On July 18, 1994, the deadliest postwar terrorist attack against a Jewish target took place in Buenos Aires. The seven-story headquarters of the AMIA, the Argentine Jewish community’s central welfare body, was destroyed. Eighty-five people, Jews and non-Jews alike, were killed; hundreds were wounded. It followed in the wake of another deadly terrorist assault in Buenos Aires two years earlier, against the Israeli Embassy.
Suspicion surrounding the 1994 attack immediately focused on Iran and Hezbollah, which presumably acted with the assistance of local accomplices, possibly drawn from the tri-border region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. There, a large Arab community thrives in a largely lawless region of mounting concern to Western intelligence agencies. But the ensuing official investigations went nowhere. As a result, many families of the AMIA victims — and others — succumbed to well-founded cynicism about Argentina’s will and capacity to pursue the inquiry.
Despite repeated promises by Argentina’s leaders to get to the bottom of the attack — so as to ensure justice and also to dispel the impression that Argentina was a soft target for terrorists — more smoke than fire was generated. Indeed, for 12 years, a trail of incompetence, corruption and false starts was all there was to show for the official effort.
Now, at long last, there has been a major breakthrough in the case. Argentine prosecutors, led by AMIA special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, have just released a long-awaited report calling for the issuance of arrest warrants for seven Iranian leaders, including former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and former intelligence chief Ali Fallahian. One of America’s most wanted men, Imad Mughniyeh of Hezbollah, is also on the list. Nisman’s bottom-line finding is that Hezbollah carried out the attack in the center of Argentina’s capital city at the behest of “the highest authorities of the government of Iran.”
Though it took 12 years — during which the AMIA and its partner, the American Jewish Committee, left no stone unturned in demanding justice — the news comes as a bombshell. Let’s be absolutely clear: The government behind the attack, Iran, is a member state of the United Nations. It ordered an attack on another U.N. member state. And, as the Nisman report makes clear, the decision was taken at the very highest level of the Iranian government. There is no room here for plausible deniability by any top Iranian official serving at the time.
Will those named in the arrest warrants be seized and extradited to Argentina? If any of them sets foot outside of Iran, that could become theoretically possible. It is up to the international community to ensure that theory becomes reality.
Needless to say, Tehran has denounced the report’s findings. Care to guess who is behind the Argentine effort, according to the Iranians? Yes, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman revealed that “the new fabrications are conducted within the framework of a Zionist plot.” Why? To divert “world attention from the perpetration of crimes by the Zionists against women and children in Palestine,” of course.
Yes, it always comes back to the “Zionists” and their “plots” in this dark conspiratorial world, the same mindset that also churned out the bizarre theory that Israel and its sympathizers were behind 9/11 and, more recently, that they are to blame for the Sudanese genocide in Darfur. Any lie will do to get the real perpetrators off the hook.
It’s high time for the world to face up to three stark realities about Iran:
First, as the 800-page Argentine report amply documents, Iran is complicit in international terrorism. Indeed, the U.S. State Department has repeatedly referred to Iran as the primary state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran trains, protects and supports Hezbollah, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to serve as proxies and accessories. Perhaps the Nisman report will help encourage those European nations that have resisted placing Hezbollah on the European Union terrorism list to reconsider their position.
Second, Iran’s nuclear weapons program continues at full speed in violation of U.N. Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency resolutions. Iran could one day seek to use those weapons — or provide them in some form to a group like Hezbollah — to project power and attack perceived enemies, whether in the Middle East, South America or elsewhere. Sound far-fetched? Given the violent messianism of Iran’s current crop of top leaders, exemplified by its president, such a possibility is surely within the realm of realistic scenarios.
And third, Iran to date believes that it can have its yellow cake and eat it too. In other words, the country’s leaders have concluded, erroneously I hope, that they can order terrorist attacks and simultaneously defy the world community on nuclear weapons matters — and get away with it. By dint of Iran’s size, energy reserves and long reach, its leadership believes today, as it did in 1994, that it can bully, intimidate and outmaneuver those who dare to consider punitive measures against it.
Argentina has now taken an important — indeed principled and courageous — step in standing up to Iran and Hezbollah. Yes, it came late in the day, but in this case late is far better than never. Will Argentina now stand alone while other countries uncomfortably avert their eyes from the prosecutor’s report? Or will the community of nations rally around Argentina, demand the arrest of the eight named in the warrants and, once and for all, declare Iran a pariah nation that poses a clear and present danger to global harmony and prospects for peaceful conflict resolution in the Middle East? Twelve years later, justice and the preservation of the memory of the AMIA victims call for nothing less.
David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.