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Iran opens up... does that affect AMIA case?

Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman talks to his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, at the United Nations headquarters in New York recently.
By Marcelo Falak
Guest columnist

Argentina would benefit if US included the bombing issue in its negotiations with Iran

The new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has taken significant steps in order to regain Western confidence. He has offered fresh dialogue on his country’s nuclear programme during the last United Nations General Assembly and given assurances of its peaceful purposes. He also held a telephone conversation with Barack Obama, president of the arch-rival United States, and sent his Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javar Zarif, to meet the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, something without precedent since 1979.

Another gesture, more important for Argentine interests, was the one-hour-conversation between Zarif and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on the AMIA dispute over the 1994 terrorist bomb destruction of the Jewish community centre. Zarif cleared up any doubts about the bilateral memorandum and said that it was approved by the National Defence Council and, ultimately, by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. All set then for progress in the trial against the Iranians accused of the worst terrorist attack in Argentine history? Not so fast.

In theory, the next step would be a new meeting between both ministers next month in Geneva, where they would exchange the reversal letters to formally put into action the agreement signed last January. If everything goes in the best possible way, they would set up the conformation of the Truth Commission (that unfortunately named non-binding body of jurists designed to read the Argentine accusation and “advise” both countries how to proceed) and naming a date for the testimony of the indicted in Tehran.

But, in practice, many big obstacles remain. First, something curiously ignored by the Argentine government when it complained to Iran is the pending judicial decision about the constitutional status of the Memorandum, which has beenquestioned by local Jewish organizations. Second, the arrest warrant in force in Iran against the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who is meant to travel along with Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral to take the testimony, the essential condition for later holding a trial. Third, the political situation in the Islamic Republic, where the more radical elements of the regime have started a strong campaign against Rouhani’s new ties with the United States (and his possible nuclear concessions). It is interesting to underline that the above offensive is headed by the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), the élite militia led at the time of the AMIA attack by one of the indicted, Mohsen Rezai, one of five officials with an Interpol “red alert” pending who will be questioned by Nisman and Canicoba Corral. A key reason to expect more foot-dragging in the implementation of the memorandum in Tehran?

More than ever, the AMIA case, on whose clarification depends the peace of mind of the loved ones of the 85 victims, is intertwined with the negotiations with Iran over the latter’s nuclear plan on the part of the 5+1 Group (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany). This was the case already last year when the Argentine decision to dialogue with the Islamic Republic prompted the mistrust of much of the international community. For Israel and the United States, especially, that step did not contribute to the “main issue” regarding Iran: its nuclear ambitions.

That viewpoint was selfish and ignored Argentine national interests with regard to the theocracy: the terrorist attacks against the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA building in 1994. Now, in the opinion of some of those countries (and their internal advocates), dialogue with the devil is fine and Argentina is not falling into heresy...

However, the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration’s claims that the G5+1 must embrace the AMIA case as one of its priorities, even as a condition to advance with the nuclear talks, smacks too much of impotence. That goal will not be accomplished through public statements but by means of diplomatic work neglected for a long time in Buenos Aires.

If reality finally matches the best wishes, something far from being easy, the merits and weaknesses of the Argentine judicial investigation will be exposed and the moment of truth will arrive.

Prosecutor Nisman intimately dislikes the Memorandum but he will accept travelling to Iran if he is given assurances that the testimony of the indicted will have the status of an inquiry, the last pending formal condition to allow him to request a trial. And, of course, that he will not end up in an Iranian jail.

Canicoba Corral can also travel if the Supreme Court gives him due authorization and all formal aspects are covered.

Nisman is convinced that the investigation he started in 2005 thanks to late former president Néstor Kirchner’s initiative has already proved several key aspects of the AMIA attack:

First, Iran’s responsibility for having taken the political decision and Hezbollah’s for the operational burden. According to Nisman, all was decided at a high level meeting in Mashad city in 1993 in retaliation for then President Carlos Menem’s “automatic alignment” with the US and his aim to cancel the transfer of bilateral nuclear technology agreed in the times of Raúl Alfonsín. The testimony of one former Iranian intelligence chief taken in Germany, and similar declarations of Iranian rebel groups officers in exile, confirm that evidence, he says. However, critics say that there is no independent confirmation of that.

Second, the action of a suicide terrorist, the Lebanese Hezbollah militant Ibrahim Hussein Berro, and the use of a car-bomb. Nisman argues that a witness, María Nicolasa Romero, saw him seconds before he crashed the Traffic van into the AMIA building. Iran argues that the woman expressed doubts to the press after her judicial statement, something meaningless in legal terms in Nisman’s opinion. Moreover, Berro’s two brothers, who live in the US, told the prosecutor that his corpse was not seen during his funeral in Lebanon, held, according to Hezbollah, after he died in a clash with Israeli soldiers after the AMIA bombing.

Third, the coordination of the plot in Foz de Iguaçu, the Brazilian city in the Triple Border. Iran says that comes only from biased CIA and Mossad information, even when the prosecutor has shown phone-call-crossed data in that connection.

According to Nisman, this last point responds to Iran’s decision to export its revolution to the world and to use terrorist methods — the reason why it set up a network in several Latin American countries.

A former top aide in Brazil’s Federal Prosecutor General’s Office recently expressed to me in Brasilia some doubts about Nisman’s real chances of proving his point: “He is a good prosecutor and is very committed to the AMIA case but he had to deal with a highly politicized issue and some of his accusations are not fully substantiated.”

“Once, Nisman asked us to help him with a suspect in Foz de Iguaçu. He was certain: that man was involved in the attack. We looked for him and discovered that the suspect was only 11 years old at that time,” he added to illustrate the limitations of working with intelligence information. On the contrary, Nisman asserted to me that all the intelligence information he received was “judicially” treated before being considered as a piece of evidence.

If Rouhani retains Khamenei’s support, he would go forward with the nuclear talks, Iran’s real priority in order to gain some relief from the international sanctions, which are devastating the national economy. The AMIA Memorandum will only have a place in his strategy if it proves necessary to achieve that goal.

Timerman should seek US help, through the introduction of the AMIA issue as one more condition presented to Iran in order to normalize its relationship with the international community. Only that would prevent Iran from delaying its obligations in the context of the bilateral January agreement and using the Truth Commission as a way to simply discredit the Argentine investigation.

Without that support, all the effort and political capital the CFK administration invested in the controversial, fragile nine-point Memorandum runs the risk of proving sterile at the end of the road.

* Marcelo Falak is a political scientist and international news editor with the daily Ambito Financiero.

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