In Iran, Two Bombing Suspects Run for President

The dark connections between Argentina's government and Tehran.
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Rescue workers search for survivors and victims in the rubble left after a powerful car bomb destroyed the Buenos Aires headquarters of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA), on July 18, 1994 photo. (Reuters)

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.

With the recent death of Hugo Chavez, Argentina's president may believe she can replace the fallen strongman as Iran's top Latin American ally.

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.

Presented by

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

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