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POLITICS: Argentine Report Casts Doubt on Iran Role in &#3994 Bomb

Analysis by Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON, Nov 18 2006 (IPS) - The report by Argentine prosecutors in support of the arrest warrants just issued for seven former Iranian officials for the 1994 terror bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires reveals that Argentina was continuing to provide Iran with low-grade enriched uranium and the two countries were in serious negotiations on broader nuclear cooperation when the bombing occurred.

The new revelations on Argentine-Iranian relations in the Oct. 25 report by prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcello Marquez Burgos undermine the official argument that Iran&#39s top leaders were motivated to order the bombing by Argentina&#39s decision in 1992 to cut off its supply of nuclear materials to Iran. The new information underlines the fact that Rafsanjani and other Iranian officials still viewed Argentina as willing to cooperate with Iran on the sensitive subject of nuclear technology, despite U.S. pressures to end that cooperation.

The arrest warrants for former Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and six other former top Iranian officials were issued only after the United States had applied diplomatic pressure, according to a Nov. 3 report by Marc Perelman in the Jewish daily Forward. Perelman also reported that the George W. Bush administration intends to cite the indictment as part of its campaign to get Russia and China to support a Security Council resolution on sanctions against Iran.

The main theory about Iran&#39s motive for ordering the bombing of the headquarters of the Jewish organisation AMIA on Jul. 18, 1994, which killed 85 people, is that Iran wanted to retaliate against Argentina for its decision to cut off exports of nuclear materials. That motive was asserted by former Iranian intelligence officer Abdolghassem Mesbahi in a 2002 deposition and repeated in a report by the Argentine intelligence service, SIDE, in September 2002.

A related theory advanced by the prosecutors is that Iran was angry at the government of Carlos Menem for realigning its foreign policy more closely with that of the United States, for example, by sending warships to the Persian Gulf during the U.S. war there in 1991.

But the prosecutor&#39s report shows that Argentina never completely terminated its nuclear cooperation with Iran, and that the Iranian and Argentine nuclear organisations that had negotiated the original contracts were negotiating on restoration of full cooperation on all three agreements from early 1992 through 1994.

The report identifies three distinct agreements reached between Argentina and Iran in 1987-88: the first involved help in converting a nuclear reactor in Tehran so that it could use 20 percent enriched uranium (i.e., low grade uranium which cannot be used for weapons production) and indicates that it included the shipment of the 20 percent enriched uranium to Iran. The second and third agreements were for technical assistance, including components, for the building of pilot plants for uranium dioxide conversion and fuel fabrication.

The indictment shows that the United States put strong pressure on the Menem government to terminate all nuclear cooperation with Iran.

In December 1991, according to the detailed account in the report, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires informed Argentina&#39s foreign ministry that the United States could not accept the continuation of the contracts on nuclear cooperation with Iran. In January, Argentina announced the suspension of the shipments of nuclear materials to Iran.

But the report also documents the fact that Iran did not take the suspension as final or anticipate an end to the other contracts on nuclear technology. According to a Feb. 10, 1992 cable from the Argentina&#39s ambassador in Iran, an Iranian foreign ministry official reaffirmed to him the "priority" that the Islamic Republic placed on nuclear technology transfer from Argentina and said the foreign policy positions taken by Argentina with which Tehran did not agree – such as sending warships to the Persian Gulf – "apparently did not alter the pragmatic attitude held by Argentina."

On Feb. 26, according to the account, the director of the American Department of Iran&#39s foreign ministry "emphasised the need to reach a solution to the problem that would avoid damage to other contracts." Thus Iran was signaling its hope of finding a negotiated solution that could end the suspension and maintain the other contracts with Argentina as well.

Less than three weeks after that Iranian bid for negotiations, on Mar. 17, 1992, a bomb blast destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 22 people. Argentina, the United States and Israel have long maintained that Iran was responsible for both that bombing and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA headquarters.

But it seems unlikely that Iranian leaders would have ordered or knowingly supported any terror bombing in Buenos Aires just when they were concerned with nailing down an agreement to protect Iran&#39s important interests in relations with Argentina.

The report goes on to present new information that also appears to rule out an Iranian role in the 1994 AMIA bombing. It confirms that Menem cancelled the second and third nuclear technology contracts with Iran but not the first contract involving the low-enriched uranium.

The prosecutors&#39 report further reveals that after the Menem decision, Iran and Argentina entered into serious negotiations aimed at restoring full nuclear cooperation. The general manager of INVAP, the Argentine firm which dominated the National Commission on Atomic Energy, testified to investigators that during 1992, there were "contacts" between INVAP and the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) "in the expectation that the decision of the national government would be revised, allowing the tasks in the contracts to be resumed."

The report does not indicate what results the talks produced. But an article in the Christian Science Monitor Feb. 18, 1993 quoted an Iranian official saying that Iran was still purchasing low grade uranium from Argentina and said the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed that a shipment of low-enriched uranium would arrive in Iran within a year.

>From 1993 to 1995, according to the same INVAP official, the negotiations with the AEOI continued, aimed at "reaching a definitive solution" to the issues surrounding the two cancelled projects. It was not until 1996, according to the report, that Iran communicated its intention of taking legal action against Argentina over the cancellation of the two nuclear technology contracts.

The new evidence on nuclear technology relations between Iran and Argentina is a serious blow to the credibility of the central assertion in the indictment that Rafsanjani and other former Iranian officials decided at a meeting on Aug. 14, 1993 to plan the bombing of AMIA. That assertion was based entirely on the testimony of Iranian defector Abdolghassem Mesbahi, who was evidently unaware of the continued uranium exports and continuing negotiations revealed in the prosecutors&#39 report.

Mesbahi&#39s credibility on Iran&#39s alleged role in the bombings was also damaged by his spectacular allegation that President Menem had received a 10-million-dollar payoff from Iran to divert the investigation away from Iranian involvement – an allegation the defector later withdrew.

To square these diplomatic revelations with the charges against Iran, the prosecutors quote what they call a "hypothesis" advanced by SIDE that Iran uses "violence" in order induce "victim countries" to agree to "negotiations convenient to Iran&#39s interests". But they offer no further evidence to support that theory.

The investigation of the 1994 bombing by the Argentine judiciary, which has no political independence from the executive branch, has had little credibility with the public, because of a bribe by the lead judge to a key witness and a pattern of deceptive accounts based on false testimony.

(Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.)

*This is a corrected re-issue of the story originally published by IPS on Nov. 13.

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