By DAN SENOR
"I think it would be almost inconceivable that Iran would commit suicide by launching one or two missiles of any kind against the nation of Israel."
--Jimmy Carter, speaking at Emory University, Sept. 19, 2007
On March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber crashed an explosive-filled truck into a building filled with Israelis in Buenos Aires. The bombing was so powerful that the destruction covered several city blocks -- 29 innocents were killed and hundreds more were injured. This occurred more than 8,000 miles from Tehran. Two years later, on July 18, 1994, Buenos Aires was again hit with a terror attack. This time the target was the Jewish community center in the center of the city -- 85 were killed.
Argentina was, understandably, rattled. The government launched a full-scale investigation. One of the key officials assigned to it was Miguel Angel Toma (later appointed by then President Eduardo Duhalde as secretary of intelligence from 2002-2003). Mr. Toma is not a warmonger. And he did not approach his job with any ideological axe to grind. He concluded not only that Hezbollah carried out the attacks in Argentina, but that at least one of them was planned in Iran at the highest levels of the Iranian government, aided by a sophisticated sleeper-cell network in Latin America. He also concluded that the attacks were strategically aimed at punishing the Argentinean government.
Iran and Argentina had had commercial ties throughout the 1970s and '80s valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, and had entered into agreements to jointly pursue nuclear energy and missile programs. But by 1989, a new civilian government headed by Carlos Menem had come to power and canceled its prior agreements with Iran. As far as Iran was concerned, it was time to punish Argentina for the reversal and send a warning shot to the rest of Latin America. And by focusing on soft targets in Jewish communities, the operations would serve an additional objective: demonstrating to Israel that Hezbollah could hit anywhere at anytime.
Mr. Toma says -- based on Argentina's cooperation with intelligence agencies around the world -- he's certain of the date, location and participants in the decision by the Iranian government to execute the second Buenos Aires attack. He pinpoints it to a meeting that occurred in the holy Iranian city of Mashhad on Aug. 14, 1993. It was presided over by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then and now the Supreme Leader of Iran; and the Iranian president at the time, Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani. Following this meeting, Mr. Toma believes that Iran began working with Hezbollah in the planning, funding and staffing of the 1994 attack in Argentina. Indeed, Argentina has issued warrants for nine Hezbollah operatives and Iranian leaders, including Mr. Rafsanjani. Nobody has been arrested.
The Argentinean case reminds us of four important points.
First, we must reconsider the applicability of Cold War-style deterrence. Its central argument is this: While it would be preferable that Iran not go nuclear, the history of the Cold War demonstrates that the possession of nukes creates a balance of power, and thus makes the possibility of nuclear war extremely unlikely. Representing the pro-deterrence school, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations says, "We've lived with Iran as a terror threat for a generation. Iran has a return address, and states with a return address can be retaliated against."
This misses the point. Even if Iran never fires a nuke or transfers one to a terrorist group, its possession of nukes would enable it to escalate support for terrorist proxies, allowing it to dominate the region and threaten moderate regimes. Who would be prepared to retaliate against a future Buenos Aires terror attack if we knew that the "return address" was home to a nuclear weapon?
Second, U.S. officials are deeply concerned that Tehran would not even have to build a complete bomb to transform the balance of power. It would just have to make the case that it could complete development on short notice. "For their political needs, that would be enough," says Gary Samore, a nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration.
Third, Mr. Rafasanjani continues to be described in the Western media as a leading Iranian "moderate." If Mr. Toma is correct, this "moderate" was intimately involved in the planning of the Argentina bombings. And he has ambitions to succeed President Ahmadinejad.
Fourth, according to Mr. Toma, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorized the Buenos Aires attacks. This is important because many analysts today argue that, as scary as President Ahmadinejad sounds, he is not really in charge in Tehran -- the true "decider" is the Supreme Leader. Well if he is, then we should in fact be doubly concerned.
Iran is not the Soviet Union and the post-9/11 struggle is not the Cold War. The deterrence camp is willing to stand by as Iran develops nuclear weapons, presumably on the model that Iran will eventually collapse as the Soviet Union did. But the Argentinean case demonstrates what Tehran was willing and able to do when it had no nuclear umbrella. If, as the 9/11 Commission Report argues, the U.S. suffered from a "failure of imagination" regarding how far terrorists would go, a nuclear Iran risks encouraging the terrorist imagination to take another quantum leap.
Mr. Senor, a former foreign-policy adviser to the Bush administration, is hosting "Iran: The Ticking Bomb," a documentary airing this Saturday at 9 p.m. (EST) on Fox News.