(CNSNews.com) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s latest Latin American visit, and the emerging election campaign at home to succeed him as president next year, are both drawing fresh attention to an 18-year-long campaign for justice to be done in a deadly terror attack in Argentina.
Ahmadinejad arrived Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro for the U.N. sustainability conference known as Rio+20. He flew to Brazil from Bolivia, and he will visit Venezuela after the conference, for what will be his tenth meeting with close ally Hugo Chavez.
Ahead of his Rio+10 visit, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a Jewish human rights group, urged the Brazilian justice minister to ensure that the Iranian delegation does not include any of eight senior Iranians wanted by Argentina in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires – and if it does, to detain and hand over the suspect or suspects to neighboring Argentina.
Argentine prosecutors accuse Iran of ordering and facilitating the suicide truck bombing of the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association (AMIA) building, and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, of carrying it out. Eighty-five people were killed and more than 300 injured. Tehran has long denied the allegations, and blaming “international Zionism and its Argentine agents” for the bombing.
In 2007 Interpol issued “red notices” for five of the eight Iranians, as well as for Lebanese Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in a 2005 bomb blast in Syria.
Five years later, all five Iranians remain at large and – in some cases – are prominent members of their country’s political establishment.
Ahmadinejad appointed one of them, Ahmad Vahidi, defense minister in 2009, a move that infuriated Argentina. At the time of the bombing, Vahidi was leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Qods Force.
Another of the five, Mohsen Rabbani, has the title “hojjatoleslam” – a clerical rank below that of ayatollah – and currently heads the Oriental Thought Cultural Institute in the Shi’ite holy city of Qom. Rabbani was “cultural attache” at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires in 1994.
A third, Ali Fallahian is a “hojjatoleslam” and a member of the Assembly of Experts, a top body of religious scholars. He is quoted periodically in Iranian media, commenting on current affairs. Fallahian was Iran’s intelligence chief when AMIA was bombed.
It’s not clear what the fourth of the five wanted men, Ahmad Reza Asghari, is doing now, although a decade ago he was reportedly attached to the foreign ministry. Asghari was third secretary at the embassy in Buenos Aires in 1994.
The fifth man for whom Interpol issued a red notice, Mohsen Rezai, is secretary of the Expediency Council, a powerful body that advises supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Rezai, who was IRGC commander for 16 years, a period that included the Argentina attack, announced recently that he will run for president in elections in mid-2013, when Ahmadinejad’s second and final term ends.
It will be Rezai’s third attempt. He ran briefly in 2005 but dropped out to make way for Ahmadinejad. He was a candidate again in 2009, when he took distant third place behind Ahmadinejad and reformist Mir Houssein Mousavi, in a hotly-disputed election that triggered serious violence.
“My presence in the next presidential election is definitive and I will participate to win,” the Iranian Labor News Agency quoted Rezai as telling a meeting in Tehran.
Other expected candidates include parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and Tehran mayor, Mohammad Baqer-Qalibaf. A reformist figure, Ashraf Boroujerdi, said this week the reformist camp – which was severely repressed after the 2009 election – has no plan at this stage to compete.
Iranian presidential candidates have to be approved by the Guardian Council, a legal-religious body appointed by Khamenei, which typically disqualifies the vast majority of hopefuls (In 2005, it allowed just six of 1,014 prospective candidates to run, and in 2009, only four candidates out of 476 were approved.)
After his long and public spat with Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader is likely to be even more demanding this time around. Ilan Berman, editor of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Iran Democracy Monitor, wrote this week Rezai “might fare better” in the 2013 contest than in his previous attempt, given his position as Expediency Council chairman – a position appointed directly by Khamenei.
“The fact that he can run again for president is further evidence that Iran is a sponsor of international terrorism, rewarding terrorists rather than complying with international law and Iran’s obligations to Interpol by delivering Rezai and his accomplices to justice,” Sergio Widder, SWC’s director for Latin America, said in response to queries Thursday.
‘Tracking international fugitives’
An elected head of government being the subject of an Interpol “red notice” would be unprecedented. In fact, when Interpol’s executive committee agreed at a March 2007 meeting to Argentina’s request to issue red notices for the five Iranians, on legal advice it decided not to do so in the case of the other three wanted by Argentina – former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time of the bombing, Hadi Soleimanpour. It did so because the three were thought to have the strongest bases for immunity. (The three remain wanted by Argentina.)
An Interpol spokesman confirmed this week that the red notice for Rezai remains in force.
A red notice is not an international arrest warrant, but informs Interpol’s 190 member countries that an arrest warrant has been issued by a judicial authority and “seeks the location, the apprehension and the provisional arrest of a wanted person.”
It is Interpol’s equivalent of a most-wanted list, described by the agency as one of its “most powerful tools in tracking international fugitives.”
Nonetheless, some of the wanted Iranians have been able to travel with impunity.
Rezai visited Saudi Arabia in mid-2008 to attend a religious conference hosted by King Abdullah. Although the Argentine government drew attention to his presence there, the Saudis took no action against him.
Vahidi visited Bolivia in May 2011 in his capacity as defense minister, triggering a diplomatic row between Bolivia and Argentina.
Although Bolivia has warm ties with Iran – Ahmadinejad in a speech alongside Bolivian President Evo Morales on Wednesday railed against “colonial exploitation” and “greedy governments” – it expelled Vahidi to appease Argentina. It did not, however, detain the wanted Iranian.
Both Saudi Arabia and Bolivia are members of Interpol.
In his call on Brazil to detain any fugitive among the Iranian Rio+20 delegation, SWC director for international relations Shimon Samuels said that through their inaction, Saudi Arabia and Bolivia “have betrayed their obligations as States-Parties of INTERPOL and, thereby, offend the memory of the victims while encouraging further terrorism in the Americas.”