BUENOS AIRES — She was just 21, visiting the city’s main Jewish community center with her mother, when a suicide bomber detonated a rental van loaded with explosives.
Paola Czyzewski and 84 others were killed in the July 18, 1994, bombing, which was considered the bloodiest attack against Jews since World War II. Although Iran was widely believed to be responsible for the attack, Argentina bungled the investigation for more than a decade, and no one has been convicted in connection to the case.
As if things couldn’t get worse, said Czyzewski’s father, Luis, Argentina’s government is forming what it calls a “truth commission” to investigate what happened — in a deal with Iran. Czyzewski and his wife, Ana Maria Blugerman, who survived the bombing, said they believe the partnership will only ensure that the people who devised and planned the attack elude justice.
“This is the same as signing an agreement with the person you accuse of having committed a crime against you,” said Czyzewski, 69, an accountant. “To talk of a truth commission is shameful, because this is not a commission to determine the truth.”
In a development that has baffled officials in Washington and Tel Aviv, Argentina’s congress in late February approved a plan that calls for the country to work with Iran to determine culpability in the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, better known by its Spanish acronym, AMIA.
Iran’s parliament has yet to vote. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has praised the deal and said the commission will serve to prove that Iranians had no role in the bombing, as Jewish organizations and Israeli officials have long insisted.
“The AMIA bombing is a fully suspicious case, and no independent and impartial fact-finding mission had ever been commissioned to deal with it,” Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, told the country’s state news agency, Fars, last month.
A specially designated Argentine prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, demonstrated the first significant progress in the case in 2006 when he accused six senior Iranian officials of orchestrating the strike using an operative from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia with close ties to Iran that is considered by the State Department to be a terrorist organization.
The Iranian suspects include powerful figures, among them former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi; former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei; and Ali Fallahian, a former intelligence minister who has announced plans to run in June’s presidential election.
“To us, Iran is neither a trustworthy nor valid partner for this investigation,” said Guillermo Borger, president of the AMIA, whose organization filed an injunction Thursday challenging the constitutionality of the deal. “Iran is a country that wants to destroy the state of Israel. And how can Argentina sign an agreement with the nation that carried out the worst terrorist attack in the history of our country, as Argentina’s own justice system has proven?”
Investigators here and in Israel think the attack is part of a shadow war carried out against Jewish civilians by terrorists with Iranian financing and planning. Two years before the attack, in 1992, the Israeli Embassy here was bombed, killing 29. More recently, Hezbollah was accused of a suicide bombing last July against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.
The accord with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government now gives Iran what it craves — diplomatic recognition, the kind Tehran cannot find in Europe or Washington. Facing international sanctions over its nuclear program, Iran has had some success carving out a diplomatic opening in Latin America, where it has forged trade ties with Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and other countries that are trying to build a bulwark against American interests.
“The deal is calling into question what’s already been achieved on the case and providing Iran with legitimacy at a time when the world community has sanctions against it,” said Dina Siegel Vann, who oversees the Latin America division of the New York-based American Jewish Committee. “So again, Iran has gotten some breathing room in Latin America.”
Some observers believe that Argentina, which has been largely locked out of world financial markets after its $100 billion default in 2001, is also looking for diplomatic space, even if it means building ties with autocratic regimes. Argentina’s relations with Washington and some European countries, most notably Britain and Spain, have been rocky.
“Her government has practically broken with the United States,” said Carlos Reymundo Roberts, a columnist and an editor at La Nacion, a newspaper here that has closely examined Argentina’s new ties with Iran. “She’s distanced herself a lot from the orbit of the United States — I’d say the northern orbit in general.”
The deal with Iran comes as imports of Argentine products have risen from $300 million to more than $1 billion since 2007. Iran also has an abundance of oil, a commodity that Argentina desperately needs, although Fernández’s government has not circumvented an international embargo by importing Iranian crude.
Calls and e-mails to the Argentine Foreign Ministry and the president’s office were not returned.
In 2011, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman told The Washington Post that he believed that a “hegemonic power” — meaning the United States — had historically blocked efforts to unite Latin America and the Muslim world. He said Argentina was energetically seeking to build such ties.
Timerman also said that while Argentina was dedicated to resolving the AMIA bombing, the government did not want the case to “be used as an excuse to isolate or attack Iran.”
Fernández, in a series of Twitter messages announcing the accord with Iran, praised the new collaboration, declaring that “we’ve achieved for the first time a legal instrument of international law between Argentina and Iran to advance knowledge of the truth about the attack.”
The president also stressed that the investigations of the past had ended in “failures and scandal.”
For years, the case was marred by incompetence and corruption, with police officers accused of corruption and a judge removed for allegedly bribing a witness.
And even after the special prosecutor, Nisman, took over the case in 2005 and amassed a 700-page report on the bombing, observers questioned whether he had provided concrete proof of Iran’s participation.
“I don’t say that Iran is not guilty, I just say that there isn’t a smoking gun to show with certainty that they are involved,” said Gabriel Levinas, a journalist here who wrote a book about the investigation titled “The Law Under the Rubble.”
Even so, Levinas said he believes the objective of the pact with Iran may be to whitewash the crime.
Argentina’s accord with Tehran calls for a commission composed of five international jurists to review the case files, interview suspects and issue a report with recommendations on how the case should proceed. But the brief nine-point deal, which Timerman and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi signed in Ethiopia in January after months of secret negotiations, is vague and nonbinding, with no real authority given to the international jurists.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch says it is doubtful that Iran, which had previously refused to cooperate with Argentine investigators, would provide useful evidence.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the group’s Americas division, noted that Ahmadinejad’s government has “a terrible record on human rights.”
“Because of that, a political accord with this man generates little confidence,” Vivanco said. “I question whether this commission will have the power to review the facts, the evidence, carry out the judicial work, or that it would reach any conclusion in the case.”
Forero reported from Washington.