March 3, 2013
Argentina has just approved a memorandum of understanding with Iran to jointly investigate the 1994 terrorist bombing of the AMIA, or Jewish federation, building in Buenos Aires. The blast killed 85 people and wounded 300.
There's only one problem with the agreement -- it's alleged that the current Iranian regime, plus its proxy, Hezbollah, was responsible for the attack. That's not speculation, but the conclusion, reached years ago, by the Argentine government!
To further underscore the absurdity of this initiative, one of the individuals named by Argentina in the AMIA case -- and, since 2007, the target of an INTERPOL "red notice," meaning Argentina seeks his arrest and extradition -- is, in fact, the current Iranian minister of defense. Is Iran about to hand him over to Argentina as a defendant in any trial? Yeah, right!
This whole episode would make for gut-splitting political satire were the stakes not so high.
After all, what took place in 1994 was the single deadliest terrorist assault in Latin America, and it followed on the heels of an earlier attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people.
For years, I heard with my own ears one Argentine government after another promising to get to the bottom of the case, but, fueled by heavy doses of incompetence, hesitation, and corruption, no investigation ever got very far.
Meanwhile, families of the victims struggled to come to grips with the absence of justice, while many feared a third attack on a country that just couldn't quite summon the resolve to pursue the perpetrators.
But then things began to change.
President Néstor Kirchner, the current leader's late husband, came to the 2004 AJC Global Forum in Washington. He said, for the world to hear, that the unresolved investigation was a "national disgrace" and justice would no longer be delayed.
A determined special prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, was appointed in 2005 and given the mandate to go wherever the evidence took him, be it the tri-border area with Brazil and Paraguay, the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Damascus, or Tehran.
And that resulted in a report that named five Iranians and one Hezbollah operative as linked to the attack, prompting a request for INTERPOL cooperation. Iran fought the move tooth-and-nail, using, above all, its time-tested diplomatic tools of bribery and blackmail. But at the showdown vote during the INTERPOL meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, Argentina prevailed.
When Cristina Kirchner took office in December 2007, succeeding her husband, the momentum initially continued. She had previously spoken out strongly on the case as an Argentine senator, including at the AJC Global Forum in Washington months before her election. She noted the double indignity it had brought to her country -- a deadly attack against Argentina and pitifully little to show from years of investigation.
So, why this new turn of events by the very same leader, aided by her foreign minister, Hector Timerman? Why are they so determined to proceed with the memorandum of understanding, even in the face of a torrent of criticism from within the country, including from many civic groups, media outlets, and political parties (the accord was narrowly endorsed in the Argentine Senate and Chamber of Deputies by votes of 39-31 and 131-113, respectively), and abroad?
However they choose to cloak it, the most likely answer appears to be a desire to "repair" bilateral relations with Iran. Finding a formula to bring "closure" to the AMIA case would "normalize" the link, in turn yielding tangible political and economic benefits to Argentina.
Otherwise, they fear, this issue could drag on for many more years, with Argentina continuing to cut itself off from an Iran hungry to break out of the isolation the U.S. and Europe are seeking to impose -- and to which Buenos Aires temperamentally is not nearly as committed.
Also striking has been the Kirchner administration's thin skin since the deal was first announced.
It has lashed out at its critics, even reportedly threatening to complicate life for AMIA if its leadership continues to protest the devilish deal with Iran.
But, after all, Argentina is a democracy, and those who disagree are exercising their right to speak out.
Moreover, AMIA's current leaders, some of whom were in the building on that fateful day in 1994, are still grappling with the trauma of what occurred nearly 19 years ago. They have had to bury their colleagues and friends, console the survivors, and constantly worry about the state of security. If they cannot express themselves about this particular Argentine-Iranian accord without fear of intimidation or retaliation, then who exactly is entitled to do so?
Every friend of Argentina, of democracy, and of justice should stand with those Argentines, Jews and non-Jews alike, who oppose a shameful pact with Iran that, yes, has echoes of the naiveté, self-delusion, and appeasement of the past.
Today, I cry for you, Argentina.