Earlier this month, Alberto Nisman of Argentina, the special prosecutor responsible for investigating the Iranian-planned 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, handed down a chilling document detailing Iran’s hand in terrorist activities in Latin America and the United States. It shows that the use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy is an integral part of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s revolutionary DNA and that it is unlikely to change with Hassan Rouhani as president.
The document, based on years of painstaking investigations by Nisman, is a timely reminder of the limits of what so-called “moderates” in Iran, like Rouhani, will accept. Nisman’s investigations show that Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the Iranian president in 1994 and now remembered as even more moderate than Rouhani, directly participated in planning the Argentine bombing.
Rafsanjani is under indictment for his role in the attack. Rouhani, his close advisor, was the chair of the Islamic Republic’s powerful Supreme National Security Council and, in that position, would have been intimately familiar with its planning.
The election of Rouhani is a gift to the Argentine government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was already moving in the opposite direction to her prosecutor — rapidly forgetting her nation’s history by normalizing relations with the Islamic Republic’s soon-to-be former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and pushing the bombing investigation into cold storage.
Tehran is on a charm offensive in the region and maintains strong ties to Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Argentina’s status as a regional heavyweight would make it a big prize for Tehran, which makes Fernández de Kirchner’s increasingly cozy relationship with the ayatollahs of considerable concern.
Nisman draws on the oft-forgotten history of Iran in Latin America to flesh out his original, devastating 2006 indictment of senior Iranian leadership in the worst case of Islamist terrorism in Latin America. Those indicted include current defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, former president Rafsanjani, Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and a leading presidential candidate in Iran’s recent elections, Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who also ran in Iran’s presidential campaign, and Moshen Rabbani, the chief intelligence operative for Latin America. Based on the indictments Interpol has issued “red notices” for the arrest of five senior Iranian officials.
Nisman shows that the 1994 bombing was not an isolated incident but rather a part of an ongoing strategy that embraced the use of international terrorism adopted in an extraordinary meeting of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary leaders and mullahs in Tehran in 1982.
As Nisman noted in 2006, the decision to carry out the 1994 mass bombing was “adopted by a consensus of the highest representatives of the Iranian government . . . within the context of a foreign policy that was quite willing to resort to violence” to achieve the goals of the 1979 revolution.
In Latin America, Iran’s strategy ran on parallel tracks: Argentina in the south, Guyana in the north and several countries in between. Perhaps most surprising to U.S. readers is that Iran’s Guyana cell planned and very nearly executed the 2007 plot to blow up natural-gas lines under JFK Airport in New York City, bragging it would surpass 9/11 in devastation. While Iran’s involvement in the funding and planning of the attack are documented in court filings in the case, in which two people were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, it was barely mentioned either by U.S. prosecutors or the media covering the trial.
The activities of Iran’s different government agencies, from the ministries of foreign affairs to its intelligence structure to its cultural centers and mosques all play a role in exporting the Iranian revolution. Nisman lays out the role of each part of the government, as well as Hezbollah, acting as Iran’s proxy.
Kirchner, close to drowning in a flood of corruption scandals and destructive fiscal policies, is seeking desperately to ignore Nisman’s report and embrace Iran as a commercial and political partner. Rouhani’s election and the “moderate” euphoria about it in the Western press will no doubt make this easier. But, for its own good, the region’s leaders, including those in the United States, should heed the lessons of Iran’s presence in the hemisphere.
Douglas Farah is president of IBI Consultants and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mark Dubowitz is the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he leads the foundation’s Iran projects.