As Argentinian 'truth commission' ends before it starts, time to investigate Iranian agents

Iran, Nuclear Deal, Centrifuges
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In his first press conference as Argentina's newly elected president, Mauricio Macri announced his intention to officially nullify the deal the previous government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed with Iran to form a "truth commission" to jointly probe the 1994 bombing of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. That deal — from its inception, a travesty of justice — is now dead. Macri also removed the embarrassingly incompetent prosecutor assigned to the case by the Kirchner government after the mysterious murder of former prosecutor Alberto Nisman. But there is still more work to be done, including investigating the Iranian agents in Argentina who pursued the deal on Tehran's behalf. Before his death, Nisman identified two Iranian agents in particular who were acting under the direct orders of none other than Mohsen Rabani, the fugitive Iranian agent who masterminded the AMIA bombing.

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In the wake of the bombing, investigators determined that Rabani had been using local Shiite scouts to assess Jewish and American targets in Buenos Aires since 1983. According to prosecutors, Rabani's surveillance reports were "a determining factor in the making of the decision to carry out the AMIA attack." Iran sent funds for the plot to Rabani's personal accounts at three different banks in Argentina. Rabani helped procure the van used in the attack, and then two days before the bombing, he placed a call from his cellphone while in the vicinity of the garage where the truck bomb was parked, near AMIA, to the Iranian-owned Government Trade Corporation (GTC), which was believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence.

Rabani was indicted for his role in the bombing, and fled to Iran, but remained active in Iranian operations in South America. According to court documents, Rabani helped four men of Latin American descent who were plotting to bomb John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. In a handwritten letter that one of the plotters, Abdul Kadir, wrote to Rabani in 2006, Kadir agreed to perform a "mission" for Rabani to determine whether a group of individuals in Guyana and Trinidad were up to some unidentified task. Kadir, authorities would later determine, was running an intelligence collection operation in Guyana and Rabani was his handler. Kadir was ultimately arrested on June 2, 2007 in Trinidad aboard a plane headed to Venezuela, en route to Iran.

In April 2011, the Brazilian magazine Veja ran an article citing FBI, CIA, Interpol and other documents on terrorist activity in Brazil, warning that Rabani "frequently slips in and out of Brazil on a false passport and has recruited at least 24 youngsters in three Brazilian states to attend 'religious formation' classes in Tehran." In the words of one Brazilian official quoted by the magazine, "Without anybody noticing, a generation of Islamic extremists is appearing in Brazil."

That same year, Argentina and Iran agreed in 2011 to form a "truth commission" to jointly investigate the bombing, despite the standing Argentinian indictments of Iranian officials. The merits of this "partnership" were questionable from the outset, but were cast into severe doubt after Nisman suddenly turned up dead in January 2015 under extremely suspicious circumstances just after filing charges that the Argentinian administration, specifically Cristina Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, planned a cover-up of Iran and Hezbollah's role in the AMIA bombing in exchange for a political deal between the government of Iran and Argentina. The day before Nisman was due to present his case to the Argentinian parliament, he was found dead in his apartment. In 2015, after Macri's election, a secret recording of a 2012 conversation would surface in which Timerman privately acknowledged that "Iran planted the bomb that blew up AMIA."

In May 2013, Nisman released a 500-page report focused on how the Iranian regime has, since the early 1980s, built and maintained "local clandestine intelligence stations designed to sponsor, foster and execute terrorist attacks" in the Western Hemisphere. The report found that Rabani continued to oversee Iran's Latin American operations. His task was to set up intelligence and espionage networks, direct propaganda operations, and in general "export the revolution." He also played a direct role in negotiating the AMIA truth commission deal with Argentina.

In one intercepted conversation, Rabbani's man on the ground, Jorge Khalil, reported to Rabbani by phone on a meeting he had had with an Argentinian official. "Send me the details so I can evaluate them," Rabbani responded. In another conversation, Rabani tells Khalil "don't mix things up. You work for me." Exchanges such as this made "it completely clear that Rabbani retains decision-making authority within the regime in all matters related to the Argentine Republic," Nisman concluded. In another intercepted telephone exchange, Khalil assures Rabbani further reports are forthcoming: "Sheikh, don't worry because tonight when I get home I'll send you a report on everything that I'm doing." Such assurances, Nisman determined, demonstrate Khalil's subordination to Rabbani: "Khalil has been Rabbani's man of confidence who has constantly reported back to him from Buenos Aires."

Also implicated in the intercepted transcripts is Abdul Karim Paz, sheikh of the Tauhid mosque and, according to Nisman's report, "right hand of Mohsen Rabbani, who was in Iran." Khalil regularly updated Paz on the status of the negotiations, who assessed that the deal would likely proceed, but griped at one point about the way "Argentina is, you know, brown-nosing the United States." Khalil similarly reassured Rabani on the deal's trajectory: "[E]verything is going to be fine, relax because everything is going to be all right."

In May, Rabbani told Argentinian TV that Nisman's investigation was based on nothing more than "the inventions of newspapers without any proof against Iran." In fact, the most powerful proof against Iran was evidence of Rabbani's own role in the plot, from running a network of intelligence agents in Buenos Aires to purchasing the van used as the car bomb in the attack. His confidence, it appears, stems from the efforts of his agents on ground, chief among them Khalil and Paz, who, according to Nisman's last report, were conspiring to concoct fake "new evidence" to supplant the real evidence implicating Iran in the bombing.

With this conspiracy revealed, and the "truth commission" dead, the investigations into the AMIA bombing and the Nisman murder can resume under credible investigators. Meanwhile, the Macri government should also investigate the roles Iranian agents in Argentina played in this near travesty of justice.

Levitt directs the Stein program on counterterrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is the author of "Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God."

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