OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE PROVES IRAN’S ROLE IN THE 1992 AND 1994 BOMBINGS OF THE ISRAELI EMBASSY AND JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER IN BUENOS AIRES
by Ronen Bergman*
At the time of the 1992 suicide attack on the Israeli embassy in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires, Israeli diplomat Danny Carmon was serving there as Consul and Administrative Officer. “I lost consciousness and my eyesight in the first 24 hours or so,” he told Majalla. “My first recollection — coupled with my first knowledge of the tragedy — was when my five children visited me in the hospital. It was the moment when I had to officially tell them that their mother was killed in the bombing. It was of course the most painful moment of my life. Since then, over the past 25 years, while living with the memory, I have tried to raise our five children to be the wonderful human beings that they are. And I rebuilt the family and continued with my professional life, serving now as the Ambassador of Israel to India. … There is no doubt that the Iranians are behind this cruel act of terrorism, and we all know there were various attempts to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice. Doing so should be part of the joint effort to combat terrorism and punish its actors. It is a goal that should unite all those who understand the danger emanating from terrorism.”
BUENOS AIRES – TEL AVIV
“I am confident that justice will be done, that we have enough evidence, that one day we shall be able to settle our account with them.” Despite the long distance between Buenos Aires and Tel Aviv, the voice of Dr. Alberto Nisman sounded as strong and clear as usual on the phone.
It was December 8, 2014. Nisman was the special prosecutor named by the Argentine government over a decade before to investigate two horrendous terrorist attacks that had taken place in the country’s capital in the 1990s: the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and a largely Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, called the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), in 1994.
As early as 2006, at Nisman’s request, INTERPOL had issued international arrest warrants for a number of high-ranking Iranian officials and Hezbollah officers suspected of being behind the bombings. I was in touch with him at the time as I was gathering material for an investigative report for the New York Times Magazine about another terrorist attack: On February 14 2005, a Mitsubishi Canter driven by a suicide terrorist and laden with powerful explosives equivalent to three tons of TNT, had been detonated in Rue Minet el Hos’n, a busy street in Beirut, just in front of the St. George Hotel, near the Marina. It destroyed the convoy of vehicles in which Lebanon’s former and probably next prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, was traveling, and created a hellish inferno in the busy street. It killed Hariri, eight members of his entourage, and 13 bystanders. Close to 300 were wounded.
Under pressure from the American and French governments, the United Nations set up the largest ever and most expensive investigation in history to locate the perpetrators. A unique court to try them — the “Special Tribunal for Lebanon” — was also established, the first ever for a single act of terrorism. Indictments against five members of Hezbollah were submitted to the court in absentia, charging that they were behind the act. According to information reaching the STL, it was carried out at the orders of both Iran and Syria in response to Hariri’s critical stance toward them.
There were many common elements connecting Nisman’s investigation and those of the STL. The same secret Hezbollah network targeted both, commanded by the organization’s military chief, Imad Moughniyeh. The prosecution at the tribunal saw Nisman as one of the most prominent experts on the subject, and he was due to give evidence there about the organization’s operational methods and its cooperation with Iranian intelligence. Some of Nisman’s witnesses, defectors from Iranian intelligence, were also due to testify — several with their faces hidden — before the tribunal’s judges.
Nisman spoke enviously about the means, capabilities, and authority at the disposal of the STL, compared to his own inquiry: “They sit there, in the pastoral surroundings of the suburb in The Hague, under close protection, with a team of hundreds of investigators and experts, with unlimited budgets and means that I can only dream of. Who knows? Perhaps one day it will be possible to set up a tribunal like that so that the AMIA attacks can be investigated without hindrance.” Some of the Iranian witnesses also testified, in the course of the hearings, to the massive damages ordered to be paid by Iran to families of the 9/11 victims in New York, after a Federal judge found Iran to have provided material support to Al-Qaeda. Nisman said that he hoped and believed that one day his evidence and findings in the case of the Buenos Aires attacks would also serve as the basis for a civil damages suit, in the United States or in an international court.
Nisman had good reason to view with envy the possibility of conducting an inquiry without outside pressures and with the appropriate resources. I first met him in December 2007, when he came to Israel to ask for assistance from the relevant authorities in gathering information about the attacks. We discussed his investigation, its achievements, and the many difficulties he was encountering. He went into details about the evidence he had obtained against the high-ranking officials of Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, while stressing that from his point of view, even if he could bring them to trial and convict them, that would be only part of the story. “Very senior figures in my government’s public prosecution and intelligence services have been partnering in order to disrupt the discovery of the truth about the Iranian connection, and to prevent the guilty parties from being brought to justice,” he told me. He promised he would submit indictments against all of these people, “no matter how important or high-ranking they are,” including the head of Argentinian intelligence at the time, Hugo Anzoregy. At the time, I thought that these were empty boasts. Who would dare, I thought — especially in Argentina, with its history of military rule and murderous secret services — clash in such a way with the regime, at that, over one of the most fraught political affairs in the history of the country.
Nisman wanted to meet with Israeli intelligence officials who had investigated the Buenos Aires attacks in order to obtain the material they had gathered. I turned to one of them, a man who had held some of the most senior positions in the Mossad, in order to try and set up a meeting. I was surprised by the reply: “They are corrupt and rotten to the core,” said the man, referring to everyone in Argentinian officialdom. “When we got to Buenos Aires after the attack on the embassy we wanted to cooperate with the local investigators. Very quickly we discovered that it was a waste of time.” He flatly refused to meet Nisman, arguing that nothing would come of it.
That Mossad man and I both underestimated Nisman. A short time after the conversations in Tel Aviv, he launched an all-out war against a number of the most powerful figures in his country, and submitted indictments against them for obstructing the legal proceedings and giving false testimony. During 2014 he declared he would also submit an indictment against the president of Argentina, Christina Fernandez de Kirschner; her foreign minister Hector Timmerman; and her aides, whom he accused of “organizing and conducting negotiations and agreeing to refrain from penalizing the Iranians who organized the attacks” in exchange for commercial and other benefits, mainly the supply of oil.
The character of Nisman, a fighter for law and justice ready to brave perilous risks, impressed and fascinated me. Together with a well-known Israeli movie director, I wrote the script for a feature film based on the blowing up of the AMIA building and Nisman’s inquiry. I spoke to Nisman about the project in a series of phone conversations in 2014. Nisman was not averse to media attention, and he was clearly happy about the prospect of publicity. He was interested in knowing who we had in mind for the role. One of the ideas, I told him, was Willem Dafoe. I did not tell Nisman that we had weighed the possibility of ending the scenario with his assassination. When that possibility had arisen, I ruled it out, arguing that it was “a banal and predictable Hollywood ending. We have to find something a lot more sophisticated.”
Movies are one thing, and real life is another. Nisman spoke to me of the enormous pressure that was being exerted against him in the real world to end his stubborn campaign. “They told me that I had already aroused attention all over the world, revealing the names of those directly responsible for the attack. Everyone is aware of you and your probe. Let it go.” One of these “requests,” he told me, was that he would at least delete the Iranian names from the indictments concerning the attack itself, leaving only the Hezbollah personnel, in order to enable a thaw in relations between Tehran and Buenos Aires. “I said to them, “And what about the victims? What about justice?”
That was our last conversation. Early in January 2015 Nisman submitted a 300-page document against the state president. On January 19, he was due to present the secretly made recordings that were going to prove his grave charges against her to the special panel set up to inquire into the affair. But the day before, he was found with a bullet in his head in what looked like a suicide, but which ever since has aroused a series of extremely worrying questions. I do not believe that, just before he was about to present the findings of the biggest case of his life, and was facing the decisive stage of the inquiry to which he had devoted so much efforts, this optimistic, vibrant man would shoot himself.
Either way, the upshot was that the public prosecution hastened to conclude that the inquiry into Nisman’s death was the suicide of a frustrated man. In subsequent months, government sources issued a series of accusations against him, alleging that he had tried to obstruct legal and governmental proceedings and that he had fabricated evidence.
However, the cases of the two attacks in Buenos Aires did not die with Nisman. The mountains of material that he gathered, the repercussions he had stoked, together with the demands for justice of the victims and their families, the general Argentinian public and the international community, were stronger than the attempts to plaster over the affair.
Investigating Judge Rodolfo Canicoba was appointed to handle the case in Nisman’s place, and he embarked on a world-wide journey in the wake of Ali Velayati, the former Iranian foreign minister, who was one of the suspects on the Interpol arrest warrant that had been issued at Nisman’s request. Each time over the past year when Canicoba heard that Velayati was about to visit another country outside Iran, he asked its government to extradite the Iranian. The most recent of these was Iraq, to which he submitted a demand on October 21, 2016.
Extradition has not yet been executed, and it is doubtful that any country, especially Iraq, will ever risk getting into trouble with Iran by arresting and extraditing so senior a figure as Velayati. But the fact that Argentina has made it clear that it will not drop the matter — together with the warrants dangling over the heads of senior Iranian officials — has a symbolic significance. The case remains one of the most intriguing and dramatic clashes between terrorism and international law in history. Inside Argentina, moreover, the attacks have over the years become one of the most highly fraught and sensitive political issues since the days of the junta.
Apparently Iran and Hezbollah did not foresee this political entanglement when they decided to embroil the distant South American country in the bloody fistfight they were engaged in with Israel, more than ten thousand kilometers away. Their aim in carrying out the terrorist attacks was to rewrite the rules of the game, and to avenge any Israeli attack against them in Lebanon by striking at Israel’s soft underbelly – its diplomatic missions and Jewish communities across the globe. While Israel makes great efforts to protect its legations, it also sees itself as the guardian of the entire Jewish people and does all it can to fulfill this role. It is clear, however, that what Israel does with relatively high efficiency at home, cannot easily be accomplished at thousands of sites all over the world.
On February 16, 1992, the intelligence arm of the Israel Defense Forces, known as “AMAN,” was examining the possibility of abducting Hezbollah’s secretary general, Abbas Al-Musawi, while he was visiting southern Lebanon. They wanted to use him as a bargaining chip against Hezbollah and Iran in order to secure the release of an Israeli air force navigator, Ron Arad, whom they were holding. At the last moment, in a hasty decision, the IDF command, headed by Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, decided to recommend to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to alter the goal of the operation and assassinate Musawi.
Years later, AMAN chief Maj. Gen. Uri Sagi said he believed he had erred in approving the operation. “I did not accurately foresee Iran’s and Hezbollah’s reaction,” he told me. “I did not accurately evaluate Imad Moughniyeh.”
Hezbollah’s first response was to let loose a five-day barrage of Katyusha rockets on the western Galilee. A six-year-old girl was killed. But from the perspective of Iran and Hezbollah, it was also important to act beyond the Middle East, in order to show that any strike against them would lead not only to a counterstrike against the IDF and Israeli civilians, but also against Israeli citizens and Jews anywhere in the world.
Watching television in her home in Ankara, Rachel Sadan saw the news about the killing of Musawi and sighed heavily. “Ehud,” she said to her husband, head of security at the Israeli embassy, “I hope this doesn’t set off a whole war of assassinations.” Sadan reassured her and promised that that wouldn’t happen. On March 3, 1992, an explosive device went off near a synagogue in Istanbul, but no one was killed. On March 7, Sadan was killed when a large bomb exploded under his car. Members of a group calling itself Hezbollah Turkey would later be convicted of carrying out the attack on behalf of Iran and Moughniyeh’s terrorist apparatus.
On March 17 1992, Anna Aroch, a Jewish resident of Buenos Aires and the treasurer of the Jewish Agency in Argentina, was visiting the Israeli embassy there. “The Agency had offices in the embassy building. I had been asked to come there because the security officer was conducting a refresher course of security procedures. I arrived a little early for the meeting, which had been called for 3 p.m., and went to our office, on the fourth floor. The entire, stately building belonged to the Israeli government. The embassy had been situated there since diplomatic relations between the two states were established in 1949.”
A few minutes later, a suicide terrorist exploded a car bomb outside the embassy. “I don’t remember the blast itself,” Anna Aroch told me, “only waking up in great pain, hearing my colleague who only seconds before was sitting next to me, screaming at me and feeling as if the whole room was on my back. I was wounded. There was a lot of blood. Everything was covered by dust and there was blood and bodies and wounded people screaming. I did not grasp what was happening, and I only tried to extricate myself from the beam that had fallen on me. When I succeeded, I found two other people, and together we tried to get out. We came to the emergency staircase, but instead of stairs there was only a big dark hole. We went onto the roof, where we knew there was a blocked passage to the next building. We found an axe and with it we broke through the door and crossed onto the next roof. Some of my good friends were killed that day.”
Four Israelis and five Argentinian Jews who worked at the embassy were among the 29 people killed. Most of the dead were children at a nearby school; 242 people were injured. Moughniyeh had intended to wreak vengeance on the 40th day after the death of Mussawi, marking the end of the traditional Shi’ite mourning period. He was off by only a few days.
American intelligence gave the Israelis clear-cut proof – “not a smoking gun, but a muzzle-flashing gun,” as one Mossad man said – that Imad Moughniyeh and his lieutenant, Talal Hamia, were behind the attack. The Americans had tapped into a telephone call with Hamia in which Moughniyeh was heard mocking the failure of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, to protect the embassy.
The Israelis were surprised by the rapidity with which Moughniyeh, with the backing of the Iranian intelligence ministry had been able to execute the attacks in Turkey and Argentina. Only later did it dawn on them that his strategic greatness lay in planning operations years in advance, and executing them on short notice when the occasion arose. An in-depth investigation by the Mossad and the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) revealed that the cell that carried out the Buenos Aires bombing was one of 45 sleeper cells deployed around the world, including Europe and the United States, by Hezbollah’s “Special Research Apparatus – Unit 91.” This is the code name for the militia’s elite secret force, consisting of 200-400 of its best and toughest fighters, most of them trained in Iran by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ “Qods Force.”
According to Stanley Bedlington of the CTC, “The aim of the cells is to provide an immediate response in the event of an Israeli attempt to strike at Hezbollah.” (Since 2005, the cells have also taken on the role of threatening, and sometimes acting, to wreak immediate vengeance for any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or those who work there).
One such cell had been cultivated in the region of Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, near the imposing waterfalls at the country’s border with Brazil and Paraguay. Among the large community of Shi’ite Lebanese émigrés who have settled there, some keep in close touch with their families in the old country, and a few have assisted Hezbollah when needed. Long before the hit on Musawi, the cell had collected a great deal of information on possible Israeli targets, for use when the need arose. After the assassination, Moughniyeh ordered a team, commanded by Abu al-Ful, a veteran of many Hezbollah operations, to leave Lebanon for Puerto Iguazu. After receiving logistical and intelligence assistance from the local cell, including vehicles and explosives, they set out for Buenos Aires, where the Iranian embassy took them under its wing. The suicide bomber, hailed from Cuidad del Este, on the Paraguayan side of the “tri-border area.”
After the attack, a Mossad team visited the area and came back with hair-raising findings. “A town called Hell” is what they called Cuidad del Este. “We’re speaking of a clear and present danger,” the operatives reported. “The next attack is on its way.” A visit I paid to the city, on the trail of the Hezbollah cells, confirmed that it was a place where drugs, contraband, counterfeit goods, weapons, and prostitutes were all openly trafficked. At a local mosque, I met a cousin of Hassan Nasrallah’s, who headed a charity that supported Hezbollah and who spoke of the need “to destroy the Zionist enemy.”
Following the attack in Argentina, there were voices in the Mossad calling for vigorous and aggressive Israeli action against Shi’ite terror in South America. If we do not act, they warned, there will be more attacks. But the heads of the organization responded with apathy. Israel refrained from reacting to the attack for fear of additional escalation.
Success gave Moughniyeh the appetite for another round, also outside the Middle East, in areas where Israeli intelligence has difficulty functioning, and where it’s hard for the Shin Bet to protect Israeli legations. On March 11 1994, a suicide terrorist dispatched by Moughniyeh drove a truck packed with tons of explosives from the outskirts of Bangkok on a pre-set route on the way to the Israeli embassy in the center of the Thai capital. If he had exploded the bomb at that time and place it would have caused hundreds of casualties. But a few hundred meters from the embassy, the man had second thoughts, stopped the truck in the middle of the road, and ran away.
The Israelis eventually decided on a response. There had been suggestions that Israel should not make do with striking a blow against Hezbollah, but should rather punish those Iranians involved in the terror. Proponents of this argument proposed to Prime Minister Rabin that General Ali Reza Askari, commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force at the time, would be a suitable candidate for assassination. But Rabin was not keen to get the Iranians involved, and in any case no one in Israeli intelligence knew where Askari was to be found or how to do away with him.
The next round in the deadly bout, which Rabin did endorse, came after two months of careful planning. On June 2 1994, during a parade of Hezbollah officers at a camp near Ein Dardara, close to the Lebanese-Syrian border, Israel Air Force helicopters attacked, killing 50 and wounding 50.
This time, it took Moughniyeh 46 days to throw his counterpunch — and once again he struck civilians in Buenos Aires. On July 18, 1994, at 9:53 in the morning, a huge blast shook the bustling streets and sent smoke and dust billowing into the smoggy skies of Buenos Aires, the city named for its once-clean air. A bomb had detonated under the seven-floor AMIA building, killing 86 people and injuring 252. It took weeks to remove all of the bodies from the wreckage.
The Jewish community, which had suffered lethal attacks by the military junta that ruled the country in the 1970s, had taken another blow, from which it still has not fully recovered two decades later. Since that day, the community has held a memorial vigil once a week outside the new building erected at the site, with the participants standing silently for 86 seconds in honor of the dead and in protest against the Argentinian government’s negligence and cover-ups in the course of the investigation into the outrage. In the lobby of the new building, there is a museum memorializing the victims, and the 1943 cornerstone of the old building which had been buried deep in the ground and was uprooted by the force of the blast.
Following this second deadly terrorist attack in Buenos Aires, which took Israeli intelligence by utter surprise, Mossad Director Shabtai Shavit ordered an intensive investigation, in cooperation with the Argentinian Secretariat of State Intelligence (SIDE). It came up with similar conclusions to the probe into the embassy blast: Iran, Hezbollah and Moughniyeh were responsible, and Abu al-Ful had done the work on the ground.
Moughniyeh’s successes at deterring Israel, the strongest power in the region, were also very clearly picked up by the intelligence services and governing circles in other Middle Eastern countries, which despised Hezbollah but feared that the fury of this deadly terrorist and his fanatical allies would be turned against them. In July 1998, the Jordanian secret service seized a Hezbollah squad that was about to set out from Amman to carry out terror attacks in Europe. One of the detainees was Abu al-Ful. During his rigorous and violent interrogation by the Jordanians, he admitted that he and his squad had been a key element in the attacks on the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. He also supplied information about the planning and execution of those operations and linked the Iranians to them. The Jordanians notified the Israelis about the arrests and also shared the information with them.
However, in the end, despite al-Ful’s confession, the Jordanians decided they did not want to hold on to this hot potato. They had received menacing threats from Moughniyeh to deter them from putting al-Ful on trial in Jordan, and knew they would be making themselves a target for Hezbollah attacks if they did not let him go. Despite sharp protests from Israel, they freed al-Ful and his men, who were given asylum by Iran.
Israel complained to Jordan over its failure to extradite Abu al-Ful, with Mossad people tearing their hair out over the thought that this man, one of the top figures on their hit list, was in a Jordanian prison, not far from Israel, and was simply going to be put on a plane to Tehran. Yet after the AMIA attack, Israel had in a sense given in to the same threat from Hezbollah and Iran, in that it refrained from hitting one of the leaders of the organization. Indeed, from 1994 until the abduction of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006 that led to the Second Lebanon War, Israel refrained from any act that was liable to be interpreted by Hezbollah and Iran as a breach of the rules and lead to a counterstrike against Israeli and Jewish attacks outside of Israel itself.
In Argentina, the investigation became a highly sensitive political issue. A range of theories evolved about who had perpetrated the two attacks, ranging from Iran, Iraq, and Syria to neo-Nazi elements in the police and military. But all the evidence pointed to Iran and Hezbollah. Gabriel Pasquini, a journalist who covered the story for La Nación, sums up the situation well: “Playing a central role here are the impotence of the Argentinian law enforcement and investigative authorities — who really do not know how to tackle this kind of terrorism — and also the terrible corruption that is deeply rooted in the governmental apparatus here. There is no doubt that the police made many errors in the investigation, but it is not clear whether these errors were made innocently or maliciously.”
The story of this investigation, its nebulous outcome, and its failure to solve the case could fill a book. An endless series of arrests, announcements, leaks, “breakthroughs,” and indictments all came to naught. No one has ever been convicted of perpetrating the outrage or abetting it.
In September 2001, the federal judge appointed to conduct the investigation, Juan Jose Galeano, submitted indictments against Carlos Telleldin, a man who evidence indicated had helped the terrorists acquire the Renault Trafic van they used to blow up the building. He also indicted 19 current and former police officers.
According to Galeano’s indictment, Telledin had sold the van to four men, who were linked to unnamed terrorists. But the entire web of the prosecution’s evidence was shredded when a video tape of an interrogation session between Galeano and Telledin came to light. In it, the judge was heard uttering statements that could have been construed as offering the suspect a large sum of money in exchange for evidence that would incriminate the police officers. Galeano was sacked. All of the indicted men were acquitted.
Nisman, who replaced Galeano, gave a harsh account of the matter: “Any attempt to make Telledin and the police officers the fall guys for the entire affair stems from our government’s lack of will to directly confront the Iranian regime, which was responsible for the attack. There has been a conspiracy here between politicians lacking any limits and a part of the corrupt judicial system, with the aim of plucking perpetrators of the attack out of thin air.”
After the collapse of the case against the police, Nisman had to begin anew. “It wasn’t easy. The victims’ families were misled into thinking that the authorities had indeed caught the perpetrators and all of a sudden, eleven years afterwards, they are confronted with total failure and an investigation that had not advanced a single millimeter from the day it began. It was very difficult to face them and assure them that this time it would be different.”
Nisman collected sufficient evidence to issue an international arrest warrant against the heads of Iranian intelligence — including Ali Fallahian, who served as Iranian Intelligence Minster between 1989 to 1997; Ahmad Vahidi, Commander of the IRGC, who would later serve as defense minister under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; as well as Moughniyeh and Hamia. He also gathered enough evidence to prosecute high-ranking Argentinian officials who disrupted the investigation, including Judge Galeano Anzoregi.
Nissman told me about some of the evidence he had: “On August 14 1993, a special forum of high-ranking officials gathered in the city Mashhad, including Falahian, in order to discuss response measures to the abrogation by Argentina of the contract for the supply of a nuclear reactor to Iran. Present were five senior officials from Tehran and Iranian intelligence personnel who had come especially from Buenos Aires, among them a man called Mohsen Rabani. Up until the bombing of the Israeli embassy, Rabani had served as imam of the Shi’ite “Al-Tawhid” mosque in Buenos Aires. Suddenly, he was appointed “cultural affairs consul” by the Iranian embassy, achieving diplomatic immunity.
“Rabani,” continued Nisman, “was the one who brought to the meeting the idea of attacking the AMIA building. We know that there were another two targets that were discussed, but Rabani’s proposal was adopted unanimously. He came back to Buenos Aires and started a series of activities in order to have the attack carried out. One of the astonishing things that I discovered in the SIDA files was that the corrupt members of our intelligence agencies ignored material they possessed about a number of bank accounts that Rabani opened after the meeting in Mashhad. In one of the accounts, at Deutsche Bank, he deposited a transfer from Iran of $150,000, money that he then withdrew four days before the attack.
“On July 15, three days before the attack, Rabani was photographed by a SIDA surveillance team that was keeping an eye on him after the explosion at the embassy, trying to acquire a Renault Trafic. At this stage, he apparently realized he was being watched. He left the car lot, only to purchase another Trafic at a site where he felt more secure.”
Further evidence discovered by Nisman in the files was a recording of a conversation that took place in the home of an Iranian diplomat after the blast at the embassy and before the AMIA attack. In the course of a domestic argument, during which voices were raised, the diplomat’s wife is heard yelling that if he continues to mistreat her, she will tell everything she knows about his part in “what happened at the offices of the Zionists” — an apparent allusion to the embassy bombing.
The investigation was also helped by the testimony of the Iranian defectors and analysis of over 30 million phone calls to and from Argentina and inside Buenos Aires on the fateful days immediately before and after the explosion. These included the calls made by the suicide bomber himself, Ibrahim Biro, to his family in Lebanon, and the reconstruction of his trip from of Ciudad del Este, where he lived, to Buenos Aires. Another piece of evidence was the dry run of the route he was going to take in the van, and of the attack itself. The bomb, according to Nisman’s information, was made of TNT that was sent, in all likelihood, as diplomatic mail, via the sea, to the Iranian embassy.
Despite Nisman’s meticulous investigation — staffed by a team of 50, it gathered a massive body of evidence — Argentina has not succeeded in bringing to justice even one of the individuals accused of direct involvement in the crime, from neither Hezbollah nor Iran. Nisman accused his country’s leadership of making no particular effort to obtain the extradition of the indicted persons out of a desire to thaw ties with Iran.
Nisman may have been right, and may even have paid with his life for his stubbornness. But the matter of the corruption of the regime in Buenos Aires is only part of the story. After all, even the Special Tribunal of Lebanon, which does not suffer from a lack of political support, has failed to bring about the extradition of a single one of the accused in the Hariri assassination. The Lebanese authorities would not or could not arrest the five accused, and Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has vowed that they will never be captured, “not even in another 300 years.”
On the other hand, when a special tribunal was set up in the Hague for the perpetrators of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, no one believed that one day Milesovic and Miledic would be brought in by prison vans and put on trial for the crimes they had committed. Yet they were.
Might accounts with Iran and Hezbollah over the Buenos Aires attacks be settled through a civil, rather than a criminal, proceeding? Nisman told me in one of our conversations that this was a theoretical possibility in Argentina, but he would never advise anyone to seek satisfaction through the country’s judicial system. Perhaps a more realistic possibility, he felt, lay in the United States — after the 1996 amendment to the country’s, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), allowing U.S. victims of terrorism to sue designated state sponsors of terrorism for their terrorist acts.
Ellen Saracini, the wife of United Airlines 175 pilot Victor Saracini, which the hijackers crashed into the WTC South Tower on 9\11, headed a group of family members of victims of that atrocity which filed a massive damages suit against Iran, )the case of “Fiona Havlish v. Usama Bin Laden”). The lawyers for the plaintiffs asked me to help them prepare their case, by arranging meetings between them and intelligence personnel and other public officials dealing with the matter, to examine the evidence of Iranian defectors, and also to submit an affidavit as an expert witness. For me, these were fascinating months. It turned out that Israeli intelligence agencies possessed considerable material on the links between Iran and Al-Qaeda, dating back to events in Khartoum in the 1990s, where meetings took place between members of the IRGC and the elements from which Al-Qaeda was formed.
After my research, I submitted my findings to the court, writing in my opinion:
“Based on all of the above-mentioned sources and my analysis of all the materials I have seen and all the interviews I have conducted, it is my expert opinion that the Islamic Republic of Iran was, and is, a benefactor of, and provided material aid, resources, and support to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, both before and after the attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States. Further, it is my expert opinion that the Islamic Republic of Iran stands at the center of the rise of modern terrorism, and that Iran consistently supports terrorist operations against a number of targets throughout the world, including the United States.”
Iran’s government did not participate in the trial — nor in any American trial arising from its involvement in terror — so it is only possible to imagine what would have happened if its counsel were to have questioned the witnesses, including myself, for the plaintiffs. The evidence and affidavits that were submitted by a number of experts including myself, were accepted by the court in a summary judgment. Judge George B. Daniels, in his “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law” found that “Iran has been waging virtually an undeclared war against both the United States and Israel for thirty years. … Iran wages this undeclared war through asymmetrical, or unconventional strategies and terrorism, often through proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and others. “… [S]enior Al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. … Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri met directly with Iran’s master terrorist Imad Mughniyah and Iranian officials.”
The court found that Iran had indeed assisted Al-Qaeda in perpetrating the 9/11 attacks, and awarded compensation amounting to $10.5 billion for the plaintiffs.
The detailed judgment of the court carries great weight — recognition of the profound involvement of Iran in international terrorism — but the families of the victims in the Havlish case, and in other successful cases against Iran, have yet to see even one dollar. Iran denied all of the allegations and refuses to pay.
The United States government has not taken any measures to enable the collection of the money from Iran, despite the fact that it could have seized Iranian assets in the West to do so. The U.S. administration has its own considerations and certainly after the signing of the nuclear deal and the start of a sort of dialogue between the two countries it is no hurry to wage economic war.
It is hoped that this policy will change. True, from the point of view of the relatives of the murder victims, in Lebanon, New York, and Buenos Aires, the awarding of civil damages is not equivalent to knowing that those responsible are sitting behind bars. But even monetary compensation, to the extent that it makes life easier for the victim’s families, can provide some small consolation, and in the very holding of the trial there may be some deterrence of the perpetration of similar acts in the future.
*Investigative journalist and author Ronen Bergman is a contributing writer to the New York Times magazine.