In what Argentinean officials are describing as a last-ditch effort to salvage the decade-old investigation into the bombing of the AMIA Jewish communal center in Buenos Aires, the country’s top diplomat is demanding an international trial to examine Iran’s alleged role in the attack.
In an exclusive interview with the Forward, Argentinean Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa said that such a step — opposed by some Jewish groups — might be the only way to bring the perpetrators to justice. Under Bielsa’s plan, Argentinean judges would still handle the case, but in a third country approved by Tehran and Buenos Aires.
According to Bielsa, it is increasingly unlikely that the current trial in Argentina of a dozen alleged accomplices in the 1994 bombing will produce any convictions. The foreign minister also expressed doubt that Great Britain would agree to extradite the former Iranian ambassador to Argentina, Hade Soleimanpour, who was recently arrested for his alleged role in the attack.
“If the trial fails and Soleimanpour walks free, you have the perfect storm,” Bielsa told the Forward in a wide-ranging interview last week in New York. “So how can we get out of this situation? After giving it a lot of thought, I figured that a better scenario was to cast the world’s spotlights on the case.… Right now, it is being handled in the corridors of the Argentine courts and the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, and no one knows what is happening. But if we generate an international scenario, there will be much more potential to reach the truth.”
The chief diplomat’s proposal has drawn sharp reactions in Argentina from the main Jewish groups, which contend that the government was scrambling to avoid a confrontation with Tehran following the arrest of Soleimanpour last month. The British authorities detained Soleimanpour acting on a warrant from Argentinean investigative judge Juan José Galeano. The Iranian has since been freed on bail, and the British Home Office is expected to rule October 23 on whether to proceed with the extradition process.
Bielsa has in the last few weeks been promoting his idea of a “Lockerbie-style” trial, a reference to the Scottish tribunal sitting in the Netherlands that convicted the Lybian bombers of Pan Am flight 103. Last week, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he pitched his proposal to several foreign officials and American Jewish communal leaders in order to reach a “critical mass” of countries that would pressure Iran to accept such a solution.
Bielsa, a powerfully built, bearded chain-smoker and former political activist persecuted under the military dictatorship, said the government was not seeking a way out of a difficult diplomatic situation. In fact, Bielsa said, his country was committed to solving the AMIA case — he noted that the new government that took power several months ago had declared the case a state matter and taken steps to ensure a swifter investigation.
In any case, he insisted that the government would not move ahead without the support of all parties involved in the case.
Bielsa said that he did not expect to see Soleimanpour in Buenos Aires, pointing to the reported weakness of Galeano’s evidence. The Argentinean diplomat also voiced his belief that the Iranian might be supplying valuable information on other fronts to British intelligence. In addition, the Israeli daily Maariv reported last week, Soleimanpour might serve as a bargaining chip in ongoing negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah over the fate of Israeli pilot Ron Arad.
The prospect of seeing Soleimanpour walk free has prompted some Argentinean Jewish groups to change tacks recently. While the Jewish communal umbrella group DAIA has maintained its opposition, Bielsa’s proposal has received support from AMIA, the mutual aid association whose headquarters was destroyed in the bombing, in which 85 people were killed and more than 300 were wounded. Memoria Activa, a vocal group of victims’ family members that has consistently criticized the Argentine investigation, also supports the proposal.
“We met with the foreign minister, and we told him it was not a bad idea,” said Pablo Jacobi, a lawyer for Memoria Activa. “It might still be premature, but if Great Britain does not extradite Soleimanpour like we believe, it might be a way to keep the international case alive.”
Bielsa said that his conversations with his British counterpart, Jack Straw, had left him pessimistic about the extradition prospects.
“I talked twice to Straw and told him twice that for Argentina it was crucial that Soleimanpour would come,” Bielsa said. “Two days after the second conversation, Soleimanpour was free on bail. So I have to draw a conclusion.”
When asked if he believed the theory that Soleimanpour was cooperating with the British authorities and possibly negotiating his defection, Bielsa replied: “Exactly.”
A spokesman for the Foreign Office in London flatly denied the allegations, as well as the speculation about a Ron Arad deal. “There is no political dimension whatsoever,” the spokesman said on condition of anonymity. “The Soleimanpour case is subject to a judicial process.”
Iran had refused to cooperate with the Argentine investigation for nine years, claiming that the accusations, which were formalized in an indictment in March, were politically motivated. This changed with the arrest of Soleimanpour, which prompted an Iranian delegation to jump on a plane to Buenos Aires last month to meet with Galeano and Argentinean officials. They promised that Iran would appoint an Argentinean lawyer to participate in the case.
Bielsa insisted that his idea of an international trial was not a maneuver to defuse the tensions between Argentina and Iran, but in fact a creative way to put pressure on Tehran. Bielsa said that he was not planning to go through the U.N. because Iran would not accept that option. The idea is to ask a third country that is friendly to both Argentina and Iran to host an eventual trial.
“I talked about this to the king of Morocco, and he was very receptive and promised he would talk to [Iranian president Mohammad] Khatami and [Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal] Kharrazi,” Bielsa said.
The Argentinean foreign minister also met with Israeli, Russian, French, Spanish and Bulgarian leaders, as well as American Jewish communal leaders, in an effort to explain his project. He said he had received polite support and that no one had discouraged him.
But DAIA is standing by its opposition, according to organization spokesman Alfredo Neuburger. He urged American Jewish communal leaders to consult with their Argentinean counterparts before taking any positions on the issue. “In the Lockerbie case, there was a lot of U.S. pressure against Libya, but Iran has never moved a finger in this case, and we don’t see international pressure,” he said.
A judicial source close to the investigation said judge Galeano had not been consulted. The source added that the idea of an international trial was still hypothetical since the investigation of Iran had not yet reached the trial stage.
“The idea is not to take the case away from Galeano but to have the same actors in a different scenario,” Bielsa said. “We want to shed international light on this. If it doesn’t work, let’s continue the way we are… I have my own opinion as to where this is going. And it won’t be because the foreign minister did not try his utmost to make sure this would be different.”