The Miami Herald
Thu, Oct. 26, 2006

Prosecutor: Iran's ex-president gave go-ahead for 1994 Argentina bombing

A prosecutor said Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran, approved the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85.

McClatchy News Service

BUENOS AIRES - An Argentine prosecutor on Wednesday sought the arrest of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, accusing him of approving the 1994 car bombing that killed 85 at a Jewish community center in the Argentine capital.

Prosecutor Alberto Nisman charged that six other Iranians and a Lebanese were involved, including a top Hezbollah figure, Imad Fayez Mugniyah. Mugniyah is already wanted by the United States for allegedly plotting the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner, which resulted in the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem.

Nisman said the accused met on Aug. 13, 1993, in Mashad, Iran, to approve the attack. He charged that the plot involved not only top political officials, but also lower-level diplomats in the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires.

''It wasn't a decision taken around a coffee table one day to the next by five or six gentlemen,'' said Nisman. He called it a well-calculated plan that was part of a ''terrorist matrix'' that included assassinations in France, Germany and Switzerland.

Nisman is the first Argentine official to publicly accuse officials in Tehran of involvement in the attack, which many here consider the Argentine equivalent of 9/11, and his charges lend credence to long-standing American and Israeli claims that Iran and Hezbollah are sponsors of international terrorism.

But they aren't likely to cause arrests anytime soon. Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral must approve Nisman's findings and issue arrest warrants. Then Argentina would have to seek the suspects' extradition -- a request Iran is unlikely to honor. Warrants could, however, prevent the suspects from traveling freely outside Iran; they would be subject to arrest under international agreements.

Nisman, who spoke to reporters in Buenos Aires, released few details. A full report was given to Canicoba on a CD because of the volume of the material. It's unknown when Canicoba will rule.

How Nisman traced the bombing to a specific meeting attended by Rafsanjani is also unknown. In Washington, Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of counterterrorism operations and analysis for the CIA, said he doesn't know of anyone who can confirm the meeting.

''From an intelligence point of view, we know Mugniyah directed the operation,'' Cannistraro said. ``There's been no confirmation of any meeting.''

Rafsanjani was the president of Iran from 1989 to 1997 and remains a powerful political force there. He ran for president last year, but was defeated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He currently serves as chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, a powerful body that attempts to resolve policy differences between the government and the clerics who must approve all government actions.

In 1997, German prosecutors said they believed Rafsanjani ordered the murder of an Iranian-Kurdish leader there, but he was never charged.

Rafsanjani also was the go-between in the arms-for-hostages deals that gave rise to the Iran-contra affair during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Mugniyah has an extensive terrorist résumé. He was indicted in the U.S. for Stethem's murder and is on the European Union's list of most wanted terrorists. He's variously described as Hezbollah's head of security and a founder of the organization. In addition to the Marines barracks bombing, he's thought to have been involved in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the kidnapping of journalist Terry Anderson there. The United States has offered a $5 million reward for his capture.

The bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires has remained an open wound, with accusations of bungling and cover-ups being levied against successive Argentine governments. The only people tried in the case were two Argentine police officers accused of helping terrorists obtain a van used to carry a bomb. Both were cleared.

Adding to the mystery, a former Iranian spy alleged in 2003 that Carlos Menem, Argentina's president at the time of the bombing, received $10 million in a Swiss bank account as payment from Iran to quash the investigation. Menem acknowledged the account but denied the hush money.

Later that same year, as Argentina tried to have Great Britain extradite Hadi Soleimanpour, Iran's former ambassador to Argentina, news reports emerged that the chief Argentine judge investigating the bombing -- Juan José Galeano -- paid a witness $400,000 for testimony and that he was writing a book on the case. He was removed from the case in 2004, and Nisman began to investigate.

Against that backdrop, families of the victims had their doubts Wednesday. ''After more than 12 years, we had hoped for more results,'' said Sofía Guterman, whose 28-year-old daughter, Andrea, perished in the attack, which also injured more than 200. ``I don't think it'll be very easy to extradite those people.''

McClatchy special correspondent Sánchez reported from Buenos Aires, Chang from Rio de Janeiro and Hall from Washington.