Argentina Pursues Iran in '94 Blast As Neighbors Court Ahmadinejad

President Néstor Kirchner, left, has ignored critics in strongly supporting the indictments. Former president Carlos Menem, right, had been accused of taking $10 million to cover up any Iranian role in the blast. He denied the allegation and was never charged.
President Néstor Kirchner, left, has ignored critics in strongly supporting the indictments. Former president Carlos Menem, right, had been accused of taking $10 million to cover up any Iranian role in the blast. He denied the allegation and was never charged. (AP)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 14, 2007

BUENOS AIRES -- As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Latin America this weekend to strengthen economic and political ties with the region, Argentina's Néstor Kirchner will not be in the line of presidents turning out to greet him.

Kirchner's government has reinvigorated attempts to prosecute Iranian figures for their alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center here, recently issuing arrest warrants for nine former Iranian officials. Among those sought is former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, accused of ordering the attack that killed 85 people and injured more than 200.

The pursuit of Iran has been frustrated over the years by blatant corruption in the Argentine judicial system and accusations of coverups. The latest efforts to resolve the case come as much of the region is expanding relations with Iran, and several of Argentina's regional allies are pledging support for Ahmadinejad's government.

The Iranian leader plans to meet this week with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales and possibly others. They are expected to discuss broadening bilateral agreements, such as the technology-sharing deals that Chávez signed with Iran last year.

"Clearly the actors driving all of this are Chávez and Ahmadinejad," said Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy forum in Washington. "Both of them see themselves as global players, and so it's nice for them to build these sorts of alliances and coalitions, which people like Correa and Morales are inclined to join in."

Although Argentina maintains friendly relations with each of those leaders, Kirchner's domestic agenda is driving him in a different direction. For example, he canceled plans to attend Correa's inauguration ceremony Monday after Ahmadinejad announced that he would attend.

The continuing U.S. conflict with Iran complicates matters further: Some critics contend that Kirchner's government has been manipulated by a regionally unpopular U.S. government that wants to use the Argentine court rulings to stir international outrage against Iran.

When one of Kirchner's most loyal and high-profile domestic allies -- former street activist Luis D'Elia -- recently suggested that U.S. and Israeli pressure was fueling Argentina's pursuit of Iran, he was forced to resign from his government post two days later.

For many people in Argentina, the indictments have been a bright spot in a case that has been marred for years by botched attempts to bring the bombers to justice.

"Now at least there is hope, a small light that can be seen in the darkness," said Luis Sergio Grynwald, president of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association, the community organization targeted in the attack. "That light hasn't been reached yet, and we'd like it to be bigger, but it's still a light."

The bombing was the second attack on a Jewish target in Argentina. In 1992, a suicide bomber struck the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29.

Shortly after the community center blast, then-Argentine President Carlos Menem blamed the attack on Islamic extremists from Iran. Menem was eventually saddled with some of the blame for the derailed investigations that followed: In 2002, a former Iranian intelligence official alleged that Menem, by then out of office, had received $10 million to cover up Tehran's role in the attack. Menem vigorously denied the accusation, but it nonetheless damaged his standing.

The judge investigating the community center bombing -- Juan José Galeano -- was also criticized for undermining the case. He was impeached after being found guilty of misdeeds including paying a defendant $400,000 to testify. He also lost hundreds of hours of wiretap recordings and other evidence.

The only suspects to be tried in the case have been four Argentine police officers and a car thief who were charged as accessories for providing the van used in the bombing. They were acquitted for lack of proof.

Following the judicial missteps, prosecutor Alberto Nisman has been leading a team of investigators dedicated solely to the community center bombing. In late October, Nisman said that his team traced the bombing to a planning session held in 1993 in the Iranian city of Mashhad. He said the motive for the attack had been Argentina's decision to withdraw some of its support for Iran's nuclear ambitions and for its decision to strengthen relations with the United States and Israel.

In November, an Argentine judge said that Nisman's team had provided convincing evidence and issued arrest warrants for the nine former Iranian officials, including Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 to 1997.

Iran has repeatedly proclaimed its officials had nothing to do with the bombing. In the weeks since Iran said it would ignore the extradition requests, Rafsanjani has maintained a high public profile in Iran, running for a seat in a council of clerics in December.

Even Nisman acknowledges that arresting the suspects is a long shot as long as they stay in Iran. But he insisted that people who criticize his request for the warrants -- particularly those who say he did it solely to bolster the U.S. political case against Iran -- are wrong.

"Unfortunately, there's an upside-down analysis that's happening here," Nisman said. "Instead of analyzing all of this in terms of the proof we have compiled, people are analyzing the case in terms of political convenience."


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