By Hamdan Al-Shehri
May 20, 2021
In January 2015, Alberto Nisman, Argentina’s public prosecutor, was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head at his home in Buenos Aires. The discovery of the body came hours before Nisman was due to outline allegations against a former president of concealing Iran’s involvement in two deadly terrorist attacks on Argentinian soil.
Nisman had accused Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of covering up Tehran’s role to preserve the relationship between the countries. The public prosecutor had previously suggested the attack was likely related to a decision to halt Argentina’s cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program.
The circumstances of Nisman’s death have never been explained. A new report by the Arab News Research and Studies unit, the third of its “Iran in Latin America” series, examines the steady decline of the Iran-Argentina relationship — and its possible resuscitation.
After a period of nuclear cooperation that began in the mid-1980s, relations were set back by the bombings in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s during the era of President Carlos Menem, who was in power from 1989 to 1999.
Those bombings, the first of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the second that of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in 1994, destroyed what had previously been a close and mutually beneficial relationship between two medium-sized powers.
To understand how these events developed and the effect they had on the nature of bilateral relations, it is necessary to analyze the historical context and the role of the main party involved in the implementation of these terrorist operations.
Iran has supported Hezbollah since the movement was established in Lebanon in 1985, and has worked to expand its network across five continents.
Hezbollah began its operations in Latin America in the early 1990s, using the region’s lucrative illegal economy as a basis to launch terrorist attacks. In particular, it has been able to exploit lawlessness in the Tri-Border Area where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge.
The area has a substantial Muslim population that Hezbollah has exploited directly or which its agents have used as cover. Brazil and Argentina are home to an estimated 5 million people of Arab descent, including prominent personalities such as Carlos Menem himself.
In Argentina, Hezbollah identified two Israeli/Jewish locations as targets. The first attack, on March 17, 1992, was against the Israeli embassy, which was hit with a car bomb that killed 29 people and injured hundreds.
On July 8, 1994, a second bomb exploded at the AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 85 people and wounded hundreds.
Many sources identify the regime in Tehran as the main suspect behind both attacks. This includes the US authorities who have for years shared suspicions about the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran.
Religious organizations affiliated with Hezbollah in Argentina — namely the Islamic Jihad Association and the Islamic Society in Argentina — claimed responsibility for the embassy attack, saying it was in response to the assassination of former Hezbollah leader Abbas Al-Musawi and members of his family by Israel in February 1992.
There is evidence that suggests Iran and Syria were involved as well. According to testimony from Abu Al-Qasim Mesbahi, an Iranian defector who worked for the country’s intelligence service, the idea of carrying out an attack in Argentina was a fundamental part of Tehran’s plans to export the Iranian revolution to other countries.
Mesbahi said the AMIA attack was planned during a meeting in Mashhad, Iran, in August 1993, which senior Iranian officials attended, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; President Hashemi Rafsanjani; Intelligence Minister Ali Fuleihan; Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; and Mohsen Rabbani, who was later appointed cultural attache at the Iranian embassy in Argentina.
In 2004, while Nestor Kirchner was president, Argentine authorities appointed Nisman as a special prosecutor to investigate the AMIA bombing, including the role of Iran. He partially succeeded. In 2007 relations between Argentina and Iran deteriorated when Argentine authorities obtained arrest warrants from Interpol for five Iranians suspected of involvement in the attack.
Although Kirchner sought justice in the case while he was in office, the investigation was neglected for a number of years after he stepped down in 2007, and in particular, while his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was president from 2007 to 2015.
The Argentine Congress has for years passed resolutions calling for justice for the victims of the AMIA bombing and demanded that Iran be held accountable. When President Mauricio Macri was in power, from 2015 to 2019, the government restored what had become a hardline policy on Iran. Last year, Argentina’s current president, Alberto Fernandez, told Jewish leaders he wanted to bring a decades-long court case that followed the attack to a conclusion.
Resolution of the case has been complicated, however, by allegations of corruption and by Nisman’s alleged assassination.
Nuclear cooperation had long been the basis of the relationship between Argentina and Iran. Argentina’s nuclear ambitions evolved from unilateral activities in the 1970s and 1980s into bilateral and multilateral commitments in the 1990s and beyond. Even before it became the first country in Latin America to use nuclear energy, in 1974, it defended the right of nations to use nuclear development as a tool for peace.
Argentina’s efforts to advance its own nuclear research and development included establishing cooperation agreements and mechanisms with a number of countries, including Brazil, Australia and the Caribbean nations.
International cooperation also included joint projects with Iran in the 1980s. In 1967 the US had supplied Iran with a nuclear research reactor which was built in Tehran. However, Washington halted the export of the enriched uranium needed to power it after the Iranian revolution in 1979.
By order of Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader, the Iranians asked Argentina for help to revive and develop its nuclear program, and complete work on a large-scale nuclear power plant under construction near the southern port of Bushehr.
On May 5, 1987, Argentine company INVAP signed an agreement worth $5.5 million with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to provide Tehran with a new core for the research reactor given to the Tehran Nuclear Research Center by the Americans 20 years earlier. In 1992, however, cooperation in the nuclear field was suspended following the attack on the Israeli embassy.
Since 1994, Argentina has been an outspoken critic of Iran’s nuclear program, and all trade in nuclear resources has ceased. Nevertheless, Iran is still interested in expanding cooperation with Argentina. In February 2008, the idea of resuming the supply of nuclear fuel from Argentina was raised.
However, during his investigation of the 1992 and 1994 bombings, Nisman suggested the attacks were likely related to the president’s decision to halt Argentina’s cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2011, US congressional leaders called for the State Department to investigate whether Iran and Argentina had renewed nuclear cooperation in a deal brokered and paid for by Venezuela. Some reports claimed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the president of Iran, had asked authorities in Venezuela to intervene in an effort to persuade Argentina to share technology with Tehran and assist with its nuclear program.
During the Fernandez de Kirchner presidency, diplomatic relations between Iran and Argentina strengthened. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president at the time, reportedly mediated talks between Tehran and Buenos Aires.
As successive governments have come and gone, Argentina has waited for substantive cooperation from Iran to resolve what happened in the bombings. Identifying those responsible, along with their backers, and bringing them to justice is a critical aim of Argentina’s foreign policy. Such an outcome could constitute an element of a political rapprochement with Iran. If the issue remains unresolved, however, it will continue to bedevil relations.