Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Top suspect in Uruguay’s bomb scares — Iran

Two recent bomb scares close to the Israeli embassy in Uruguay and the mysterious departure of an Iranian diplomat found close to one of the fake bombs are raising new suspicions about Iran’s terrorist activities in Latin America.

Details of the Nov. 24 and Jan. 8 discovery of fake bombs near Israeli embassy buildings in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, are sketchy, but have begun to emerge in bits and pieces after the Israeli daily Haaretz reported Feb. 6 that Uruguay had expelled an Iranian diplomat over the first of the incidents.

Both Uruguay and Iran denied that any diplomat had been expelled. But the government of Uruguay’s outgoing President Jose Mujica, under fire from the opposition for allegedly trying to minimize the event, later said that the Iranian diplomat — identified as 32-year-old Ahmed Sabatgold — had left the country around Dec. 7, three days before Uruguay’s foreign minister summoned the Iranian ambassador to express his country’s concerns.

Uruguay’s opposition leaders say Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, a leading candidate for secretary general of the 34-country Organization of American States, forged close ties with Iran during his years at the Uruguayan embassy in Teheran from 1991 to 1996, has been an unusually harsh critic of Israel, and is likely to have tried to tone down the incident with Iran.

Critics point out that Almagro took more than two weeks after the first bomb scare to summon the Iranian ambassador — even if there were videos showing the Iranian diplomat near the Israeli embassy, where the first fake bomb was found — and later asked journalists not to read much into the whole episode.

Uruguayan officials said later the fake explosive — parts of a bomb inside a briefcase — was probably left there to measure the Israeli embassy’s monitoring capabilities, and its response time.

In an extended telephone interview earlier this week, Almagro told me that there is no conclusive evidence of Iran’s link to the fake bombs. He said that, if anything, he may have over-reacted when he summoned the Iranian ambassador to his office on Dec. 10, because there are only “strange coincidences” which could lead to speculation of an Iranian connection.

“Despite the lack of any evidence pointing at Iran, I didn’t like the coincidence that somebody from the Iranian embassy was milling around the Israeli embassy when that briefcase was found,” Almagro told me. “It may have been an excess of professional zeal on my part, but I wanted to make sure that we won’t see these kind of coincidences in the future.”

Almagro characterized his message to the Iranian ambassador at the Dec. 10 meeting as “a warning. I warned him that I didn’t like these coincidences, and that I consider them inadmissible.” Iran says the diplomat was near the fake bomb because he had a doctor’s appointment nearby.

As for why it took him more than two weeks to summon the Iranian ambassador, Almagro said he was on an official visit to Mexico as the Uruguayan police investigation was unfolding, and that he acted immediately upon returning home.

As for why he didn’t go public at first, Almagro said that “this was something that was dealt with privately by all affected countries — Iran, Israel and Uruguay.” He added that “you take any manual about diplomatic relations, and you will see that warnings like this one are handled privately.”

Almagro concluded that “If I had had anything concrete to denounce, with evidence, I would have done it, as I did a few years ago when an Iranian ambassador denied the existence of the Holocaust.”

My opinion: Almagro is right in that the mere presence of an Iranian diplomat near the place where a fake bomb was found in a busy intersection does not prove an Iranian connection.

But Iran’s theocratic regime has a long history of sponsoring terrorism abroad, including the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community Center in Argentina, in which 85 Argentines died and 300 were wounded. Argentina has long requested Interpol’s arrest of several Iranian officials suspected of having masterminded that attack.

In addition to funding Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, Iran has also been recently linked by Indian police investigators to a 2012 terrorist attack against an Israeli diplomat in India, and by Bulgarian officials to the suicide bombing that killed six people aboard a bus with Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, that same year. Uruguay’s latest bomb scares should not be taken lightly: they seem to follow a familiar pattern of a theocratic regime that has often resorted to terrorism to advance its holy war in the past.