Getting away with murder: It’s time to hold Iran accountable
The White House has given carte blanche to Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, though the fighting has failed to quash the rebellion and brought about a humanitarian nightmare. There was no protest from President Trump when the Saudis held Lebanon’s prime minister to protest Iranian influence in Beirut. Trump, meanwhile, is threatening to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, over the objections of all other signatories.
Now, the White House has championed antigovernment protesters in Iran, though experts say Trump’s support might be counterproductive.
But there is one measure against Iran that Trump has avoided, though it would enjoy global support and help combat Iranian-sponsored terrorism: Compelling Tehran to turn over the murderers who bombed a Buenos Aires Jewish community center in 1994 and have been living openly for almost 25 years.
The suicide bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association, the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentine history, killed 85 people, including a five-year-old, and injured 300 others. Frustrated by a lack of progress in the investigation, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner set up a special investigative unit in 2004. Two years later, it issued a report that unequivocally blamed Iran for the massacre.
In 2007, at Argentina’s urging, Interpol issued arrest warrants, known as Red Notices, for six Iranian suspects. One of them, Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyah, was killed in a car bombing in Damascus in 2008. The remaining five suspects remain at large, though that description misleadingly suggests a life in hiding. Rather, Iran has never taken responsibility for the Buenos Aires bombing, and the well-known terrorists who organized it live in ostentatious freedom.
One of the suspects, Ahmad Vahidi, served as Iran’s defense minister until 2013. Despite the Red Notice, he has traveled internationally, including to Bolivia, Argentina’s neighbor. Another suspect, Mohsen Rezai, is a frequent presidential candidate.
Iran’s disregard for the international warrants is a challenge to Interpol, an insult to Argentina and a crime against relatives of the victims, who have seen no one held accountable for the murder of their loved ones. The United States should not tolerate it any longer.
The United States has many tools, diplomatic and otherwise, to dislodge criminals abroad when a polite extradition process is not feasible. In October, U.S. commandos in Libya captured a suspect in the 2012 Benghazi attack. In 1990, the United States hired bounty hunters to abduct an individual suspected of involvement in the torture and murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Mexico.
(When U.S. citizens are held overseas, no holds are barred. To extract Bowe Bergdahl from his Haqqani captors, former President Barack Obama traded five Taliban militants from Guantanamo Bay. To free Alan Gross, he swapped three Cuban spies.)
Yet under several administrations, U.S. authorities, who helped Argentine prosecutors investigate the AMIA bombing, have hardly lifted a finger to force Iran to cough up the suspects.
That is in part due to Argentine politics.
Argentina’s last president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, reversed her husband’s hardline Iran policy. Rather than demand access to the bombing suspects, she set up a commission in 2013 to launch a joint investigation with the same Iranian authorities who ordered the bombing in the first place. Two years later, the lead investigator in the case, Alberto Nisman, was murdered. Today, Fernández de Kirchner is facing criminal charges for colluding with Tehran to cover up the bombing.
But Fernández de Kirchner’s successor, Mauricio Macri, is eager to hold Iran accountable. At the start of his presidency, he disavowed his predecessor’s Iran rapprochement. In September, at the United Nations General Assembly, his vice president, Gabriela Michetti, pleaded for international support to bring the Iranian suspects to Argentina to stand trial. “We don’t want another 20 years to elapse without justice,” she said.
It is time for the United States to answer that call. As protesters in Iran draw attention to their government’s domestic repression, the international community should refocus on Iran’s global misdeeds. For starters, the U.S. government should impose new sanctions on Iran tied to its refusal to hand over the AMIA terrorism suspects, and encourage allies to do the same. Should the Red Notice targets leave Iran again, U.S. authorities should demand their arrest and immediate transfer to Argentina. In the meantime, the United States should urge governments to freeze any assets the suspects control outside Iran.
In Trump’s National Security Strategy, released Dec.18, the president called Iran a “rogue state” that supports terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, and committed the U.S. government to “neutralize Iranian malign influence.” What better way to start than to demonstrate that the international community will no longer permit Iran to harbor terrorists simply because their victims lived in a country that lacks the means to bring about justice for its citizens?
Benjamin N. Gedan is a former South America director on the National Security Council and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Follow him on Twitter @benjamingedan