By Max Bluer
The Nisman case has re-opened the book on the 1994 AMIA bombings. Iran is the chief suspect, but few are asking why the Islamic Republic would blow up a building thousands of miles away.
Check your calendars, just to make sure that it really is the year 2015, and that the Cold War ended over twenty years ago.
The case of Alberto Nisman, the Argentine jurist murdered the day before he was due to publicly accuse President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of collaborating in the cover-up of Argentina’s worst ever terrorist attack – the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AIMA) building – smacks of something straight from a John Le Carre novel. It has led to deep public anger and introspection in Argentina as to the integrity of the country’s government and security services. Was the death really a suicide, as the crime scene would seem to indicate? If so, was Nisman (as has been suggested) ‘induced’ to take his own life with a borrowed pistol in his bathroom, behind a door that was locked from the inside? Would the President really go so far as to order the death of the man about to expose her, surely that way of doing politics had been left behind with Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983?
All of these questions remain unanswered. Yet even if de Kirchner and her government had no role in Nisman’s death, the case has nonetheless shined a spotlight on the strikingly large role that the government of Iran plays in the politics of Argentina and the region at large.
Although the perpetrators of the AMIA bombing were never brought to justice, suspicion lies with the Republic of Iran and its proxies. Official investigations have been plagued with cover ups, corruption and political interference, in 2006 prosecutors in Buenos Aires charged Iranian officials with ordering the attack, and Shia militant group Hezbollah with carrying it out. Indeed Islamic Jihad, an organisation that in 1994 had strong financial and political links to Hezbollah, quickly claimed responsibility for the attack.
Yet Iran has consistently denied being behind the attack, while US officials have cast doubt on Iranian involvement. Despite the issuing of Interpol red notices (roughly equivalent to an international arrest warrant) to several then officials of the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires for involvement in the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina history, none have ever been carried out and the circumstances behind the attack seem unlikely ever to come to light. This despite Gerardo Pollitica (Alberto NIsman’s successor as Public Prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the alleged cover-up) continuing Nisman’s line of investigation by officially accusing Fernandez de Kirchner, foreign minister Hector Timerman and various others of attempting to hide Iran’s role in the bombing.
Notwithstanding the fog of war that surrounds the entire tragedy and its perpetrators, the death of Nisman re-shines a light on Iranian influence in Latin America. Ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979 – a seismic event that transformed the foremost Shia Muslim power from a staunch American ally (some would say lackey) into the “Great Satan’s” chief Middle Eastern foe – the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to expand its influence in ‘America’s backyard’. The Tri-border Area at the junction between the Brazilian, Argentina and Paraguayan borders has been described by the Pentagon as ‘the most important base for Hezbollah outside Lebanon itself’, thanks to a weak legal system, corrupt politicians and a strong Lebanese-Arab community many of whom arrived as refugees from the 1985 Israel-Lebanon war and hold strong feelings against the Jewish state and its Western backers. Moreover there is strong evidence pointing to a link between Argentina and Iran’s controversial attempts to procure nuclear weaponry; specifically that the government of Carlos Mendem was providing Iran with enriched uranium throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Indeed one theory as to the motivation behind the allegedly Iranian bombing on the AMIA building was as retaliation for Argentina’s decision to cut this supply of nuclear material as part of Menem’s repositioning towards a more pro-US foreign policy.
As well as anger, a pro-American Argentina provoked fear in Tehran. Argentine politics has a strong tradition of ideological anti-Americanism, a mode of thought very much shared by Iranian policy-makers. Since the introduction by the Clinton administration of economic sanctions against Iran, the Islamic Republic has found itself with fewer and fewer states willing to trade with it. Iran therefore prioritises economic and political relations with those few states – Argentina and other Latin American nations such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela number amongst them – willing to defy the US and trade with Iran. Argentina is now Iran’s 7th largest importer and a key source of basic foodstuffs such as wheat. Argentina itself is also experiencing a period of economic upheaval and its pariah status on international credit markets sees it in the same boat as Iran, with ever fewer international trade partners, especially when it comes to purchasing oil, few exporters of which are willing to accept Argentine credit. This mutual economic reliance goes some way to explaining Iran’s interests in Argentina, and the Fernandez de Kirchner government’s alleged attempts to protect Iran from Nisman and his investigations into the AMIA bombings.
Argentina is not the only Latin American nation with strong economic and political ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Recent Iranian regimes have sought to strengthen links with the leftist governments that have swept to power across the region, most notably in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and of course Argentina. These governments, headed by charismatic, sometimes demagogic, figures share with Iran a virulent anti-Americanism; indeed for Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuelan revolution the United States was the quasi-colonial master against which the revolution sought to define itself.
In recent times Argentina and Iran have found themselves locked together, each economically reliant on the other. The two also share a common enemy in the United States, belligerence against whom is a trait of the foreign policies of both nations, and has been for sometime. Iran then has far stronger links to Argentina than might initially be imagined, a conclusion that does nothing to assist its claims of innocence over the AMIA attacks.