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Pressure on Iran over Argentina blasts

2 May 07 15:36 GMT
By Nick Caistor
Buenos Aires

Two bomb attacks in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, have remained unsolved for many years.

The first exploded outside the Israeli embassy on 17 March 1992, killing 29 people and injuring more than 200.

The second blew apart the Jewish social centre AMIA in the heart of the garment district of the city. That was in July 1994. Eighty-five people died, and more than 150 others were injured.

Despite the death toll, and the fact that Argentina has rarely been the target for international terror attacks, the judicial authorities there have never made much progress in tracking down the perpetrators.

A three-year trial of 20 Argentines ended in their acquittal in 2004.

But Judge Canicoba Corral, acting on an 800-page report of evidence prepared by two public prosecutors, has recently asked the international police organisation Interpol to issue arrest warrants for seven Iranians and one Lebanese national.

Hezbollah link

The Iranians the judge wants to question for responsibility in the AMIA attack include the former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and the foreign minister in the early 1990s, Ali Akbar Velayati.

According to prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the Iranians ordered the bombing through the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah.

The order came after Argentina backed out of two contracts to supply material for Iran's nuclear industry in the late 1980s.

The Hezbollah team, Mr Nisman argues, came into Argentina via its vulnerable northern border with Paraguay and Brazil. Once inside the country, they linked up with people in the Iranian embassy and carried out the plan. A suicide bomber, identified as Ibrahim Hussein Berro in the prosecutors' report, drove a van packed with explosives into the front of the AMIA building, killing himself and 85 people inside, and bringing down the entire front half of the building.

This theory was first launched by Israeli sources only a few days after the bombing occurred, but the Argentine investigation foundered when the first judge in charge of the case was dismissed for allegedly bribing a witness.

The case and the accusations were only revived in 2006 when the two prosecutors produced their detailed report and Judge Corral decided to act on it.

Observers in Argentina and the United States point to direct pressure from Bush administration officials for the re-opening of the case and for naming the highest levels of the Iranian Government as being directly responsible for the bombing.

The main lawyer representing the AMIA, Miguel Bronfman, says that visits from Washington officials to Argentina led to a change in atmosphere, with the result that the Argentine authorities suddenly issued the indictments.

Even Judge Corral admitted to the BBC that although as a judge he had not received any pressure to put the blame for the attack on Iran, as an ordinary citizen he had no doubt that there was pressure on the Argentine authorities to join in international attempts to isolate the regime in Tehran.

'No motive'

The Iranians deny all involvement in the AMIA bombing.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been reduced to a minimum as a result of the case, but the charge d'affaires in Buenos Aires, Moshen Baharvand, is adamant that there was no reason for Iran to give any such order.

He points out that Iran sought compensation through international arbitration for Argentina's failure to fulfil the nuclear contracts, and that the matter was eventually settled when Argentina paid more than US$5m (£2.5m) in compensation.

Mr Baharvand also argues that Hezbollah has never been involved in any attacks outside the Middle East, as it sees its struggle as directly against Israel.

Others in Argentina are equally sceptical of attempts to place the responsibility for the AMIA deaths on perpetrators outside the country.

"I'm sure that the Argentine state is involved," argues Laura Ginsberg, who lost her husband in the bombing. She says the prosecutors have offered no solid evidence for blaming Iran and Hezbollah, and points to many unresolved crimes in which the Argentine security services were allegedly involved.

Similarly, veteran reporter Joe Goldman, a US journalist who has been living in Buenos Aires for more than 20 years, doubts the official Argentine version of what took place on that morning of 18 July 1994.

"There is no evidence that the explosion was caused by a car bomb," he says. He claims to have spoken to numerous witnesses who saw the event, none of whom made any mention of a van or other vehicle coming down the street.

"The blast damage in the street and surrounding buildings is consistent with an explosion from inside the AMIA centre," he claims.

Interpol has rejected the arrest warrants against former President Rafsanjani and Mr Velayati on grounds that they enjoy diplomatic immunity. Iran has appealed against the warrants, and the demand for the other five Iranians to be questioned by the Argentine judicial authorities is to be put to its general assembly in Morocco in November 2007.

In the meantime, Laura Ginsberg and the other relatives of the 85 victims, as well as those who suffered as a result of the Israeli embassy bombing, are no closer to finding out who was really responsible.

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