25 Years of Iran, Argentina, and Terrorism
Next month will mark the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires, which took the lives of 85 people and injured more than 300. The attack on the social services hub of the Argentine Jewish community remains the largest terrorist attack in Latin America. To this day, justice has not been served to the victims and their families.
For three years after the attack, the judge heading the inquiry produced 22 arrests — mostly Buenos Aires provincial policemen — and a trial that, in the end, amounted to nothing more than a diversionary wild goose chase. A representative of our organization attended every day of the nearly three-year trial.
The stench of a cover-up hovered over those proceedings. Not guilty verdicts were handed down for those brought to trial, and the judge was later impeached for attempting to bribe a witness to give testimony incriminating police officers and for his general mishandling of the case. He was summarily removed from his post.
What did come out of the scrutiny of the attack was the unmistakable hand of the Iranian regime. At first, it was studied speculation, but by 2006, two prosecutors in the case officially fingered Tehran. Operatives connected to the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires were identified, but at that point, they all had made their way out of the country.
The case was turned over to two new prosecutors, Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martínez Burgos, who in 2007 brought the matter to Interpol. They had requested that “red notices,” or arrest warrants, be issued for nine suspects, including former Iranian president Ali Rafsanjani, former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and former Iranian ambassador to Argentina Hadi Soleimanpour. Interpol’s executive committee let those three officials off the hook, choosing instead to issue notices for the other six suspects.
Years passed, but Nisman, now working alone, pressed ahead. In 2015, he was ready to release evidence that a deal had been negotiated at the highest levels of the two governments, which would see Tehran deliver oil to Argentina in exchange for food, weapons, and a pledge to convince Interpol to drop the red notices on the terrorist suspects.
On the eve of this information being shared in the Argentine Congress, Nisman was found dead in what the authorities called a suicide. Doubt immediately surfaced, given the nature of the charges Nisman was about to bring. Subsequently, the mysterious circumstances of Nisman’s death have become clarified, and evidence points to him having been murdered.
The AMIA case is only one in a litany of terrorist acts carried out on foreign soil by the Iranian regime.
In 1992, foreshadowing the attack on the AMIA building two years later, a suicide bomber attacked the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and injuring 242. Responsibility was claimed by the Islamic Jihad organization, a group believed to have ties to Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
Also that year, three Iranian opposition leaders and their translator were killed at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. The verdict in that case pointed to Iran’s highest officials — as in the case in the AMIA bombing — having signed off on the attack. In 1996, in an attack on the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, a truck bomb killed 19 American soldiers and a Saudi citizen, and nearly 500 people were injured. While credit was not claimed, it is widely believed that Hezbollah was behind the attack.
Iran’s malign behavior operates on three fronts: its pursuit of nuclear weapons; its support for and use of terrorist proxies in the Middle East and beyond; and its serial abuse of human rights of women, adherents of the Baha’i faith, political dissenters, juvenile offenders, and the LGBTQ community.
The Trump administration has rightly pointed to serious omissions in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement meant to curb Iran’s nuclear program. But in bringing Iran to the table, the international community made a monumental error in judgment in not opening talks at the same time on the other two legs of Tehran’s destructive behavior. Had it done so, we might well have been able to shine a conclusive light on the activities of its agents in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994.
Today, at the site of the AMIA bombing, there is a stunning memorial to those killed on that day 25 years ago, created by the Israeli artist Yaakov Agam. Perhaps more touching are the names of the victims listed at the site: professionals of Jewish organizations, office workers, and people from the community who had come to seek assistance for one or another personal or family matter. A van packed with 600 pounds of explosives put an end to all of that, in seconds.
The Iranians are still at it. They’ve provided Hezbollah with more than 100,000 rockets, and Hamas with many thousands. They work with the likes of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, and with North Korea. They have taken over Lebanon, have ensconced themselves in Syria, and are meddling in Iraq, Yemen, and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tehran has used the JCPOA as cover for its other nefarious activities. It has enjoyed impunity for far too long. Its decades-long record of promoting terrorism to advance its hegemonic objectives demands accountability and international opprobrium. That the European Union could not agree on designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization (it ultimately created the fiction of military and political “wings” of the organization so it could have it both ways) speaks to the failure of international will to confront the Iranian menace.
In the meantime, a quarter century has passed without the perpetrators of the AMIA bombing and their sponsor being brought to account. For the sake of the victims and their families, is it too much to ask that justice be served? If we are to turn the tide on state sponsored terrorism, let it begin here — before the dust collects on memory while those who were responsible remain free.
Martin Oliner is the executive vice president and CEO of B’nai B’rith International. As the organization’s top executive officer, he directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities, and staff around the world.