It’s time to hold Iran accountable for terrorism in Argentina

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Twenty-five years ago this month, the world watched in horror as rescuers in Buenos Aires picked through the rubble of a Jewish community center, searching for survivors of a suicide bombing that leveled the building, killing 85 people, including a five-year-old boy, and wounding 300 more.

Every year since, the international community has mourned the loss of life, holding rituals of remembrance and issuing demands for accountability for the Iranian and Hezbollah terrorists who organized the massacre.

But for a quarter of a century, the alleged bombers of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association, known as the AMIA, have lived freely in Iran. Ali Fallahian, one of the suspects, served on Iran’s influential Assembly of Experts until 2016. Mohsen Rezai, another suspect, is a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader. A third, Ahmad Vahidi, served as Iran’s defense minister until 2013 and today is president of Iran’s Supreme National Defense University.

They have also traveled widely, in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, including as representatives of the Iranian regime.

This flagrant impunity is not for lack of effort by Argentina.

In 2004, Argentina appointed a hard-charging special prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, to investigate Iran’s role in the AMIA bombing. In 2006, he accused Iran of orchestrating the attack, and the following year, INTERPOL issued so-called red notices, akin to arrest warrants, for Iranian suspects. Five red notice holders remain at large; another, Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyah was killed in a car bombing in Damascus in 2008.

Argentina has also issued arrest warrants for the bombing suspects—and for Ali Akbar Velayati, who served as Iran’s foreign minister at the time of the attack and is now a senior foreign policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader.

Over the years, at the request of successive Argentine governments, INTERPOL has extended the red notices, including as recently as 2017, when Argentina’s foreign minister traveled to France to petition INTERPOL in person.

To enforce the red notices, Argentine judges have sought, without success, the extradition of the bombing suspects so they could stand trial in Argentina, including in requests to China and Russia. In all, the alleged bombers have traveled to 20 countries, all INTERPOL members. 

At the United Nations General Assembly, Argentine diplomats have boycotted speeches by Iranian officials. And during their turn at the podium, Argentine presidents, of rival political parties, have used their annual speech in New York to beg for international support in the AMIA case.

In 2007 Argentina’s leftist leader, Néstor Kirchner, said the world should not “tolerate terrorists or those that sponsor, finance or protect them.” Earlier this year, the country’s conservative president dispatched his foreign minister to the United Nations to issue an “urgent” plea for justice.

For a few years, Argentina did not prioritize this issue. Argentina’s last president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Néstor Kirchner’s widow, mysteriously reversed the country’s hardline Iran policy. Rather than demand the transfer of the bombers, she negotiated a binational commission with Iran, in 2013, purportedly to investigate jointly the bombing.

Two years later, Nisman was murdered, the day before he was scheduled to testify before the Argentine congress about allegations that Fernández de Kirchner had colluded with Tehran to cover up its role in the bombing.

But President Mauricio Macri, who took office in 2015, immediately jettisoned Argentina’s Iran agreement, and resumed Argentina’s traditional approach to the issue. Last September at the United Nations, his vice president, Gabriela Michetti, pleaded for international cooperation to bring the Iranian suspects to Argentina. “We don’t want another 20 years to elapse without justice,” she said.

Last month, at an AMIA anniversary ceremony on Capitol Hill, Argentina’s ambassador in Washington reiterated his government’s appeal for the international community to turn over the AMIA bombing suspects subject to international arrest warrants or INTERPOL red notices.

It is time to heed these calls for justice.

For the White House, which has sought to highlight Iranian aggression, the AMIA bombing offers a compelling example of Tehran’s conduct. For years, Congress has passed resolutions, with bipartisan support, demanding justice.

Abroad, even critics of President Trump’s approach to Iran, including in Europe, would have trouble objecting to demands for the arrest of those behind the AMIA bombing, given the brutality of the attack and the importance of upholding the INTERPOL system.

Moreover, by insisting Iran take responsibility for its murders in Buenos Aires, governments still adhering to the Iran nuclear deal could challenge criticisms that they have turned a blind eye toward Tehran’s support for terrorism and international assassinations.

For these reasons, in any future negotiations over Iran, U.S. and European diplomats should demand Tehran hand over the red notice holders for trials in Buenos Aires.

For now, at minimum, the United States and Argentina’s other major allies should pressure governments not to admit the suspected AMIA bombers, and to arrest them if they ever again set foot on foreign soil.

Worldwide memorial services for the AMIA bombing are an important tradition, which for decades have kept alive hope among Argentine survivors and victims’ relatives that the attackers will one day be held responsible. 

As the 25th anniversary approaches, the international community should recognize the tragedy in a new way—by committing to genuine efforts to hold these terrorists accountable.

Benjamin N. Gedan is a senior adviser to the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center and a former South America director on the National Security Council. Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow them at @benjamingedan and @tobydersh.

Tags AMIA bombing Argentina Argentina Donald Trump Iran Iran Néstor Kirchner terrorism

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