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Argentina’s Iranian Tango

BUENOS AIRES – A controversial agreement between Iran and Argentina to investigate jointly a terrorist attack against a Jewish organization in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed 85 people, has opened an intense debate about Iranian influence in Latin America. This is unusual, because Latin American leaders often ignore events that fuel global tensions, regardless of their repercussions on the continent’s politics.

For decades, Cuban and Soviet support for guerrilla movements – and backing by the United States for Latin America’s anticommunist military regimes – was rarely part of regional explanations for the insurgent violence and state terrorism that plagued the continent even after the Cold War’s end. Today, the growing strength of the region’s democracies is helping to heal the wounds of that violence, but the difficulty of incorporating global factors into national political analysis continues. Links with Iran – and their costs – are no exception.

A couple of years ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Cuba. These four countries’ governments, which claim to be progressive, received – without a hint of concern – a leader who denies the Holocaust; beat, jailed, repressed, and killed protesters who objected to the fraudulent election that brought him a second term in office; and flaunts his contempt for individual liberties, with gay Iranians particularly vulnerable.

Why do some leftists find Iran’s reactionary, homophobic president so seductive? Are they enthusiastic simply because he opposes the US? Does being anti-American excuse all sins and justify all friendships? Maybe the answer is simpler: often, it is not shared ideas and values that bring individuals together, but rather power and money.

Some time ago, I asked a Latin-American leader what was behind his country’s Iranian romance; he refused to answer. After insisting, he finally rubbed his index finger and thumb together – an almost universal sign for money.

Whatever the reason, it is again being ignored that every time issues affecting US security arise in Latin America, the region becomes inflamed. In this context, the surprising agreement between Argentina and Iran to “advance” the investigation of the attack against the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) will have no judicial value, though the arrangement’s symbolic importance cannot be ignored.

Some years ago, after a complicated investigation, Argentine investigators identified several members of the Iranian government as the main suspects behind the attack on the AMIA. Iran has always denied responsibility and strongly opposed any criminal investigation of the suspects.

More recently, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner entered into secret negotiations with Iran. The talks ended with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries to form a “truth commission,” made up of international legal experts, to analyze all of the documentation related to the killings.

The Argentine government claims that the agreement will unblock the investigation of the suspects in the attack on the AMIA. But the memorandum does no such thing. It allows only analysis of the documents provided by the two parties and the questioning of some of the main players involved.

Indeed, the text reads: “Nothing in this agreement can prejudice the rights of the individuals guaranteed by the law.” Under Iranian law, citizens can be forced to appear only before a competent Iranian court on the basis of firm evidence, undermining the quasi-judicial character of the Commission of Truth and effectively ending any realistic prospect of judicial proceedings.

Fernández described the agreement as “historic.” And perhaps she is right, as the agreement will certainly leave a historic stain on Argentina. Inexplicably, both governments have committed themselves to having their parliaments ratify the memorandum, which would elevate it to the status of an international treaty – thus making it impossible to change by a simple administrative measure. The Argentine people and their future governments will be bound by a text that precludes the pursuit of justice.

Curiously, neither the agreement’s advocates nor its opponents in Argentina have asked why Ahmadinejad suddenly wanted to discuss the murder of 85 people, mostly Jews. But last October, Ahmadinejad told the FARS news agency: “Only when the matter of these investigations is cleared up will conditions be right for expanding the links between Iran and Argentina.”

This is the clearest feature of this tangled affair: the Argentine government wants to increase bilateral trade, while Ahmadinejad wants to be cleared of suspicion in a case that is damaging Iran’s standing across Latin America.

If Iranians were indeed behind the attack, the agreement grants them impunity. Only real judicial proceedings can prove their guilt or innocence. The current agreement – a parody of justice – is little more than a sophisticated political fraud.