May 28, 2013 | The Atlantic

In Iran, Two Bombing Suspects Run for President

After disqualifying a number of presidential candidates from the June 14 elections, Iran's Guardian Council has pared the list down to eight. Remarkably, two of the remaining candidates — Mohsen Rezai and Ali Akbar Velayati — are suspects in the 1994 bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) headquarters in Buenos Aires that killed 85 and wounded 300.

Until recently, this might have been seen as problematic for a presidential candidate. But the Argentine government's May 20 establishment of a joint commission to re-investigate the attack makes it all but certain that the two men (and their accomplices) will be exonerated.

Not surprisingly, the announcement prompted outrage among Jews in Argentina and in the Israeli government, which expressed its ” astonishment.” Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, however, appears unmoved. She seems more interested in the political expediency of improved relations with Iran. In fact, her policy resembles that of her predecessors — Raul Alfonsin and Carlos Menem — whose liaisons with Tehran in the 1980s enabled Iran to put in place the assets responsible for the 1994 bombing of AMIA.

The story begins in the early 1980s when Iran, isolated by Western sanctions, reached out to faraway countries to find allies in its so-called “anti-imperialist struggle.” The 1982 Falklands War provided the perfect opportunity for the Islamic Republic to declare its solidarity with the Argentine military dictatorship.

Apart from its shared antipathy for imperialism, there were other reasons that made Argentina an important partner. For one, there was a large Muslim population in Argentina, and the regime sought to “export the revolution” wherever it could, including South America. Writing in his book Pas az Bohran (After the Crisis), former speaker of parliament, former president, and recent presidential hopeful Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani noted that the first priority was to establish Shi'a mosques in Argentina.

Additionally, Iran had an interest in some of Argentina's exports, particularly in the field of fishery and agricultural products, according to parliamentary records. By 1986, according to a statement by the deputy foreign minister in Ettela'at, Argentina had become the “main provider of wheat” to the Islamic Republic.

But the real prize for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was Argentine arms. According to recently-released journals from the archives of Rafsanjani, Buenos Aires breached the United Nations-imposed arms embargo by sending Iran Argentine arms, and also served as a pass-through for arms from a third country (possibly a reference to Israel and what would become known as the Iran-Contra Affair). An entry dated November 20, 1984 from Rafsanjani's memoirs reveal “progress in arms procurements from Argentina,” which were exported to the Islamic Republic in exchange for oil.

Iran also attempted to revitalize its nuclear program with Argentine assistance. On December 4, 1985, Atomic Energy Organization Director Reza Amrollahi reported to Rafsanjani that he was preparing a memorandum of understanding with Argentina, with Germany's approval, concerning building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. However, according to Rafsanjani's journals, Iran's progress was stymied due to Germany's unwillingness to deliver the components to the Islamic Republic. Argentina had conditioned nuclear cooperation with Iran on Germany's willingness to deliver the hardware.

The Alfonsin and Menem administrations in Argentina may have believed that the matter was closed, but they failed to account for the establishment and expansion of Iranian cells of operatives on Argentine soil by Mohsen Rabbani, the cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires.

The first Iranian strike, the March 17, 1992 suicide attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires , killed 29 and injured approximately 250. The Iran-sponsored attack came in the wake of the Israeli assassination of Hezbollah General Secretary Abbas al-Musawi in February 1992. Tehran's message was twofold: Buenos Aires was within Tehran's reach, and Israeli assets could be targeted anywhere around the world.

Of course, the regime in Tehran never took responsibility for the attack. Parliamentarian Ahmad Habibian accused “global arrogance” of having orchestrated “the recent accident in Argentina” in an attempt to “counter the widespread wave of Islamism in the world,” according to parliamentary records. And while Argentine authorities accused Iran of complicity in the attacks, the speaker of the Majles claimed Argentine authorities were under “American and Zionist pressure” to make such allegations.

On July 18, 1994, Iranian agents carried out yet another attack in Argentina, this time against the AMIA community center in Buenos Aires, which was flattened by a powerful bomb.

Iran, again, denied responsibility, although a subsequent investigation found that Iran and Hezbollah were the culprits. In Argentina, some officials appeared reticent to point the finger at Tehran. Famously, on February 2, 1995, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Argentina said “Argentine terrorists rather than the Islamic Republic were responsible for the [bombing of] the AMIA center in Buenos Aires.” In later Iranian responses to these allegations, parliamentarians referred to those exact words as their first line of defense.

Despite intense Iranian opposition and some domestic interference, Argentine authorities secured six Interpol arrest warrants in 2007 for the AMIA attack. Among those named was Ahmad Vahidi, then head of the extraterritorial operations branch of the Revolutionary Guards, and currently Iranian Defense Minister.

Six years later, none have been brought to justice. The Argentine government's recent establishment of a joint commission to investigate the AMIA attacks – long after those arrest warrants were issued — is a sign the charges will, in all likelihood, be dropped in exchanged for closer Iranian-Argentine ties.

The driving force behind this rapprochement is President Kirchner, who seems to have learned little from the mistakes of her predecessors in office. With the recent death of Hugo Chavez, Kirchner may believe she can replace the fallen Venezuelan strongman as Iran's top Latin American ally. Additionally, Kirchner may think she can jumpstart Argentina's moribund economy by reaching out to Tehran.

It's worth remembering, however, that Argentina under Alfonsin and Menem also prospered from closer ties to Iran, not to mention the positive trade balances with the Islamic Republic in the 1980s and early 1990s. But that wealth came at a price: the expansion of Iranian operatives, which enabled Iran to target Argentina when ties soured.

History appears to be repeating itself now in Argentina. Ties between Iran and Argentina are warming. But what happens if Argentina fails to deliver on future Iranian demands? The joint commission to investigate the 1994 AMIA bombings, and the normalization that will result, may pave the way for new attacks in the future.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.