(CNSNews.com) – Five years after judicial authorities in Argentina issued arrest warrants for senior Iranians suspected of links to two deadly bombings in Buenos Aires, controversy has erupted over claims that the South American country has quietly offered to drop the case in order to improve economic ties with Tehran.
The allegations are threatening to spark a diplomatic row between Argentina and Israel, which was the main target of the attacks.
Israel’s foreign ministry says it is awaiting official clarification from Argentina, and Israeli media report that the government is considering postponing a scheduled April visit by Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who is at the center of the claims.
A Buenos Aires tabloid newspaper, Perfil, reported at the weekend that Timerman made the offer during a visit to Syria in January. It said he told Syrian President Bashir Assad – a close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – that Argentina would drop its sensitive investigation into the bombings in exchange for better trade ties with Iran.
The Syrians had then passed the offer on to Iran. The paper quoted from a leaked Iranian cable in which Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told Ahmadinejad that “Argentina is no longer interested in solving those two attacks, but in exchange prefers improving its economic relations with Iran.”
Neither the Iranian nor Argentine governments have commented on the claims.
Perfil said the Iranian cable had been leaked by opponents of the Tehran regime, and that it was being studied by the foreign ministries of several unnamed countries.
A total of 114 people were killed and more than 500 injured in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the bombing two years later of the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish community center, in the same city.
The controversy comes just days after Argentina and Israel marked the 19th anniversary of the embassy bombing. At the March 18 event, held at the Buenos Aires square where the embassy once stood, Timerman reiterated that the government was committed to justice in the case.
Senior Iranians implicated
Investigators in 2006 accused Iran of ordering and facilitating the bombing and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of carrying it out.
Lead investigator and special prosecutor Alberto Nisman said in a report at the time that the bombing decision “was made not by a small splinter group of extremely radical Islamic functionaries, but was instead a decision that was extensively discussed and was ultimately adopted by a consensus of the highest representatives of the Iranian government at the time.”
Argentina then issued arrest warrants for one Lebanese national and eight senior Iranians, including a former president, top intelligence figures and diplomats. At its request, Interpol issued “red notices” for six of the nine the following year. They were:
- Ahmad Vahidi, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force at the time of the bombings
- Mohsen Rezai, IRGC commander
- Ali Fallahijan, Iranian intelligence chief
- Mohsen Rabbani and Ahmad Reza Asghari, two officials based at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires at the time
- Hezbollah terrorist chief Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in a bomb blast in Syria in February 2008.
(Argentina also issued warrants for three other Iranians – former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time of the bombing, Hadi Soleimanpour – but Interpol took legal advice and decided against issuing “red notices” for them.)
Iran denied the allegations, dismissing them as part of a “Zionist plot” against the Islamic republic.
In 2007 it warned President Nestor Kirchner – the late husband and predecessor of incumbent President Cristina Kirchner – that if he referred to the matter while addressing the annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York, he would be siding with Iran’s enemies.
Kirchner ignored the warning and did raise the dispute during his speech, drawing fresh criticism from Tehran.
When Ahmadinejad named one of the wanted suspects, Vahidi, as his defense minister in 2009, already strained relations between Buenos Aires and Tehran worsened.
President Cristina Kirchner raised the issue again in her annual speeches at the U.N. September session in 2009 and again last year, urging Iran to extradite the suspects, for trial in a third country if necessary.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group with offices in Buenos Aires, said the allegations raised in the Perfil report contradicted Argentina’s public demands for Iran to cooperate in the investigation by extraditing the suspects.
“The Argentine longstanding commitment to justice regarding the attacks against the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA cannot be subject to bargaining, neither today, nor in the future,” said the center’s director for international relations, Shimon Samuels.
Argentina is home to the largest Jewish community in Latin America, some 185,000-strong. It was also one of nine countries in Latin America to have recognized “Palestine” since last December.