As part of their campaign to isolate Iran, Congress and the Bush administration are pressing Argentine officials and prosecutors to issue a new indictment against Tehran’s Islamic regime for the 1994 bombing of the Jewish communal center in Buenos Aires, the Forward has learned.
Senior Bush administration officials and congressional aides recently met with top Argentine political and judicial officials to urge them to charge Iran’s top leadership with carrying out the bombing, which killed 85 people and wounded more than 300.
The Americans “clearly want to accuse Iran,” said Miguel Bronfman, a lawyer who was briefed on the meetings with congressional staffers and represents the Argentine Jewish communal organization, AMIA, that was targeted in the 1994 bombing. An intelligence source familiar with the meetings between administration and Argentine officials said America is pressing Argentina to issue arrest warrants for senior Iranian officials.
The American calls for new indictments appeared to represent a reversal for the United States. In September, at the general assembly of the international police agency, Interpol, the United States voted to downgrade an earlier round of warrants for Iranian suspects.
Iran is locked in a tense standoff with Western countries over its nuclear program. The Bush administration is pushing for the United Nations Security Council to take up the issue and move toward imposing sanctions on Iran unless Tehran drops its nuclear enrichment activities. A draft resolution urging Tehran to cooperate with the international community began circulating early this week at the United Nations.
In a speech before an anti-terrorism think tank Monday in Washington, President Bush said that Iran was supplying Iraqi rebels with ordnance for improvised explosive devices that were killing American troops. Last week, at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Vice President Dick Cheney said Iran would face “meaningful consequences” if it persisted in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The administration recently allocated $85 million for programs aimed at promoting democracy in Iran.
While most of the focus has been on Tehran’s growing military threat, American officials are eager to stress that Iran is a terrorism-sponsoring country. As such, the ongoing AMIA probe provides an opportunity to highlight Tehran’s potential to strike around the world.
As part of the new effort to press Argentina, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Thomas Shannon, reportedly offered U.S. support to officials in Buenos Aires, including President Nestor Kirchner, during a January 11-12 visit to the South American country. His host responded with a pledge to encourage prosecutors to issue arrest warrants, according to Argentine sources, who declined to be identified.
In a separate move, a team of congressional aides recently asked prosecutors and lawyers in the case to expedite a new indictment and new arrest warrants. The congressional aides added that the United States would support upgrading the warrants at Interpol, according to Marta Nercellas, a lawyer for the Argentine Jewish umbrella organization DAIA, who attended the meeting.
The decision in September to downgrade the previous warrants was requested by Iran and supported by a majority of countries, including America and Britain, after an Argentine court exculpated several Argentines accused of abetting the attacks. The investigating magistrate, Judge Juan Galeano, was disbarred for numerous irregularities during the investigation. Tehran has denied any role in the attack.
The Argentine case has a tortured history. In March 2003, Galeano issued an indictment against “elements of the Iranian leadership” and Tehran’s proxy Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. He also issued warrants asking for the arrest of 12 Iranian officials, including former intelligence minister Ali Fallahian. After Galeano’s probe into the bombers’ local support network ended in acquittals, his successors vowed that the so-called international trial charging Tehran and Hezbollah for the bombing would go forward. No new official indictments have been issued, however.
In November 2005, Argentine prosecutors announced that they had identified the alleged suicide driver of the van used to blow up the community center and, with the help of the FBI, had linked him to Hezbollah.
At the time, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, told the Forward that Argentine officials, including Kirchner, had given him “assurances” that they would resubmit arrest warrant requests to Interpol in a few months.
According to sources, prosecutors are preparing a new indictment and fresh arrest warrants against senior Iranian leaders. This process could take several months, the sources added.
At the time of the indictment of the Iranian officials in early 2003, Alberto Nisman, the chief prosecutor, asked Galeano to issue warrants for Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Nisman told the Forward a few months ago that he might seek a more direct indictment of Iran that could result in warrants against the two top Iranian leaders if solid evidence can be gathered. He declined further comment.