Wall Street Journal: As tensions between the U.S. and Iran persist, Washington and its allies are using an investigation into a 1994 terrorist attack in Argentina to maintain pressure on the Iranian regime. The Wall Street Journal
White House Considers ’94 Argentine Bombing A Terrorist Blueprint
By JAY SOLOMON and EVAN PEREZ
January 15, 2008; Page A6
WASHINGTON — As tensions between the U.S. and Iran persist, Washington and its allies are using an investigation into a 1994 terrorist attack in Argentina to maintain pressure on the Iranian regime.
Behind the scenes, Bush administration officials are encouraging the probe, which centers on the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. One U.S. goal is to cause legal problems for some of Iran’s political leaders. Administration officials also hope to use the matter to highlight Iran’s alleged role in financing and supporting terrorism around the world.
The Argentine case comes as the White House is trying to redefine its Iran policy. Conflict between the two nations heated up following a recent naval standoff in the Straits of Hormuz. At the same time, American allies have professed confusion about the U.S. position in light of a U.S. intelligence estimate that played down the threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear program. In his public comments, President Bush has continued to define Iran as a threat.
Senior Bush administration officials believe the Buenos Aires bombing serves as a model for how Tehran has used its overseas embassies and relationships with foreign militant groups, in particular Hezbollah, to strike at its enemies.
Over the past year, the Bush administration has charged the international arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Qods Force, with supplying munitions and training to Shiite militias fighting U.S. forces inside Iraq. Iran has denied the charge. Washington also believes Tehran has increased funding for Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in a bid to undermine pro-Western governments in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
In November, Interpol, the global policing body, issued most-wanted orders, known as “red notices,” for one current and four former Iranian officials for their alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing. Interpol became involved after a request for help from the Argentine government. The bomb attack killed 85 people and is among the largest terrorist attacks ever staged in Latin America.
Iran mounted a vigorous attempt to block the red notices, according to Interpol officials, arguing the case had become politicized. American, Israeli and Argentine diplomats succeeded in getting Interpol’s members to vote for the execution of the indictments.
The Argentine case is a “very clear definition of what Iranian state sponsorship of terrorism means,” said a senior White House official tracking the case. “Iran is not just morally supporting terrorism, but using terrorist proxies as a tool for its state policy.” The successful issuing of red notices “could place Iranians in a very difficult situation,” the official said. For example, the indictments will make it hard for the officials to travel overseas.
Among those placed on Interpol’s most-wanted listed are: Ali Fallahian, Iran’s former intelligence chief; Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps; and Ahmad Vahidi, a Revolutionary Guards general who currently serves as Iran’s deputy defense minister. Interpol also issued a red notice for Imad Mugniyah, a Lebanese national alleged to have commanded the covert terrorist wing of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia and political party that is tied to Iran.
A U.S. court indicted Mr. Mugniyah for his alleged role in a 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner. U.S. officials have also charged Mr. Mugniyah with masterminding the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines Corp barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
Argentine investigators also sought the arrests of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president, and two other onetime Iranian officials. Interpol denied these requests.
Iranian diplomats say the U.S. and Israel are distorting the case as part of a wider campaign to roll back Tehran’s nuclear program. “It’s a propaganda act,” said Mohammad Mohammadi, an Iranian diplomat at its United Nations mission. “American officials are encouraging Argentina to pursue this case.”
José Octavio Bordón, Argentina’s ambassador to Washington until last month, countered that the Iranians “are trying to put some political spin on this, but this is a fight against impunity.” An Argentine court formally indicted the Iranian officials in November 2006.
In a report seeking the Iranians’ arrests, Argentine investigators said the bombing was conceived and ordered by the “highest levels of the Tehran regime as part of its general foreign policy, which doesn’t reject the use of terrorism as a tool to achieve its objectives.”
The Iranian officials are charged with using Tehran’s Buenos Aires embassy, its cultural office and contacts in the local Muslim community to plot and execute the attack on the Jewish Community Center, known as the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association Building, or AMIA.
The Iranian government sent information and “materials” related to the attack through diplomatic pouches, according to court documents. In their report, Argentine investigators said that in the four months before the bombing, Mohsen Rabbani, the Iranian cultural attaché in Buenos Aires, received more than $150,000 to finance the attack. The report said $94,000 was withdrawn ahead of the bombing.
Investigators also documented a series of phone calls from public telephones and cellphones in Buenos Aires to a Brazilian border region long seen as a fund-raising center for Hezbollah. Subsequent calls went from Brazil to Hezbollah headquarters in Beirut, which investigators believe communicated the final approval for the bombing.
The Argentine report contends that the attack may have been in part retaliation for Israel’s assassination of a top Hezbollah official and for attacks on Hezbollah camps in Lebanon.
Efforts to prosecute the perpetrators stalled in Argentina for more then a decade until former President Nestor Kirchner established a special commission. The newly elected Argentine government of Cristina Kirchner, the former president’s wife, has also pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice.
To date, Iran has refused to hand over the five indicted men to Argentine authorities. In recent weeks, the Iranian government has threatened to take its own legal action against Buenos Aires for allegedly tarnishing Tehran’s international image.
U.S. and Interpol officials acknowledge that the international community has no legal mechanisms to force Tehran to comply with Interpol’s ruling. “Iran is not compelled in any way to abide by” the red notices, said an Interpol official. “If the subjects never leave the country, they’re not at risk.”