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Argentine foreign minister: What do we gain from Alberto Nisman’s death?

Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman gives a news conference at the presidential palace Casa Rosada, in Buenos Aires, on Jan. 15, a day after prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Timerman and other government officials for an alleged plan to cover Iran of its responsibilities in the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in 1994. AFP PHOTO / ALEJANDRO PAGNIALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images
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Argentina has been plunged into political turmoil by the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman the night before he was due to present a case alleging that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman had brokered an illegal deal with Iran to cover up a 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center.

Last week, Argentine officials confirmed that a draft criminal indictment of Fernández and Timerman was found in the trash near Alberto Nisman’s body. In one of his first interviews since the revelation, Timerman -- a co-founder of the human rights group America's Watch and a former ambassador to the U.S. -- responds to the allegations.

The Washington Post: If [U.S. help] was formally offered [to solve the Nisman death], would that be welcome to you?

Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman: There is a problem sometimes with the United States. The United States thinks they can have a solution to every problem in every country of the world. It’s something, I don’t know why Americans think that you have the people to solve every problem. I don’t believe that. But so far, I didn’t receive any offer from the FBI. I don’t believe that the FBI has the key to solve every problem all over the world. ... As I said, as foreign minister, I didn’t get any suggestion from anyone in the United States to offer any help or any assistance.

WP: I guess the question is, in your mind, is the mystery of Mr. Nisman’s death a mystery to you? Do you have a theory about what happened?

HT: No, I don’t speculate about the death of Mr. Nisman. … I cannot make any speculation at all. It would not be according to my way of thinking, to make speculation without having information. And I don’t have any information.

WP: We have read the translated version of the Nisman documents. We know what he has said your talks [with Iran] entailed, and we know you have denied those accusations. We would like if you could tell us what was the substance of the negotiations, of the discussions, that you had with Iran.

HT: Sure, I can explain that. First of all, having already been 21 years since the terrorist attack at the Jewish center, so far we [haven't been] able to try anybody. Mr. Nisman, who was appointed by our government to investigate the terrorist attack, asked the judge of the case to issue orders to arrest several citizens of Iran and one from Lebanon. Now, with those arrest orders, there was a problem, and it is that according to the constitution of Iran, which was sanctioned in 1960, that is under the shah and it is posted at the United Nations, on the issue of extradition, there is a law that says that Iran will not extradite their own citizens to a third country. …

Now, we have another law that is in our constitution that says that you cannot judge a person in absentia. Here we have a dilemma: They can’t extradite according to their law, and we cannot judge in absentia. So the case will not go forward with those two laws. … So the idea that we came up with, we need an instrument that will allow the Argentine judge to go to Tehran to interrogate the suspects. …

WP: So there was no part of the discussions that involved absolving Iran of responsibility?

HT: On the contrary. If we were able to bring the judge to Tehran, then the judge can tell the suspects the accusations against them [and interrogate them]. Then the trial can start in Argentina. Then they would be notified of the accusation. They have to be notified of the accusation.

WP: Was there any conversation, as part of those negotiations, was there any discussion at all about trade deals -- oil for Argentine food?

HT: The point is that it’s impossible. Let me tell you why. First of all, I would not do it. I belong to a government, and I am particularly a person who have been involved in the defense of human rights. I don’t have to prove my history. It is there for you to look at. I don’t need to prove that I support the defense of human rights. The same with my government. So it is ridiculous to think I put forward a deal, an economic deal, to forget about the case.

But the point is, even if you want to do it, it is impossible. First of all, because we cannot use Iranian oil. Iranian oil has too much sulfur for our refineries. We cannot use it. It’s impossible. We cannot process Iranian oil. And the second part of that trade is that Argentina doesn’t sell agricultural products. It is something that belongs to the private sector. The government doesn’t have anything to sell. It is the private sector that sells soybeans and all the other agricultural products. So we cannot do it. We cannot use the oil, because of the sulfur and we don’t have anything to sell.

Besides that, we don’t do it because we don’t do those kinds of things.

WP: I take your point. It is preposterous, in your view, that it would even be suggested, because of the sulfur and you don’t barter. …

HT: I want to tell you something: Even if Iranian oil was good, we would not do it because we have a tradition of fighting for human rights and to bring to justice every person who violates human rights in Argentina. … We have fought against the dictatorship. We have a tradition. We have a history. I will not throw out of the window my history, the history of my family, the history of my government, the history of my friends who were killed during the dictatorship. I will not do that. For what? For what? To get what? Oil? Argentina doesn’t import oil. We don’t need oil.

WP: During the course of those negotiations, was there at any point a time where you briefed U.S. officials on how that was going? Did you ever speak with Secretary Hillary Clinton about how those were going?

HT: I didn’t brief the American government until after it was signed.

WP: What was their reaction? Were there private discussions, and what was the content of those discussions?

HT: Their reaction was that they believed we would never get what we wanted, that was signed something that we would never be able to put forward. At the same time, they were negotiating with the Iranians. They did not tell us that.

It is important. When they make public, the Americans make public that they are negotiating. I [asked] our ambassador in Washington [to send] a letter to John Kerry, I think it was, John Kerry was already your foreign minister, asking that they include the AMIA case in their negotiations with the Iranians. They told us that it was not possible.

… I met several times with Interpol, and in those meetings I asked them, because this was very important in our negotiations with Iran, I asked them to keep the red notices enforced. After Mr. Nisman accused me of doing exactly the contrary, I called Mr. Noble, who was the secretary general of Interpol, and I asked him if he would send a letter explaining if I ever asked him to put down or to cancel the red notices, and he said his letter made it very clear that every time that I met with him, and there were two times that I met with him, I always explained how important it was to keep the red notices in force. … And there’s something else. According to Argentine law, that is not something I can request. Only the judge can request a red notice or request cancellation of the red notices, and the judge already said that publicly -- that the only person in Argentina who can ask Interpol to issue or cancel the red notices is the judge [of the AMIA case]. So even if I was a person who wanted to do this, I couldn’t do it.

WP: What is your explanation?

HT: I have no explanation. It is incredible that a prosecutor who has been working on this case for 10 years and who accuses me and the president of trying to cancel the red notices that he didn’t call Interpol to ask, ‘What is Mr. Timerman doing every time he goes to see you?’ He didn’t. He didn’t call the judge, he knew law in Argentina. This is why some people think that he didn’t write it.

WP: Do you think that he was being manipulated by portions of intelligence service [as has been alleged by the president]?

HT: I don’t have that information. I really don’t. I know because he told me many times that he has strong connection with the Secret Service and with the CIA and the Mossad. But I don’t know. But I cannot know. …

WP: Some in Argentina have suggested that they think Iran played a role in Nisman's death?

HT: I don’t speculate. I know that journalists need a politician to give answers. But I will not give an answer without the right information. So I will not speculate. I think they are using the death of Mr. Nisman to attack the government.

WP: Who is the ‘they’ that you refer to attacking the government?

HT: If you read the papers in Argentina, you will see ["they" are] the leaders of the opposition of the government. Leave outside the families. The person who suffered the more from the death of Mr. Nisman are obviously the children, the family and the mother of Mr. Nisman. And nobody will suffer more than them from the death of Mr. Nisman. But think about something: If the accusation of Mr. Nisman were [untrue], who can think that the president or myself would want Mr. Nisman to die one day before he has to go to Congress to answer questions about his accusation. When I am telling you already by the time he had died Interpol had rejected his accusations as false and the experts in oil said it was impossible for Argentina to use Iranian oil? So for me, it was terrible that he was not able to go to Congress to answer questions.

WP: Do you believe the Nisman allegations from long ago that it was in fact Hezbollah and the Iranians who did this?

HT: Listen. We trusted his reports on the Iranians so much that we helped the judge to get the red notices. And Nestor and Cristina were the only leaders who every year since the time of the attack raised this issue in United Nations. Why did we raise the issue at the U.N. year after year? Because we thought Mr. Nisman’s information was right. I have not changed my position. ...

I want to make it clear that the government of Argentina has a very strong history of defending human rights.... I have a strong tradition on human rights,[as does] my family [as does] the government of Argentina. Why are we going to change on the issue of AMIA. Second, we always ask Interpol to maintain the red notices. The third point is that only [the] judge can ask Interpol to cancel the red notices, not the government. Last, I am the only minister who was invited to attend and to speak at the last annual gathering of the members of Interpol who came from all over the world.

Why I was accused by Mr. Nisman, I don’t know. So the last question is one you have to ask as a journalist: Who gained by having Mr. Nisman dead? Not me. Not the president.

SEE ALSO: After 17 years on Argentine bomb case, prosecutor was sure ‘truth will triumph’

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