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Sunday, February 1, 2015
In the first of this two-part series, IPS examines how a major donor to the Republican Party, Paul Singer, is using a lobbying firm run by Democrats to tar the government of Argentina as an increasingly lawless and anti-American ally of Iran. In the second part, to be published Jul. 31, we report how a network of think tanks, politicians and pundits with financial and personal ties to Singer are amplifying this campaign, which comes as Singer is engaged in a legal battle with Argentina over a decade-old debt that could make him hundreds of millions of dollars.
- When Argentina defaulted on its national debt in 2001, U.S. hedge funds swooped in to buy the nation’s bonds at pennies on the dollar, confident they would eventually prevail in the U.S. legal system and force the country to pay out in full.
That battle is set to reach the Supreme Court later this year, but the country’s creditors on Wall Street – labeled “vulture capitalists” by their critics – are also making their case in Congress and the court of public opinion, with a current media campaign aimed at painting Argentina as an increasingly rogue nation in bed with Washington’s enemies.
The public relations effort, which focuses on Argentina’s increasingly friendly relations with Iran, comes as the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is weighing whether to side with Argentina before the Supreme Court in its battle with Wall Street. According to The Washington Post, officials from the Justice Department, Treasury Department and State Department met Jul. 12 with lawyers from both sides to discuss the case.
In previous court filings, the Obama administration has argued that Argentina’s debt is not a matter for the U.S. legal system, reflecting concerns that a victory for its holdout bondholders could cause another default and complicate future debt restructuring plans for other nations.
However, Argentina’s bondholders, including one of the top financiers of right-wing politics in the U.S., have a string of victories under their belt. In October 2012, a federal appeals court ruled that the South American nation and member of the G20 must pay out more than 1.3 billion dollars to its creditors.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced Jul. 24 that it would not formally side with Argentina in its U.S. legal battle. An IMF statement cited opposition from the Obama administration.
That the White House is backing away from its earlier defences of Argentina indicates that the millions of dollars U.S. hedge funds have spent lobbying members of the administration, Congress and the press are starting to change the debate, with Iran about as popular as Iraq was in 2002.
“We do whatever we can to get our government and media’s attention focused on what a bad actor Argentina is,” Robert Raben, executive director of the American Task Force Argentina (ATFA), recently explained to The Huffington Post.
An assistant attorney general under President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), Raben’s group was founded by Argentina’s holdout bondholders and, to date, has spent at least 3.8 million dollars on its efforts to paint Argentina in a bad light. But the money it has spent pales in comparison to what ATFA’s funders stand to gain.
In 2008, hedge fund NML Capital – whose parent company Elliott Management, led by major Republican donor Paul Singer, is spearheading the legal and political battle over Argentina’s debt obligations – paid 48 million dollars for bonds that prior to the country’s default had been valued at over 300 million dollars.
After the default, more than 92 percent of Argentina’s bondholders agreed to accept a fraction of what they were originally owed as part of a negotiated settlement. NML, however, insists Argentina pay out the full 370 million dollars, which would be a return of more than 770 percent on the firm’s initial investment.
Singer has done this before, purchasing bonds worth around 30 million dollars from the world’s poorest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and suing for repayment of over 100 million dollars. In the case of Argentina, the groups behind ATFA stand to gain more than 1.3 billion dollars.
Including fights going on in other jurisdictions, however, Singer alone ultimately stands to gain more than two billion dollars in his battle with the South American nation. But it’s not just about debt anymore.
A request for comment from ATFA was not responded to by deadline.
Fear of an Iranian planet
Paul Singer is a very rich man – one of the 400 richest in the world. According to Forbes, the hedge fund manager and founder of Elliott Management has a net worth of 1.3 billion dollars. That wealth has enabled him to become one of the top funders of the Republican Party.
In 2012, he gave more than one million dollars to the party’s failed presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and millions more to those lower down on the ballot. Employees of his firm, meanwhile, gave more than three million dollars to various politicians, making his company one of the top 100 funders of U.S. politics. And those politics are decidedly to the right.
In 2007, Singer described himself as a believer in American exceptionalism, noting that he has given “millions of dollars to Republican organizations that emphasize a strong military and support Israel.” Speaking to the New York Times, Singer explained that he believes the West “finds itself at an early stage of a drawn-out existential struggle with radical strains of pan-national Islamists.”
In the case of Argentina’s relations with Iran, which have grown to more than one billion dollars per year in trade, he finds his financial interests and fear of radical Islam perfectly aligned: by stoking fear of the latter, the U.S. government may be less inclined to interfere with the former.
“What’s the TRUTH About Argentina’s Deal With Iran?” asks a recent full-page ad from ATFA placed in The Washington Post. The deal in question concerns an agreement announced by the governments of Argentina and Iran to open a “Truth Commission” examining the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), which killed 85 people and injured more than 300.
Another ATFA ad featuring photos of Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad poses the question: “A Pact with the Devil?”
A 2006 report from Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman fingered Iran as the culprit, allegedly using the Lebanese group Hezbollah as a proxy. That led to INTERPOL arrest warrants being issued for several high-level Iranian officials.
An updated 2013 report from Nisman, oft-cited in the media campaign against Argentina, claimed the attack was but one piece of evidence for the existence of an extensive Iranian intelligence apparatus throughout South America that has only grown since the AMIA attack, a conclusion that contradicts the US State Department’s recent assessment that any influence Iran had in the region is now “waning”.
No one has ever been convicted in the AMIA case, which has been hampered by a botched prosecution and judicial corruption. Concerns have also been raised about the veracity of Nisman’s report, which claims Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, approved the bombing at a meeting in Tehran just months prior to the attack, a finding that is based on the testimony of a former Iranian intelligence official known as Aboghasem Mesbahi who defected from the Islamic Republic in 1996.
That defector previously told U.S. officials that Iran had funded and facilitated the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, claiming he was made aware of the authorisation by secret messages in newspapers. His testimony was dismissed by the 9/11 Commission.
In its ad, ATFA quotes a letter from Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, and Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, to President Kirchner expressing concern that the opening of the commission “will lead to a dismissal of charges and the whitewashing of this heinous crime”.
The ad also quotes a defiant Iranian politician stating that under “no circumstances” will the Islamic Republic allow its senior officials to be questioned by any Argentine judges or prosecutors.
Though not mentioned in the ad, Iran’s refusal to submit to the Argentine legal system is the ostensible reason for the “truth commission”, which would create a panel of independent jurists from third-party nations to assess the case and, alongside Argentine jurists, interview suspects in Iran.
The details of Argentina’s relationship with Iran – which consists mostly of agricultural exports – are not terribly important to ATFA, however. Instead, as its executive director put it, that group would simply like to know: “Why is Argentina willing to negotiate with Iran, but not with its law-abiding creditors?”
Argentina has of course successfully negotiated with nine out of 10 of its creditors. But the holdouts, led by Singer, think they can get the whole pot. (See series, Part Two)