(CNSNews.com) – President Obama said in Buenos Aires Wednesday that the United States has offered whatever help it can give to hold accountable those responsible for the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in the city.
Argentinian investigators have blamed senior figures in the Iranian regime for the attack, the worst in the country’s history.
At a press conference with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, Obama said he would shortly pay a visit to “the moving memorial to the horrific bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center almost 22 years ago.”
“I told President Macri that the United States offers whatever help we can to finally hold these attackers accountable,” he said, expressing the same sentiment with regard to those responsible for Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Brussels.
In expressing both nations’ solidarity with the people of Belgium, Obama said the people of the U.S. and Argentina “understand the pain they feel viscerally because our countries, as well, have known the scourge of terrorism, and we’ve seen our own citizens impacted by this kind of senseless, vicious violence.”
“The world has to be united against terrorism,” Obama said. “And we can – and we will – defeat those who threaten the safety and security not only of our own people but of people all around the world. So that’s a top priority of ours, and I know that President Macri shares those beliefs.”
While the Sunni jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) has claimed responsibility for the attack in Brussels, which cost 31 lives, the 1994 suicide truck bombing of the AMIA (Argentine-Israel Mutual Association) center in Buenos Aires has been linked to Shi’ite terrorism – specifically to Lebanese Hezbollah and its Iranian patron.
In his brief words on the AMIA attack Obama did not mention Iran. His pledge to Macri comes at a time when he has voiced the hope that the nuclear deal concluded with Tehran may lead to broader diplomatic openings with the Islamic republic.
Although the U.S. and Iranian governments “continue to have serious disagreements,” he said in a Persian new year message at the weekend, “the fact that we are now talking to each other on a regular basis, for the first time in decades, gives us an opportunity, a window, to resolve other issues.”
Eighty-five people were killed in the AMIA bombing, which came two years after a similar attack – also involving an explosives-laden truck driven by a suicide bomber – on the Israeli Embassy in the city left 29 people dead.
After years of inconclusive inquiries and alleged cover-ups under previous governments, President Nestor Kirchner on taking office in 2003 pledged to get to the bottom of the bombing conspiracy.
He appointed a special prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who after in-depth investigations determined that Iran had masterminded the AMIA bombing and tasked Hezbollah to carry it out.
In 2007, Argentina asked Interpol to issue “red notices” – a rough equivalent of an international arrest warrant – for eight senior Iranian officials and a top Hezbollah terrorist suspected of involvement.
Interpol complied with the request in the cases of the Lebanese suspect and five of the Iranians. The Lebanese man, Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyah, was killed in a bomb blast in Damascus in 2008.
The Iranians were Ahmed Vahidi, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force at the time (and later defense minister in the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government); Ali Fallahijan, Iran’s intelligence chief at the time of the bombing; Mohsen Rezai, IRGC commander at the time, and now secretary of an advisory council to Iran’s supreme leader; and two officials based at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires at the time of the bombing, Mohsen Rabbani and Ahmad Reza Asghari.
The other three wanted Iranians, for whom Interpol decided not to issue red notices, were Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s president at the time of the bombing; then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time, Hadi Soleimanpour.
Iran refused to comply with the red notices and denied the claims, which some of those named dismissed as a Jewish conspiracy.
Claims of cover up, murder
Then in early 2013 President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Nestor Kirchner’s widow) reached a controversial agreement with Iran to establish a joint “truth commission” to investigate the AMIA bombing.
Jewish organizations in Argentina, including AMIA, opposed the agreement, fearing it would jeopardize the investigation and let the suspects off the hook. The U.S. State Department also expressed skepticism that the arrangement would see the perpetrators brought to justice.
Nisman, the chief AMIA investigator, also opposed the “truth commission” deal and in 2014 an Argentine court ruled it unconstitutional. The Fernandez government said it would appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile Nisman’s investigations revealed allegations of widespread illicit Iranian activity in Argentina and Latin America, including intelligence gathering and support for terror activities.
In January last year, a new scandal erupted when Nisman alleged that Fernandez and other officials were trying to shield the Iranian terror suspects in exchange for improved trade ties.
Fernandez denied the allegations. Four days later – one day before Nisman was due to testify before Argentina’s Congress about the allegations – his body was found in his apartment with a gunshot wound to the head. His mysterious death sparked large street protests and an investigation that is still underway.
On taking office late last year, Macri dropped his predecessor’s appeal against the court ruling that the agreement with Iran was unconstitutional. He also established a special unit within the Justice Ministry to investigate the AMIA bombing.
Early this month, a former Argentine intelligence operations chief Antonio Stiuso testified that Nisman had been killed by a group with ties to Fernandez, because he refused to drop the investigation. After Stiuso’s testimony the presiding judge ruled that the case be moved to a higher court.
Macri told a gathering of Jewish leaders in Buenos Aires last week that his government was serious about getting to the bottom of the affair.
“We suffer the ravaging consequences of two bomb attacks,” he told the World Jewish Congress audience. “We are fully committed to contribute in any way we can to make headway with this investigation.”