Iran-Argentina: A Curious Kind of Truth Commission
By Roya Boroumand
In memory of Sebastian Barreiro, the five-year-old boy whose most prized possessions were his dog, Pamela, his bicycle, and his ninja turtle and who was walking with his mother past the door of the AMIA building on the 18th of July 1994
In late January 2013, Argentina and the Islamic Republic of Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding to create a truth commission, composed of five international jurists, to re-investigate the deadly 1994 bombing of the AMIA Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Iranian authorities had refused to cooperate during the Argentine proceedings that uncovered indisputable evidence of Iran’s involvement in the attack. The announced agreement has come as a surprise. The vague and non-binding language of the agreement and the lack of provisions protecting the rights of victims to justice cast doubt on the purposes of this curious truth commission.
For the record, on 18 July 1994, a van packed with 275 kilograms of explosives rammed into the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association ("AMIA"), a mutual aid society. The explosion killed 85 and injured 151, many of them passersby. A half-hearted official response and infighting within the investigative agencies derailed the initial investigation in Argentina. In 1999, a new investigation was initiated, after a group representing relatives of the victims accused the government of denial of justice in a case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. In spite of the loss of key evidence in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, the new investigation was persuasive enough to convince INTERPOL, in 2007, to issue international arrest warrants for six individuals. These included Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s current Minister of Defense; Ali Fallahian, former Minister of Information; and Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and a candidate in the 2009 presidential election.
The Boroumand Foundation has extensively researched the AMIA bombing including the findings of the prosecutor’s investigation and the court’s judgment, which led to the issuance of the INTERPOL warrants, for its 2009 report entitled “Terror In Buenos Aires: The Islamic Republic’s Forgotten Crime Against Humanity.” The years-long investigation included physical evidence, interviews with dozens of witnesses, and transcripts from recorded phone conversations. It concluded that the order for the bombing had come from a special committee, composed of the highest ranking Iranian leaders, mainly in retaliation for Argentina’s decision to stop nuclear cooperation with Iran. Iran’s diplomatic agents, who helped with the logistics and the funding of the operation, carried out the order in conjunction with operatives from Hezbollah.
The January agreement is a victory for Iran. In return for a formal initiative it can use to undermine the Argentine court’s judgment, Iran will provide unspecified documents and allow Argentine officials to interrogate the Iranians wanted by INTERPOL. On January 29, an optimistic Islamic Republic News Agency pointed to “radical Zionist groups” as the accused in the AMIA bombing; noted that the Judiciary in Argentina is "not very clean"; and suggested that experts may declare evidence incriminating Iran to be invalid. Less than a week after the announced agreement, on February 2nd, Hossein Avazpour, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s Foreign Policy Commission, contradicted a statement by the Argentine Minister of Foreign Affairs regarding the visit by Argentine investigators to Iran to question the indicted officials. For him, the agreement’s purpose is to finally close the AMIA case. (1)
In fact, the ambiguity of text provides Iran with what seems to be a risk-free opportunity to use the truth commission to show, at least publically, its good will while protecting the officials implicated in the case from being held accountable. Article 9 of the Memorandum of Understanding, which provides that any dispute concerning the implementation or the interpretation of the agreement “shall be resolved through consultations between the two sides,” is a good example. The Article’s wording is too vague and non-binding to provide for effective means of dispute resolution in the absence of good faith on the part of either party.
A “dead end” is precisely what Laura Ginsberg, an AMIA widow who has, for years, fought for truth and justice, fears. The Memorandum between Argentina and Iran, she says, “is a lie. It’s not going to solve the case. On the contrary, it’s going to ensure impunity. What happens if the commission says there is sufficient evidence to sentence? Dead end. … Iran is going to say that the accused will not move from Iran. And the Argentine government is going to say it did all it could.”(2)
The secrecy of the negotiations, so far, and a lack of transparency in the process can further endanger the outcome of the upcoming investigation and lead to the above-mentioned dead end. The Memorandum of Understanding fails to specify whether or not the findings of the agreed-upon truth commission will be published, as they should be, and thus open to public scrutiny.
The Islamic Republic’s priority in this re-investigation is not the uncovering of the truth or accountability. There have been many opportunities in the almost two decades since the bombing for it to do so, including when Argentina presented its case to INTERPOL in 2007. But why does Argentina, a country where justice actually matters, present this agreement as a historical success, when it legitimizes Iran’s doubts about Argentina’s judicial process and provides no guarantees of success? What do the Argentine authorities hope to gain from the cooperation of a country notorious for violating due process of law and where judges deny Iranian victims and lawyers, let alone foreigners, access to their own files when they deem it harmful to the country’s image or national security?
On the 21st of February, 2013, the Argentine Senate approved the agreement with 39 votes against 31. In presenting the Memorandum of Understanding to the Argentine Senate for its approval, on the 13th of February, the Argentine Foreign Minister had faced skepticism from some senators. In response to questions on the value of the truth commission, in light of statements made by the Iranian authorities, the Minister had stressed that: “This Memorandum opens the doors so that the judge may continue the process which is now in a deadlock.” Given the legal hurdles alluded to above, the Argentine government’s expectations may not be realistic.
The AMIA case is a nuisance in Iran’s ever-expanding political and commercial ties with Latin America. The president of Iran had expressed optimism for such expansion in the framework of the discussions on the AMIA bombing: “I am sure that when investigations take place in an accurate and impartial manner, then the grounds will be prepared for the expansion of ties between Iran and Argentina."(3)
We can speculate on the Argentine government’s motives or its potential interest in resolving the AMIA problem, considering that the country is the second largest exporter to Iran in the region, with an estimated increase of 234% since the election of President Fernández de Kirchner in 2007.(4) But our purpose is not to understand the strategic advantages or the heavy investments that have strengthened Iran’s presence in Latin America. For many of us who believe in the rights of victims to truth and justice, it is the lack of interest of Latin American democracies in Iran’s abysmal human rights record that is concerning and disheartening.
This agreed-upon “Truth Commission” is the start of another roller coaster of hope and disappointment for the survivors and families of the victims of the AMIA bombing. The Islamic Republic has a tradition of providing financial and commercial advantages, so as to do away with investigations implicating its leaders in acts of terror. Argentina will not be the first democracy to succumb to the temptation of sacrificing ideals of truth and justice to short term political and commercial gains. Let us hope that the independent jurists involved in the investigation will make it their priority to uncover the truth and protect the right of the attack’s victims to justice.*
(1) http://fararu.com/fa/news/140208; since then, the Iranian media have reported other contradictory statements on the agreed-upon interrogation from officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
*A shorter version of this Newsletter was published in Huffington Post 2/8/2012