The 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Center (AMIA) killing over 100 people in Buenos Aires remain fresh in the minds of Argentineans. This has been true in part because those responsible for the terrorist acts—including a few Iranian government officials—have not yet been brought to justice and the Jewish community, publicly supported by the current and previous Kirchner administrations, has relentlessly sought closure.
More recently, however, there was a media stir instigated by a controversial Perfil news article on March 26 that accused Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman of brokering a secret deal with the Iranians to set aside the embassy and AMIA investigations in favor of increased commercial ties with Iran. Mr. Timerman did not outright deny the accusation, which ruffled feathers at home and in Israel where he was scheduled to visit a few weeks later. Tactful diplomacy and indirect denials during his official visit to Israel in early April helped smooth relations. Moreover, the newspaper did not provide evidence to back its claim and the issue has been publicly dropped. Nonetheless, the recent controversy calls into question the authenticity of the Argentinean government’s public displays of support for the AMIA cause as it more quietly seeks closeness with Iran.
It was announced by local media in April that Argentina will increase its sales of soy oil to Iran in 2011, despite political tensions resulting from Iran´s suspected involvement in the attacks. The sales to Iran will help compensate for the loss in exports to China resulting from a commercial feud in late 2010 and diminished Argentinean exports to India. Iran is Argentina’s principal maize importer and, in 2010, became the second-largest importer of soy products from the South American region.
On April 6, the Brazilian magazine Veja published an article claiming that there are more than 20 terrorists from Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda recruiting, raising funds and planning attacks in Brazil. According to the magazine, the Iranian Mohsen Rabbani, on Interpol´s most wanted list for his participation in the 1994 AMIA attack, visits Brazil occasionally on a false passport.
The chief prosecutor in the AMIA case, Alberto Nisman, is particularly alarmed by the Veja report. In an interview with the most widely read Argentinean daily newspaper, Clarín, Nisman explains that a false passport does not explain how the Brazilian authorities did not recognize Rabbani as his picture is in all the international capture lists put out by Interpol. Nisman was quoted by Clarín as saying ¨the Brazilian authorities could have detained him (Rabbani) if they just took minimum precaution.¨ Rabbani was the mastermind behind the AMIA center attack and, according to Nisman, his logistic coordinator Samuel Salman el Reda, had a safe-house in Sergipe 67, in Foz do Iguaçu. (the Brazilian side of the tri-border area). Nisman labels the situation ¨very serious¨ should the information about Rabbani´s travels to Brazil revealed by Veja be confirmed by his investigation.
The same day as the Veja publication, Rabbani participated in a friendly radio interview with Argentinean protest organizer and long-time Kirchner supporter, Luis D´elía. During their conversation, Rabbani denied traveling to Brazil on a false passport and claimed that he has been teaching in Iran since leaving his post as Cultural Attaché in the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1997. He also said he will not subject himself to the Argentinean justice system, calling the accusations against him ¨smoke curtains¨ for their lack of evidence. Rabbani argued, “Iran is guilty because it’s against Zionism, against racism and against the United States.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an international Jewish human rights organization, expressed alarm at the information published by Veja and immediately sent a letter to the Brazilian Foreign Minister, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, requesting a response to the article’s allegations and urging the government “to investigate the scope of the terror network and to move promptly to dismantle it.” Sergio Widder, the Wiesenthal Center´s Director for Latin America, quoted Brazil’s State Attorney, Alexander Camanho de Assis, who has warned that “there is a new generation of Islamist extremists in our country. It is imperative to confront this threat without delay.” As of April 25, the Center has not received any response from the government.
In March 2011, the Argentinean government officially recognized the Palestinian state as defined in 1967, before the Six Day War. This new policy shift together with the accusations of collusion with Iran raise doubts regarding the Argentinean government’s commitment to the anti-terrorism causes held up the Jewish community. Heralded as a leader of counter-terrorism in the Latin American region since the 1990s, the Argentinean government is now flirting with dictatorial, terrorist-harboring regimes like Iran. Yet Argentina is not alone as other South American countries, including Brazil, have also softened their stance toward Middle East dictators and have publicly supported the Palestinian cause.
It is clear that South American governments are more willing to do business and form strategic alliances with Middle Eastern governments. The question remains how this will affect international terrorism efforts within the region.
*Janie Hulse Najenson is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is an analyst based in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the editor and producer of Insights from the Field, a quarterly publication promoting perspectives from within Latin America on politico-economic and security issues affecting the region.