By Florencia Montaruli
March 5, 2021
Six years ago on January 18, 2015, the prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment in Buenos Aires. The prosecutor was hours away from denouncing a criminal plan carried out by the then-national government which aimed to provide immunity to Iranians linked to Hezbollah, who stood accused of having planned and executed the bombing attack against the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, a Jewish Community Centre) in 1994.
Though his death remains a mystery, Nisman’s detailed examination of the link between Argentine politics and Hezbollah remains on file. Before denouncing this criminal pact, Nisman had spent countless hours probing the Islamic Republic’s infiltration of Argentina and how Hezbollah expanded its networks in Argentina.
IranWire has accessed the full 500-page report that the prosecutor had previously presented in 2013. It explains how Hezbollah installed clandestine intelligence stations in Argentina and the Tri-Border area in Latin America to sponsor, encourage and commit acts of terrorism. Eight years on, none of the accused are in prison.
The death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman was declared a homicide by an Argentine court. The 51-year-old had been investigating a plan between then-Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the Iranian regime to grant legal immunity to those responsible for the 1994 AMIA bomb attack, which killed 85 people and left hundreds injured.
This was not the first time that Nisman had planned to report on Hezbollah’s presence in Argentina. On May 29, 2013, the lawyer denounced the Iranian regime for infiltrating Latin American countries and installing clandestine intelligence bases to sponsor, promote and commit acts of international terrorism, which he defined as the “export of the Islamic Revolution”.
It was the first time in the history of Argentina that a report had offered detailed, exhaustive evidence on the means through which a terrorist regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, had infiltrated the country for decades. Most of Iran’s bases and operatives were located in the area known as Tri-Border Area, on the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
The First Envoy to Argentina
According to Nisman, Hezbollah had first made itself known in Argentina in 1983 with the arrival of a Shiite cleric called Mohsen Rabbani. This man, he said, who was responsible for setting up the first spy network on behalf of the Islamic Republic. Rabbani officially came to the country to provide “commercial representation of the meat business” and later became the imam of Al-Tahuid mosque in Buenos Aires. He used this guise to build a spy network inside the country.
“This structure,” Nisman wrote, “was segmented into links. On a superficial level, the [Iranian] embassy fulfilled its protocols and consular functions, the mosques were in charge of religious dissemination, and the local community was the recipient of this work.
“However, a more in-depth study allowed us to uncover this scheme’s illegality: the embassy had a protective function, providing diplomatic immunity and constituting the ideal channel for the transmission of information of interest. The mosques functioned as a recruitment base for people under the ideology of the Iranian Islamic Revolution.”
Nisman also named two companies registered in Argentina that he believed were part of this Iranian network: Government Trade Corporation (GTC) and Imanco. In a March 2020 article for the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, intelligence analysts Ioan Pop and Mitchell Silver also mention these two companies in the context of Iran and Hezbollah’s foreign operations. They list one more in Argentina, called South Beef S.A.
These three “front companies”, the authors state, were “part of the business cover for the Iranian spy network in Argentina”. According to this report, the firms’ directors and officials were responsible for carrying out Iran’s intelligence tasks in the country. GTC had been established in Argentina in March 1985 and in mid-1993 shifted its registered address to the same building as the Cultural Office of the Iranian Embassy.
According to Argentine intelligence officials cited in the report, could GTC “provided cover for Iranian intelligence operatives to enter Argentina” and it was alleged that its executive in Argentina, Seyed Jamal Youssefi, was an Iranian intelligence official. In addition, as Nisman had stated, GTC and Imanco carried out no commercial activity for lengthy periods, making their presence immediately suspicious. GTC also exchanged personnel with Imanco and South Beef, the intelligence analysts say, and all three firms were in permanent contact with Mohsen Rabbani.
Opening the Gates to Export of the Revolution
Alberto Nisman also examined how a 1982 seminar hosted by Tehran on an “ideal Islamic government”, which had been attended by 380 clergy members from 70 countries, proved to be the launchpad for the “export of the revolution”.
For the leaders of the Islamic Republic and others, Nisman said, the event offered “a justification of violence as an acknowledged way to remove the obstacles it found on the way to the expansion of the Islamic Revolution.” The crucial antecedent of this seminar had been the creation of the “Organization of Islamic Liberation Movements” (OILM) in October 1980. Its offices included one called the Study and Research Unit, which analyzed socio-political situations abroad with a view to exporting Islamic Republic ideology.
A few months after the 1982 seminar, the Islamic Republic of Iran then sent Mohsen Rabbani to settle in Argentina. Meanwhile, Rabbani appointed Abdul Kadir as his agent in Guyana. Rabbani would later become the mastermind of the AMIA bombing while Kadir was responsible for the attempted bombing of the John F. Kennedy airport in New York. Kadir was later arrested while he was preparing to fly to the Islamic Republic of Iran to lay out the final details of this criminal plot.
Alberto Nisman’s report highlights a quote from Mohsen Rabbani himself during this critical early period. “According to our Islamic point of view,” the supposed promoter of the meat industry had said, “Latin America is for us and the world, a virgin area where unfortunately, its enormous potential has not been taken into account until now by the Islamic people of Iran… We receive firm support against imperialism and Zionism, this being an important aid to our presence in this area.”
The Double Use of Institutions Linked to the Iranian Regime
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Alberto Nisman’s report was his detailed explanation of cultural and religious institutions’ double function as a façade for political and sometimes criminal actions by the regime. For instance, mosques, he stated, were used as a recruitment base with the likes of Mohsen Rabbani using the Al Tauhid mosque to share fundamentalist ideas.
Not all cultural, religious or diplomatic activities are linked to terrorism. In fact, this false conclusion could lead to the curtailment of legitimate and valuable activities for the Islamic and wider community. What Nisman argued was that this was a repeated, typical pattern of behavior by Iranian agents in different parts of the world.
The same situation was exposed in Germany after the assassination of a group of Kurdish dissidents at Mykonos Restaurant, Berlin in 1992. Kazem Darabi, an Iranian intelligence service employee, had used Islamic religious activities in Germany to recruit other fundamentalists to carry out the crime. In France in 1991, the former Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakthiar was murdered in his home near Paris. It later emerged that the Iranian Intelligence Ministry had an extensive espionage network in France, some of whom had infiltrated cultural and artistic groups by pretending to be members of the opposition.
What Happened in Argentina?
On January 14, 2015, two years after his first missive was published, Nisman brought an abrupt change of pace to the usually monotonous Argentine summer. In the courts of Comodoro Py, he publicly denounced then-president Cristina Kirchner, her chancellor Héctor Timerman, the national deputy Andrés Larroque, the socialist leader Luis D’Elia, and the leader of Quebracho movement Fernando Esteche, among others, for trying to cover up those accused of involvement in the AMIA bombing by signing memorandum with Iran.
The memorandum was intended as an agreement between both countries to advance the investigation into the circumstances of the attack. But it also sought to provide immunity to individuals of Iranian nationality who had previously been accused in the AMIA case so that they might evade having to testify in an Argentine court.
“The criminal plan was activated when Timerman travelled to Aleppo in 2011 and secretly met with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi,” Nisman said. “In that meeting, Timerman informed Akbar that the Argentine authorities were willing to renounce the AMIA investigation to provoke a geopolitical rapprochement and reestablish full commercial relations between the two states.”
He added: “Conspiracy had been orchestrated and put into operation by the high authorities of the Argentine national government, with the collaboration of third parties, in what constitutes a criminal action that is an a priori instance of the crimes of concealment for aggravated personal favoring or hindrance of the functional law and breach of the duties of a public official.”
The following is a list of the Iranians accused by Nisman as being a part of the plot:
Ali Akbar Hashemi Bahramani Rafsanjani (former President of the Islamic Republic of Iran)
Ali Akbar Velayati (former Iranian Foreign Minister)
Ali Fallahijan (former Iranian Intelligence Minister)
Mohsen Rezai (former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps)
Ahmad Vahidi (former Quds Force Commander and former Iranian Defense Minister)
Mohsen Rabbani (former cultural adviser at the Iranian Embassy in Argentina)
Ahmad Reza Asghari (former third secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Argentina)
Hadi Soleimpanpour (former Ambassador of the Republic of Iran in Argentina)
Ali Akbar Salehi (later the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran from 2010 to 2013)
Together, the group were accused by Nisman of “planning the attack on AMIA and entrusting its execution to Hezbollah.” An international arrest warrant in the form of a red notice from Interpol still weighs on all of them, except for the former president, Velayati and Soleimpanpour.
Nisman was due to present his findings to the National Congress on Monday, January 19, 2015. But then he was found dead in his apartment in Buenos Aires on the night of January 18, killed by a shot to the head. When police arrived on the scene, copies of the prosecutor’s complaint and notes were still on the dining room table ahead of his scheduled address the next day.
The Argentine government was quick to announce that his death had been a “suicide”. But in 2018, an Argentine judge ruled, on being presented with the forensic evidence, that it had been a homicide. A series of small errors on the part of the killers allowed the experts to conclude that someone else, not Nisman, had pulled the trigger. Who it was remains a mystery to this day.
Since Nisman’s death, three successive presidents have occupied the Casa Rosada and more than a dozen judges have intervened in the case, which is archived with no intention of opening the corresponding trial. The accused walk free. Meanwhile, the relatives of the 85 victims of the AMIA bombing and the rest of Argentine society are still waiting for justice.