(CNSNews.com) – Responding to international criticism over the nomination of a wanted terror suspect as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s next defense minister, Iranian lawmakers on Thursday gave him the strongest endorsement out of the 21 cabinet nominees under consideration.
Only three of the 21 nominees – two of them women – were rejected by members of the Majlis, who handed defense minister-nominee Ahmad Vahidi 227 votes out of a possible 286.
Vahidi said afterwards the outcome was a “decisive slap” in Israel’s face.
The new defense minister is one of five Iranians wanted by the government of Argentina in connection with the deadliest terrorist attack in that country’s history – the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
The global policing agency Interpol in 2007 issued “red notices” for Vahidi, the other four Iranians, and a Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist who was later killed. The notices are Interpol’s equivalent of a most-wanted list.
Eighty-five people were killed when a suicide bomber in a truck blew up the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association (AMIA). Argentine investigators accused Hezbollah of perpetrating the attack on Iran’s behalf. Iran has consistently denied the allegations.
Two years earlier, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed, in an attack that killed 29 people. The two events were believed to be linked, and Argentina in 1998 expelled Iranian diplomats in connection with both.
After the newly-reelected Ahmadinejad nominated Vahidi to the post last month, Argentina protested, but Tehran accused it of interfering in its internal affairs under the influence of “Zionists.”
In Buenos Aires, local media quoted the head of the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA), Aldo Donzis, as saying Vahidi’s endorsement showed that Iran’s parliament is “in line with President Ahmadinejad, against Israel.”
For the Obama administration the Iranian move was the latest in a string of provocations, and comes just weeks before a U.S. deadline to cooperate on the nuclear issue or face tougher sanctions.
The administration’s assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Philip Crowley, said Thursday the parliamentary endorsement of Vahidi was “disturbing” and “precisely the wrong message” for the Iranians to send.
“We’ve been hoping that they would be willing to engage the United States and the international community to help to move forward, to resolve the questions that we have about their behavior, and including their well-known state sponsorship of terrorism,” he told a briefing.
“Unfortunately, rather than taking a step forward to engage the United States and the international community, Iran today is taking a step backward by putting into a high office a well-known individual suspected of participation in a terrorist act.”
“There can be no clearer signal to the Obama administration that Iran is not interested in peaceful relations or engaging in meaningful discussions related to its pursuit of nuclear weapons or support for terrorism,” Tom Neumann, executive director of the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said earlier.
Iranian media quoted Vahidi as telling lawmakers ahead of their vote that his first priority as defense minister would be to further upgrade Iran’s military capabilities in the face of the growing threats from hostile countries, particularly Israel, “the ugliest regime in the world.”
After winning the endorsement, he said that any country acting against Iran would face “the clenched fist of the Iranian government, nation, and armed forces,” the official news agency IRNA reported. (The “clenched fist” reference recalled Obama’s offer early this year to engage with Iranian leaders who were willing to “unclench their fist.”)
At the time of the AMIA bombing, Vahidi was commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force. The others accused of involvement included Iran’s then intelligence chief, IRGC commander, and two “diplomats” based at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires. The Lebanese was Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in a bomb blast in Syria in February 2008.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on “responsible nations” to condemn Vahidi’s appointment and to “arrest him under the authority of the Interpol Red Notice the moment he sets foot outside Iran.”
When another one of the wanted Iranians made a high-profile trip to Saudi Arabia for an interreligious event in mid-2008, the Argentine government drew Interpol’s attention to his presence there.
But an Interpol spokesman said 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.
“Each Interpol member country operates under its own national laws as each member country is a sovereign state,” he said.
The suspect left Saudi Arabia and returned home safely.
Other cabinet picks
The new cabinet makeup signals further domination by the IRGC, an institution which the Bush administration targeted for sanctions in 2007 for support of terrorism and proliferation activities. Ahmadinejad himself is a former
A number of top ministers have IRGC backgrounds, the exiled opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) noted Thursday.
They include defense minister Vahidi, intelligence minister Heidar Moslehi, interior minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, communications minister Reza Taqi-pour and oil minister Masoud Mir-Kazemi.
Another controversial cabinet member is Najjar, the interior minister, who was defense minister in Ahmadinejad’s first term. He headed an IGRC force in Lebanon in 1983, when terrorists bombed the U.S Embassy and barracks of the U.S. Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut. At the time, the IRGC was helped to establish Hizballah, the Shi’ite group which the U.S. holds responsible for the bombings.
The only woman endorsed – out of three nominated – is new health minister Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi.