The Bush administration is planning to ratchet up pressure on Tehran at the United Nations by invoking the recent Argentine indictment of top Iranian leaders in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish communal center in Buenos Aires.
Several sources told the Forward that Washington intended to highlight Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism to convince reluctant U.N. Security Council members — first and foremost Russia and China — that Iran’s nuclear ambitions should be neutralized. The indictment could also provide Argentina, which holds a rotating seat on the Security Council until the end of the year, a reason to vote in favor of a resolution imposing sanctions against Iran if Tehran refuses to suspend its uranium enrichment activities.
The American embassy in Buenos Aires welcomed the indictment in a statement, but it denied allegations that Washington leaned on the government of Nestor Kirchner to issue the indictment at this juncture.
“This is an Argentinean investigation,” said Marah Tekach, an embassy spokeswoman. “We believe Argentina has demonstrated its willingness to see that justice is served.” America, he added, endorsed the conclusion that the attack was masterminded by Iran and executed by its proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. The attack killed 85 and wounded more than 300.
While prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Burgos would not comment, the current president of the Jewish communal group AMIA, Luis Grynwald, stressed that it was the result of a 15-month independent investigation rather than a secretive diplomatic tango. “This is a very important step,” he said.
In an 800-page indictment, the prosecutors accused the Iranian political leadership of ordering Hezbollah to truck-bomb the AMIA building on July 18, 1994. The prosecutors recommended that the judge in charge of the case issue arrest warrants against seven Iranian officials, including former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and then-Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, as well as a senior leader of Hezbollah, Imad Mughniyeh.
The judge, Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, now has to decide whether to endorse the prosecutor’s recommendations. He is expected to do so in the coming days, according to AMIA’s Grynwald and several sources close to the issue. The Argentine foreign minister indicated this week that the authorities were ready to carry out any action demanded by the judge.
Tehran, which has always denied any role in the attack, is considering filing a legal complaint against Argentine authorities, Iran’s prosecutor general told state television last weekend. “We will seriously pursue the matter,” Ghorbanali Dorri Najafabadi said. “We reserve our right to file a complaint in the relevant courts.” He also told the official IRNA news agency that Iran would “demand spiritual and financial compensation and will not tolerate a conspiracy against the Iranian nation.”
Marta Nercellas, a lawyer for DAIA, the umbrella advocacy group for Argentine Jewish organizations, welcomed the indictment but added that it contained little new despite the prosecutors’ claims to the contrary.
The indictment indeed reprises most of the charges described in a March 2003 ruling by the magistrate previously in charge of the investigation, Juan Jose Galeano, who was disbarred after revelations that he played a role in bribing a key witness in the failed trial of alleged local abettors of the attack.
But while the first indictment merely issued “alleged presumptions” against some “radical elements” within the Iranian leadership and only requested the arrest of one government minister, then-intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, the new one claims that evidence exists implicating Iran’s top leadership at the time of the attack. Moreover, the new indictment accuses Hezbollah of sending a commando to carry out the attack, whereas Galeano only blamed an offshoot of the Lebanese Shiite militia.
The new indictment claims that the attack was ordered by the “highest authorities” in Iran during a high-level meeting in the Iranian town of Mashad on August 14, 1993. As a result, the eight warrants target the most senior Iranian officials at the time, as well as Fallahian and diplomats already singled out in the 2003 indictment.
Nisman and Burgos specified that they had decided not to include Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who reportedly attended the meeting where they claim the decision was made, only because of his immunity as head of state.
The main basis for the key assertion about top-level Iranian involvement is the testimony of a former Iranian senior official known as Abdolhassem Mesbahi, who was a key witness in the prosecution of an attack against Iranian opponents in Germany, which also accused Tehran. Mesbahi’s credibility was questioned several years ago after he allegedly accused former Argentine president Carlos Menem of trying to extract a bribe from Iran in exchange for covering up the probe, and then retracted the claim.
Nisman, one of the prosecutors, called for tough measures — including an arrest warrant against Khamenei — three years ago, but they were not endorsed by the judge at the time. After the judge, Galeano, was pushed aside in 2004, the government beefed up the prosecutorial team and granted it the lead role in the probe. As a result, the team’s conclusions are likely to carry more weight with Judge Canicoba, and most observers believe he will endorse them.
In recent weeks, some Jewish leaders had privately expressed suspicions that the Kirchner administration was unwilling to antagonize Iran despite repeated promises to conduct a thorough investigation that would not be contingent upon political and diplomatic considerations. The main reason for their worries was that no indictment was being issued despite the fact that the prosecutors had indicated to various sources that they had wrapped up their probe by the summer. The doubts were compounded during a meeting between Kirchner’s wife Christina — who is also a senator — and American Jewish groups during the annual session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September. The president’s wife allegedly suggested that there was no firm date for further judicial action against Iran, according to sources familiar with the encounter. The concerns were relayed to the Bush administration and prompted more pressing inquiries from Washington about the release of the prosecutors’ document.
The Bush administration had incurred criticism last year for voting at the international police agency, Interpol, to downgrade the 2003 arrest warrants against Iranian officials despite Argentina’s assertions that they were still valid.
Grynwald, the AMIA president, said that the prosecutors now face the arduous task of probing local connections to the 1994 bombing. “There are still many unanswered questions about how the attack took place,” he said, “and this is what they need to focus on.”