(CNSNews.com) – Allegations of involvement in a terrorist attack 17 years ago caught up with Iran’s defense minister on Tuesday, when the government of Bolivia expelled him to calm a diplomatic row with Argentina, the country where the attack took place.
Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca apologized to his Argentine counterpart Hector Timerman over the visit by Ahmad Vahidi, who arrived Tuesday morning for what was to have been a two-day trip.
In a letter, which Timerman made public, Choquehuanca expressed regret and said Vahidi would leave Bolivian territory immediately. He said the defense ministry had not known the background of the case and had not coordinated its invitation to Vahidi with other government agencies.
Vahidi is one of eight senior Iranians accused by prosecutors in Argentina of involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people were killed in the suicide truck bombing, Argentina’s deadliest terror attack ever.
Investigators accused Iran of ordering and facilitating the bombing and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, of carrying it out. Iran was also implicated in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier, an attack that cost 29 lives.
Iran has consistently denied any involvement in the bombings.
Argentina in 2006 issued arrest warrants for a Lebanese – Hezbollah terrorist chief Imad Mughniyah – and eight senior Iranians, including former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and intelligence officials including Vahidi, who at the time headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force.
At Argentina’s request, Interpol in 2007 issued “red notices” for six of the nine, including Vahidi and Mughniyah (citing legal advice, Interpol decided against issuing notices for Rafsanjani, Velayati and Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time of the bombing, Hadi Soleimanpour.)
Red notice designation is Interpol’s equivalent of a most-wanted list.
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nominated Vahidi as his second-term defense minister in 2009, Argentina protested strongly, but Iran dismissed the complaint, accusing Argentina of interfering in its internal affairs, and acting under “Zionist” influence.
Bolivia is a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the left-wing regional bloc initiated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Like Chavez and other ALBA leaders, Bolivian President Evo Morales has established warm ties with Iran, hosting Ahmadinejad in La Paz in 2007 and paying official visits to Tehran in 2008 and again in 2010.
Iran Daily, a paper published by the official IRNA news agency, said ahead of Vahidi’s visit that he would hold talks with senior military and political officials and participate in a ceremony inaugurating a joint ALBA defense academy. It said the visit was the first to Bolivia by an Iranian defense minister since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Bolivia also has good relations with Argentina. Whether the Vahidi visit indeed came as a surprise to the Bolivian government is not clear, but it threatened to become an embarrassment after Jewish communities in Bolivia and Argentina protested.
Alberto Nisman, the Argentinean special prosecutor who led the AMIA bombing investigation, called on Interpol’s office in Bolivia to arrest Vahidi, the Buenos Aires Herald reported early Tuesday.
When another of the Iranian red notice subjects, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, traveled to Saudi Arabia in mid-2008, the Argentine government drew Interpol’s attention to his presence there.
But an Interpol spokesman told CNSNews.com at the time that the organization “cannot demand that any member country arrests the subject of a red notice” and also does not send officers to arrest such people. Rezai attended a religious conference hosted by King Abdullah before returning home.
An Interpol red notice is not an international arrest warrant, but it does draw Interpol member countries’ attention to the fact that an arrest warrant has been issued by a judicial authority.
Interpol says many of its member countries “consider a red notice a valid request for provisional arrest, especially if they are linked to the requesting country via a bilateral extradition treaty.” Both Bolivia and Saudi Arabia are Interpol members, along with most of the world’s nations.
Apart from Vahidi and Rezai, the other Iranians for which Interpol has issued red notices are former Iranian intelligence chief Ali Fallahijan; and two officials based at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires at the time, Mohsen Rabbani and Ahmad Reza Asghari.
Hezbollah’s Mughniyah was killed in a bomb blast in Syria in February 2008.