By Fabián Bosoer and Federico Finchelstein
March 1, 2013
ON July 18, 1994, a van filled with explosives blew up outside the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds. It was the worst terrorist attack ever in Argentina, which has Latin America’s largest Jewish population, and one of the deadliest anti-Semitic attacks since the Holocaust.
In 2007, after more than a decade of investigations, Argentine prosecutors obtained Interpol arrest warrants for six suspects and formally blamed Hezbollah for staging the attack and Iran for financing it. But bizarrely, Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, abruptly switched course last month and reached an agreement with the Iranian government that would set up a “truth commission” of international legal experts to analyze evidence from the bombings. The agreement, which the Congress approved early Thursday, would allow Argentine officials to travel to Tehran and interview Iranians suspected of involvement in the attack.
The problem is that any recommendations by the commission would be nonbinding; moreover, some of the suspects in the attack are now high-ranking Iranian officials — including the sitting defense minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi — and therefore untouchable. Indeed, Iran has repeatedly refused to cooperate with Argentine investigators and ignored international warrants for the arrest of senior Iranian officials believed to have taken part in planning the bombing.
Mrs. Kirchner’s decision to abandon Argentina’s longstanding grievances against Iran is particularly galling because it comes just weeks after Bulgaria, another country victimized by Iranian-sponsored terrorism, accused Hezbollah of staging a suicide attack on Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian town of Burgas last year. That attack, like the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires, was part of a shadow war against Jewish civilians across the world. Bulgaria’s government, unlike Argentina’s current administration, decided to stand up to Hezbollah and forthrightly accuse it of the crime.
Argentina’s president is undermining her own country’s prosecutors, who have for several years tried to pursue the suspected perpetrators. Many observers have denounced Mrs. Kirchner for giving Iran a free pass. As Laura Ginsberg, whose husband was killed in the 1994 attack, has put it, the Argentine government has terminated the possibility of justice.
Mrs. Kirchner’s decision could open the gates to a major foreign policy realignment in the near future. Her populist government is moving toward the pro-Iranian positions of Venezuela’s ailing president, Hugo Chávez, and further away from those of Brazil, the United States and Europe. According to the Argentine newspaper La Nación, Argentina has started to collaborate on arms deals, including the development of missile technology, with Venezuela and indirectly with Iran.
Mrs. Kirchner’s move is also at odds with Argentina’s own history of holding human rights violators accountable. Argentina was plagued by political violence in the 1970s. It was one of the first countries in the world to create a truth commission to investigate the crimes of the military dictatorship that ruled between 1976 and 1983, including the killings and “disappearances” of more than 10,000 citizens deemed to be enemies of the state. That commission was formed after democracy was re-established in 1983 and eventually led to trial and punishment of the generals who led the junta, as well as other human rights violators.
To now create a so-called truth commission to investigate Iran’s and Hezbollah’s role in the 1994 attack and review the well-established findings of Argentina’s own courts is an insult to the memory of those murdered in 1994 and to all of those killed by Argentina’s dictatorship.
Argentina has made grave foreign policy errors before. It is still coping with the fallout from its short 1982 war with Britain over the islands that Britain calls the Falklands and that Argentines call Las Malvinas. That conflict was an ill-advised move by a nationalist dictatorship. In contrast, the current treaty with Iran is being backed by a democratically elected president.
While the 1982 war initially had widespread support, the agreement with Iran, which passed with a narrow congressional majority, has been rejected by all of Argentina’s opposition parties, which vehemently denounced it in congressional debates this week. Moreover, all major Argentine Jewish organizations have opposed the treaty, and there is no indication that Mrs. Kirchner’s conciliatory gesture to Iran is supported by a majority of citizens.
Mrs. Kirchner has vigorously defended the treaty. It is possible that she believes taking a controversial step toward resolving a longstanding dispute will raise Argentina’s international profile. She may also think that the treaty will increase her party’s popularity in an election year.
But it will do neither. Like the 1982 war with Britain, Mrs. Kirchner’s misguided rapprochement with Iran will only compromise Argentina’s long-term national interests while doing nothing to satisfy the survivors’ yearning for justice.
Fabián Bosoer is an opinion editor at the newspaper Clarín. Federico Finchelstein, an associate professor of history at the New School, worked as a researcher at the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires before the 1994 bombing.