May 26, 2013
The man with the Iran mask
The debate in the Senate about the AMIA case was very real
Argentina’s political life has always been complex. But that life will be even more complicated to explain now that the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran to jointly probe the 1994 bombing against the AMIA Jewish community that killed 85 people.
Suddenly, the inner workings of political life in Iran are also relevant on the domestic front. The rhetorical posturing with Great Britain about the disputed Malvinas Islands is one thing. But getting directly tangled up in the conflicts of Tehran and Tel Aviv is totally another.
Yet what matters here is not the world stage. What matters here is how the situation will play out domestically. There is a lot of speculation about the agreement and voices are being raised in protest even before the consequences of what has been signed start to play out and its real dimension hits home.
Events are, inevitably, already playing out. Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman appeared at a hearing of three Senate committees on Wednesday to discuss the accord up for congressional approval.
The hearing to discuss the agreement was an extraordinary event in itself.
It’s all too easy to rubbish Argentina’s institutions. But at times they seem to work. The Supreme Court is generally considered independent. And exactly how do you think Argentina pulled through its financial crisis of 2001 that devoured five presidents in less than a month? When Argentina went bust late in 2001 it was down to Congress to name a caretaker president.
Fernández de Kirchner has signed a deal with Iran. But she has also sent it to Congress for approval. The catch is that Fernández de Kirchner’s ruling Victory Front coalition controls Congress thanks to her impressive re-election win in 2011. But controlling Congress due to a big election win is not illegal. Congress could be a different place after this year’s midterm elections are held.
Wednesday’s hearing in the Senate was very real. Timerman had to field difficult questions from the opposition senators. The leaders of the DAIA Jewish association and the AMIA openly urged Congress to vote against the accord.
Guillermo Borger, the head of the AMIA, insisted (much to the outrage of Kirchnerite lawmakers) that the agreement now opens the door to a “third attack” against a Jewish community target in Argentina. Two associations that represent the family and friends of the AMIA attack victims also were invited to speak at Wednesday’s hearing.
Laura Ginsberg, a member of a third group calling for justice in the AMIA attack, was not invited to speak. But Ginsberg attended the hearing and at one point in the hearing she confronted the committee heads and demanded the right to speak.
Kirchnerite Senator Daniel Filmus, the head of the foreign affairs committee, dithered for a minute. Timerman looked surprised. But Ginsberg, who lost her husband in the AMIA bombing, was eventually allowed to have her say.
Ginsberg was fiercely critical of this fresh deal with Iran, and of the way Argentine officials in general have handled the AMIA case since 1994. Argentina passed a “Full Stop” law in the eighties to terminate the prosecution of military officers accused of human rights abuse during the last military dictatorship (the law was later quashed). Now, Ginsberg told senators, Argentina by signing the agreement with Iran was bringing the AMIA case investigation to a “full stop.”
The speakers of the two other associations were less critical of the agreement. Diana Malamud, speaking for the group Memoria Activa at the Senate, said that she wanted the five Iranian suspects to be questioned “anywhere.”
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the wording of the agreement. Timerman has said that under the terms of the accord Argentine court officials will get the chance to question the suspects, including Iran’s Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi, in Tehran.
But on Tuesday, only a day ahead of the Senate hearing in Buenos Aires, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied claims that Iranian officials will be forced to face questioning.
Vahidi, who is wanted by Interpol, is at the centre of this dispute because in 2011 he had to cut short a visit to Bolivia when Argentina complained about his presence in Latin America. Bolivian President Evo Morales apologized to Argentina for Vahidi’s visit to Bolivia. It was probably then that it dawned on the leaders of Iran that the AMIA case is really a problem for its diplomatic ambitions in Latin America.
Malamud told the Senate that Interpol should not take the Iranian suspects off its wanted list now that an accord has been signed. But she welcomed the idea of actually having the chance to question the suspects.
Tuesday’s comments by the Iranian foreign minister official cast more doubts about the real dimension of the agreement. Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi seemed to contradict the spokesman. Salehi on Tuesday, during a visit to Moscow, said that the agreement signed with Argentina will be fully abided by. But Salehi made no specific reference to the issue of Vahidi being questioned.
Timerman told the Senate on Wednesday that the five Iranian suspects can technically refuse to testify.
Argentine Foreign Ministry legal experts also said at the hearing that if the accord is approved by Congress it will have the full standing of an international treaty.
The Senate hearing in itself, carried live by all cable television news channels, can’t be ignored. But the Victory Front at the end of the day still wielded enough clout to clear the agreement for debate in the Senate.
The agreement is scheduled to be debated in a Senate floor session on Thursday. It will then move to the Lower House when it is scheduled to be approved on February 27.
There it is. The President, who called extraordinary sessions for the agreement to be discussed, will see the memorandum of understanding with Iran passed by Congress before the end of this month.
So exactly what is wrong with the agreement? Ask Dr Shimon Samuels, Director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and he will tell you that “this result of negotiations leaked almost two years ago amid media speculation of a commercial deal, flies in the face of Argentine annual demands from the UN podium for extradition of the Iranian accomplices to murder for trial in Buenos Aires. The Addis Abeba agreement will do for Iran what Munich 1938 did for Nazi Germany: whet the appetite of another mass murderer for further terror and, this time, nuclear genocide. This deal is a whitewash for terrorism.”
That, predictably, is not what Timerman thinks. Timerman told the Senate hearing that the agreement will allow the AMIA case investigation to make progress after being practically frozen for 19 years. Timerman told the Senate that at some point in time he had met with Israel’s then Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to discuss the AMIA case and that Lieberman had told him that a negotiation with Iran was not acceptable.
So what exactly, Timerman asked rhetorically at the Senate hearing, is Argentina supposed to do to bring the AMIA attackers to justice? Argentina, Timerman said, is not prepared to launch secret operations to kill suspects like other countries do.
Timerman has also complained about anti-Semitism against him at a protest demonstration on Thursday in Buenos Aires staged by opposition politicians and Jewish community groups to oppose the agreement.
Politicians are often accused of irresponsibly using issues for political gains. But it’s difficult to see what the CFK administration will gain on the domestic front from its deal with Iran.
The “Argentine annual demands from the UN podium for extradition of the Iranian accomplices to murder for trial in Buenos Aires” highlighted by the Wiesenthal Center have been the work of Fernández de Kirchner and, before her, president Néstor Kirchner, her late husband and predecessor.
The Kirchners have been praised in the past by the Jewish community for taking the AMIA case to the United Nations, which is why the agreement with Iran is so perplexing to the critics. It could signal a major shift in Argentina’s foreign policy with consequences that go beyond a specific court investigation.
Even with the ink of the signatures still fresh on the memorandum of understanding, Iran’s propaganda machine is insisting that the AMIA attack was really Israel’s doing. Iran is part of a bigger war that is playing out in territories over which the CFK administration has no control.
Argentina really does feel like a more complex place to understand now that this understanding has been signed. But the news out of Buenos Aires this week has also been that the institutions are working and a real Senate hearing took place on Wednesday to openly discuss the consequences of the agreement.
When all is said and done, it’s worth not forgetting that Argentina is still very much the victim in the AMIA story.