The Argentine government reacted with anger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s decision to name as defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, one of five Iranians wanted in connection with the deadliest terrorist bombing in Argentina’s history.
Interpol in 2007 issued “red notices” for five Iranians, including Vahidi, as well as a Hezbollah terrorist who was later killed, after a special prosecutor named them as suspects in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
Eighty-five people were killed and hundreds injured in the suicide truck bombing of the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association (AMIA), which the prosecutor said was carried out by Hezbollah at Iran’s behest. Iran has long denied the allegations.
At the time of the bombing, Vahidi was commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ notorious Qods Force, tasked with carrying out operations abroad. (The U.S. and Britain accuse the Qods Force of facilitating violence by Shi’ite militias against coalition forces in Iraq, particularly by providing lethal roadside bombs.)
Ahmadinejad, who was controversially re-elected last June, has sent parliament a list of 21 proposed cabinet ministers including Vahidi. Lawmakers will vote on the nominees on September 1.
Argentina’s foreign office called the nomination of Vahidi an affront to the victims of the AMIA bombing and to Argentine justice, and said it “harshly” condemned the move. The country’s Jewish community also decried the decision.
A spokesman for Ahmadinejad called criticism of the nomination “a Zionist plot,” and foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi on Sunday accused Argentina of interfering in Iran’s internal affairs.
“We advise [Argentine officials] to search for the real perpetrators of this terrorist act,” he said, adding that the country’s judicial system had been unable to provide a shred of hard evidence implicating any Iranian.
“It is an insult to the intelligence of the Argentinean people that their judicial system pursues judicial cases in line with interests of the Zionists,” Iran’s Press TV quoted Qashqavi as saying.
Reaction also came from the Israeli government, whose embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed two years before the AMIA attack, in a blast that killed 29 people including children and Israeli diplomats. The two bombings were widely believed to be linked, and Argentina in 1998 expelled Iranian diplomats in connection with both attacks.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the weekend Vahidi’s nomination “proves once again the nature of the regime in Iran and its leader’s intentions.”
“The entire world should study this case thoroughly and examine the intentions of the Iranian administration and its leader, who appoints a terrorist as a defense minister in its government,” Barak’s ministry said in a statement.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called reports of the nomination “disturbing” but said he would withhold further comment for now, noting the appointment depends on parliamentary approval.
But a top Iranian lawmaker indicated that, if anything, the row over Vahidi’s nomination would make it more likely the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, would endorse it.
Accusations of Vahidi’s links to the bombing “will not have any negative impact on the assessment [of parliament] … rather, it may increase his vote,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi told the official IRNA news agency.
Boroujerdi, who chairs the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said Vahidi was a good choice for defense minister, noting he had been an “active commander” during Iran’s 1980-1988 war against Iraq.
Iranian media reports suggest that the only element in Ahmadinejad’s list that is causing controversy at home is the inclusion of three women in the cabinet.
‘Highest representatives of government’ implicated
The other Iranians wanted by Argentina and the subject of Interpol red notices are former intelligence chief Ali Fallahijan; former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) leader Mohsen Rezai, who ran unsuccessfully in the presidential election in June; and “diplomats” based at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires in the 1980s, Mohsen Rabbani and Ahmad Reza Asghari.
The Lebanese suspect was Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyah, who was also on the FBI’s most-wanted list for hijacking a TWA plane in 1985. He was killed in a bomb blast in Damascus in February 2008.
The AMIA bombing has long impacted relations between Argentina and Iran.
After years of inaction, allegations of incompetence and cover-ups and bungled inquiries under previous governments, then President Nestor Kirchner pledged on taking office in 2003 to get to the bottom of the affair.
He appointed a special prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who after in-depth investigations announced in 2006 that Iran had masterminded the AMIA bombing and tasked Hezbollah – a Lebanese-based Shi’ite group set up and armed by Iran – to carry it out.
Nisman then named and issued arrest warrants for nine suspects, including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time of the bombing, Hadi Soleimanpour.
In a lengthy report, Nisman said 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.”
Nisman said the plotters had taken the decision to attack at a meeting in the Iranian city of Mashad on Aug. 14 1993.
His report said Tehran used Hezbollah, a group that had “evolved into a fundamental instrument for the realization of the Iranian foreign policy objectives.” The suicide bomber was identified as a Lebanese Hezbollah member.
Argentina asked Interpol to issue red notices for the nine suspects. On the advice of the organization’s legal affairs office, its executive committee in 2007 withdrew warrants against Rafsanjani, Velayati and Soleimanpour, but upheld the others.
Later that year, Tehran declared that Argentina would be siding with Iran’s enemies if Kirchner mentioned the dispute when addressing the annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York. Kirchner ignored the warning and did raise the issue at the U.N., criticizing Iran for not cooperating with the AMIA investigation.
(Ahmadinejad and current Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner – Kirchner’s wife – are both scheduled to attend this year’s U.N. session next month.)
When one of the wanted Iranians, Rezai, visited Saudi Arabia in mid-2008, the Argentine government drew Interpol’s attention to his presence there.
But an Interpol spokesman told Cybercast News Service 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 left Saudi Arabia and returned home.
An red notice is not an international arrest warrant, but informs Interpol member countries that an arrest warrant has been issued by a judicial authority. It is Interpol’s equivalent of a most-wanted list, and the organization 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.”
Saudi Arabia is one of Interpol’s 186 member countries.