled “security expert” writing for Islamophobic outlets such as Middle East Forum and the Gatestone Institute, hailed Argentina as a “new leader in counter-terrorism in Latin America”. Yet in refusing to entertain the possibility that Hezbollah might have acted alone, in order to avenge the Israeli murder of its leader, Abbas Mousavi, in 1992, Washington clearly has Tehran in its crosshairs. And this is where the problem lies: in the long run, it is far from certain that Washington will be able to cajole Argentina, let alone the whole of Latin America, to join its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Argentine politics may be in flux, after Macri suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the centre-left opposition candidate Alberto Fernandez in the presidential primaries on August 11. Primaries, a peculiarity of the Argentine political system, are not real elections—those will take place next October. But they serve as a precise indicator of where the national mood lies. Given the magnitude of Fernandez’ victory—by some 15 points—the talk in Buenos Aires now is not about who will win the actual elections, but how the country can be governed until December, when the newly elected president will assume office.

In an additional quirk of fate, Macri’s predecessor Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is Fernandez’s (no relation) running mate. Cristina Kirchner and her late foreign minister Hector Timerman initiated a dialogue with Iran, leading to a signing of a memorandum of understanding in 2013. The agreement would have enabled Argentine prosecutors to question the Iranian suspects in the AMIA case. It never entered into force, as it was declared unconstitutional in Argentina despite being ratified by both chambers of the parliament.

The right wing in Argentina and its allies in the United States assailed the memorandum as an evidence of Kirchner’s and Timerman’s conspiracy to provide a cover-up for the Iranian suspects in exchange for a trade agreement with that country, a part of a nefarious Iranian project to penetrate the Western hemisphere. Efforts to implicate Kirchner in whitewashing Iran received a massive financial boost from Paul Singer, an American hedge-fund billionaire, who sought to tarnish her international reputation for refusing to repay in full the portion of Argentina’s sovereign debt that was owned by his company. The strategy worked for Singer, as he was able to secure his repayment after Macri succeeded Kirchner as Argentina’s president in 2015. Earlier that same year, a prosecutor in charge of the AMIA investigation, Alberto Nisman, formally charged Kirchner with covering up Iranian involvement.

The reality of Kirchner’s interactions with Iran was, of course, very different. Her principal motivation in signing the memorandum was to find creative ways to break the deadlock in which the AMIA investigation found itself 20 years after the terrorist attack. It is entirely legitimate to question her political judgment in choosing that particular venue to do so, but accusations of a cover-up do not hold water. Contrary to Nisman’s complaint, the memorandum, were it to enter into force, did not imply the cancellation of Interpol “red alert notices” against the Iranian suspects. Moreover, as Argentine journalist Raul Kollman reminds us, it was the governments of Cristina Kirchner and her deceased husband-predecessor Nestor Kirchner that ordered the opening of all archives on the AMIA case, responding to the demands of Memoria Activa (Active Memory), a platform established by the relatives of those killed in the bombings who grew increasingly furious over the way the Argentine authorities were botching the investigation.

In fact, an Argentine court vindicated both Memoria Activa and the Kirchners in March 2019, when it sentenced a number of officials to jail terms—though not former president Carlos Menem, who was accused of quashing any alternative lines of investigation aside from the Iranian track. As to Nisman’s indictment of Cristina Kirchner, it was so poorly prepared and of questionable legality that even her opponents saw no chance of it going anywhere. Nisman himself was found dead in his flat in Buenos Aires just a day before he was scheduled to deliver his case against the president in the national parliament. Although the right wing blamed his death on a sinister Iranian-Venezuelan-Kirchnerist plot to silence a courageous prosecutor, almost five years later no convincing evidence has emerged to substantiate these claims. Investigative journalist Pablo Duggan argues in his heavily-detailed book, Who Killed Nisman?, that the likeliest cause of his death was a suicide, due to a complex interplay of political, professional, and personal reasons. 

So, there is hard evidence neither of Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing in 1994 nor of prospective vice-president Cristina Kirchner’s cover-up of the Iranian suspects in those crimes. Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence of her complicity in the murder of the prosecutor who accused her of such a cover-up.

Given this background, will Argentina’s likely next president, Alberto Fernandez, push for a revocation of Macri’s decision on Hezbollah? Unlikely. A new government would not want to start off by alienating the United States, especially given Argentina’s precarious economic health. When it comes to Iran, however, and the Middle East more generally, not only those in the Kirchnerist camp but also many in the foreign policy establishment advocate for the country to move away from Macri’s over-alignment with the United States and back towards more traditional Latin American preferences for neutrality on extra-regional conflicts, balanced diplomatic engagement with different actors, and United Nations-centered multilateralism as methods to resolve conflicts. That should remind the Trump administration of the inherent limits of its campaign against Iran, based more on propaganda, parochial needs to “keep Iran in the dock,” and the ability to coerce weak and dependent governments than on objective facts and arguments that could convince the world to rally behind Washington’s agenda.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.

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  1. In Nov 2003, Hadi Soleimanpour, the former Iranian amb to Argentina who had been taken into custody in Britain (where he was then studying for an advanced degree) pursuant to an extradition request by Argentina, was released by British authorities because the Argentinians could not meet the minimal standard of proof necessary to implicate him in the bombings. The court ruling specifically noted they had failwd twice to present any evidence to link him to the bombing as required by law to justify the extradition request. At the time of the bombing, Argentina was a major trade partner with Iran and had even helped Iran with its civilian nuclear program and sold Iran low-enriched fuel fornthe Tehran Research Reactor, making it quite unlikely that Iran would risk relations just bomb some Jewish center. But the US and Israel wanted to undermine Iran-Argentina relations so badly

  2. The only terrorists are the Ayatollahs not Iran. Please see the simple difference, and have a little respect for the use of the word Iran.

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