On bombing anniversary, Iran still engaged in illicit activity
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This week marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1994 bombing of the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and wounded an additional 300. Iran has marked the occasion by insulting the victims of the attack with a hollow offer of assistance, even as it shelters the senior Iranians indicted for the crime.

Indeed, Iran continues to actively engage in a wide range of illicit and militant activities around the world. Just this week, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned 16 Iranian entities and individuals responsible for supporting the Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), only further underscoring Iran’s commitment to illicit activities since 1994.

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In 1994, Iranian agents and Hezbollah terrorists blew up a Jewish community center in Argentina. Twenty-three years later, Tehran now says it is ready to work with INTERPOL to resolve the case, even as it insists that the investigation to date has been unduly influenced by "political interests" — a thinly-veiled reference to the U.S. and Israel. But like past Iranian offers to cooperate on the case, this should not be seen as a genuine effort to solve the crime, but rather as an attempt to absolve Iran of its role in a heinous act of terrorism.

 

After years of obstructing investigation into the attack and providing continuous support to Hezbollah, there is no reason to believe that Tehran’s call for cooperation this year is any more genuine than it has been in years past.

Following the AMIA attack, the Argentinean and international authorities conducted an extensive investigation into the bombing and concluded that “the decision to carry out the AMIA attack was made, and the attack was orchestrated, by the highest officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the time, and that these officials instructed Lebanese Hezbollah — a group that has historically been subordinated to the economic and political interests of the Tehran regime — to carry out the attack.”

Prosecutors charged Mohsen Rabani as the mastermind behind the attack. They also identified two Iranian agents who worked directly for him. According to prosecutors, Rabani’s surveillance reports were "a determining factor in the making of the decision to carry out the AMIA attack." Furthermore, Rabani received Iranian funds to three different personal bank accounts in Argentina.

He used these funds to purchase the van used in the bombing, as well as other critical items for the attack. Two days before the bombing, Rabani called the Iranian-owned Government Trade Corporation (GTC), which was believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence. He placed his call close to the garage where the truck bomb was parked, near AMIA. Though Rabani was indicted for his role in the bombing and fled to Iran, he continued to support Iranian operations in South America.

In 2011, Argentina and Iran agreed to form a “truth commission” and jointly investigate the AMIA attack. The integrity of this commission was questionable from the onset, as there were outstanding Argentine indictments of Iranian officials. In January 2015, the situation escalated when prosecutor Alberto Nisman was suddenly found dead in his apartment under extremely suspicious circumstances.

His death occurred just after he filed 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. 

Rabbani told Argentinian TV in May of 2015 that Nisman's investigation was based on nothing more than "the inventions of newspapers without any proof against Iran." In reality, the most telling proof against Iran was evidence of Rabbani’s own role in the plot, including his network of intelligence agents in Buenos Aires, as well as his purchase of the van that would ultimately be used as the car bomb in the attack.

It is likely that Rabbani was confident in claiming his innocence since his agents on the ground, namely Khalil and Paz, were conspiring to plant fake “new evidence” and cover the real facts that would reveal Iran’s responsibility in the bombing.

The public exposure of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives in the deadly AMIA attack should provide sufficient reason to question Iran’s most recent offer to renew investigations. However, since 1994, Iran has continuously supported Hezbollah in its efforts to perpetrate terrorism around the world, only further highlighting the hypocrisy of Iran's most recent offer to cooperate in an AMIA investigation.

For example, on July 18, 2012 — 18 years to the day after the AMIA bombing — Hezbollah operatives murdered six people and wounded many more in a bus bombing at the Burgas airport in Bulgaria. While this was not the first Hezbollah attack in Europe, the incident highlighted the extent of the group’s operations there.

Beyond Europe, Hezbollah activities continued unabated in South America. In November 2014, a Hezbollah plot was foiled in Peru. More recently, a Hezbollah operative based in the U.S. was sent by the group to carry out proper atonal surveillance in Panama.

Hezbollah continues to raise significant sums of money through illicit business and smuggling in the tri-border area of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, as well as in other free trade zones in the region. This past June, suspected Hezbollah associate Ali Issa Chamas was extradited to the United States from Paraguay and charged in Miami Federal Court with conspiring to export cocaine through the U.S.

In the past five months, several other suspected operatives have been arrested in the U.S. for their alleged financial ties to Hezbollah. Kassim Tajideen was extradited to the United States from Morocco in March 2017 and was charged with being a “prominent financial supporter of the Hezbollah terror organization.” In June, Ali Kourani and Samer el Debek were arrested in New York and Michigan, respectively, for their alleged activities in support of Hezbollah. Both were arrested on charges of “providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to Hezbollah,” as well as receiving “military-type training from Hezbollah.”

In the sanctions announced this week, the U.S. also exposed Tehran's use of an Iran-based transnational criminal organization to support its military or IRGC in developing, maintaining and producing military equipment, such as unmanned aerial vehicles. The designations came on the heels of the Trump administration's confirmation that Iran is in overall compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, underscoring how Iran has complied with the agreement as it pertains to nuclear issues, yet continues to engage in illicit conduct, in particular those actions carried out by the IRGC.

In the assessment of CENTCOM Chief Gen. Joseph Votel, Iran has become "more aggressive in its behavior since the [Iran Deal] agreement." Former director of national intelligence James Clapper made similar comments early this year, noting that "Iran and Hezbollah remain a continuing threat to U.S. interests and partners worldwide."

Tehran's outreach to INTERPOL in the context of the AMIA bombings should be seen for what it is: The fox trying to weasel its way into the investigation of the raided henhouse. If Iran wants to help investigate the AMIA bombing, it should present the Iranians indicted for the crime to Argentine prosecutors. Anything else is hollow rhetoric.

Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.