January 27, 2015 | Policy Brief

Lynch and Nisman: Connecting the Dots Between Two Iranian Plots

January 27, 2015 | Policy Brief

Lynch and Nisman: Connecting the Dots Between Two Iranian Plots

The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin confirmation hearings on January 28 for Loretta Lynch, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, to become attorney general of the United States. The hearing represents a critical opportunity to learn the lessons raised by the late Alberto Nisman over Iranian terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.

Lynch’s hearing comes on the heels of Nisman’s suspicious death in his Buenos Aires home. Nisman was the Argentine prosecutor tasked with investigating the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), the Jewish center in the Argentine capital. He and his team meticulously reviewed mountains of documents, wiretap transcripts, and other intelligence material. His investigation concluded that at least seven high-ranking Iranian officials were involved in planning the attack.

Nisman’s evidence led Interpol in 2007 to issue red notices for five Iranian officials, while Argentina issued arrest warrants for Iran’s then-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati. The red notices and arrest warrants remain valid today, and most of the Iranians fingered in the case continue to play roles in Iran’s policymaking.

As U.S. attorney in New York (between 1999 and 2001, and since 2010), Lynch worked with Nisman on the case United States vs. Abdul Kadir as well as in connection with the Argentine attorney’s investigation into the AMIA bombing. Kadir was a parliamentarian from Guyana currently serving a life sentence for his role in plotting a major terrorist attack — blowing up the fuel lines at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport – which one convicted co-defendant described as an attempt “to make the World Trade Center attack seem small.”

Lynch’s office recognized Iranian official Mohsen Rabbani, Iran’s former cultural attaché in Argentina, as Kadir’s Iranian handler.  Nisman also provided evidence this month that Rabbani was conspiring with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to cover up Iran’s role in the AMIA bombing with a goal of increasing Argentina’s trade – and perhaps other ties – with Iran.

When Lynch comes before the Judiciary Committee this week, members of Congress should ask her to describe the help Nisman provided her office to further U.S. national security interests.  They should know what she knows about Rabbani’s activities in the Western Hemisphere and what the Department of Justice can do to ensure we heed the important lessons from Nisman’s reports.  

Further, the committee should ask how we can assist Interpol locate Rabbani, and whether – given his role in spreading Iran’s illicit activities in the hemisphere – his activities are being monitored today. If confirmed, would Lynch offer Interpol the help of the Department of Justice to finally bring Rabbani and the other Iranian targets of AMIA-linked red notices to answer the questions Nisman has raised? Naturally, the committee should ask what steps Lynch would be prepared to take to ensure a fair and transparent investigation into Nisman’s tragic death. 

Nisman’s most recent report (which he was due to present to the country’s congress hours after his body was discovered) provides evidence of another Iranian official – Ali Akbar Salehi – who was part of alleged back-channel discussions to erase Iran’s role in the AMIA plot in exchange for an “oil-for-grain” deal.  Salehi, a nuclear scientist who heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, spent six months in Argentina in the 1980s heading a group of Iranian nuclear scientists who were receiving training at Argentine nuclear plants. At the time, Iran and Argentina enjoyed a robust nuclear relationship, and in 1987 Argentina even helped upgrade Iran’s nuclear research reactor in Tehran. Why, it must be asked, would a nuclear scientist play such a key role in this back-channel if the goal of strengthening ties centered on oil and grain?

Iran has a history of mendacity and sanctions-busting schemes including a “gas-for-gold” scheme with Turkey and a still- pending “oil-for-food” scheme with Russia. Two years ago, Argentina launched a global marketing campaign to boost exports of its nuclear industry, which has lain dormant since the 1980s. Was the Argentina-Iran “oil-for-grain” deal actually aimed at using this framework for nuclear and other illicit trade?  Even if troubling information surfaces over Argentina’s illicit nuclear activities with Tehran, will Lynch pursue an impartial and non-politicized investigation?

At their hearing Wednesday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee must ask the above questions explicitly.

Toby Dershowitz is Vice President of Government Relations and Strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.