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Why Is Argentina Appeasing Iran?

The men for whom Argentina has issued an international arrest over the bombing in 1994 of the Jewish charities office AMIA in Buenos Aires
The men for whom Argentina has issued an international arrest over the bombing in 1994 of the Jewish charities office AMIA in Buenos Aires
On July 18, 1994, a bomb destroyed the headquarters of the AMIA Jewish community organization in Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people were killed and hundreds injured, the single deadliest attack in recent Argentine history, which includes a seven-year "dirty war" in which thousands of people were "disappeared" by a military junta and many others killed by left-wing terrorists. No one has ever stood trial for carrying out the attack, although in 2006 Argentine State Prosecutor Alberto Nisman finally issued formal accusations against the country long believed to have been responsible: Iran, whose proxy army Hezbollah allegedly carried out the bombing.

Hector Timerman, Argentina's foreign minister, reacted to Iran's recent offer of a dialogue to resolve the dispute by describing it as "unprecedented" and "very positive."

Has Iran suffered a sudden attack of international civic mindedness and decided to hand over the fugitives whose extradition in connection with the AMIA case Argentina has long been seeking? "No" is the short answer. To understand the enormity of these recent developments, it is first necessary to recount the background of the case.

Since 2003, Argentina has been ruled first by the late Nestor Kirchner and then by his widow, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. During this period, the investigation into the massacre was reinvigorated, resulting in arrest warrants against senior Iranian officials in 2006. The validity of those arrest warrants was subsequently confirmed by Interpol. One of the men being sought by Argentine authorities is Ahmad Vahidi, Iran's defense minister. Iran has consistently refused all of Argentina's repeated requests to extradite the accused men.

On March 26 of this year, the Buenos Aires newspaper "Perfil" ran a story claiming that the government of Argentina was negotiating with Iran, that it was no longer interested in bringing the accused to justice, and that, in return for forgetting about them, would seek improved trade ties with Iran. There was much huffing and puffing from the government about lies and distortions in the story, but nothing amounting to a clear denial of its substance.

And now, all of a sudden and just a day before the commemoration of the 17th anniversary of the massacre, Iran offered dialogue and Argentina reacted with delight. How come? The reported offer by Iran made no mention of extraditing the fugitives wanted by the Argentine courts; indeed, it openly mocks Argentina's attempts to bring the mass killers to justice.

The Iranian offer contains no hint of real cooperation -- that is, the extradition of the wanted men. Rather, Iran lecturers its accusers about due process and human rights, concepts entirely foreign to the regime's domestic practices. And in response to this snub, Foreign Minister Timerman declared how pleased he would be to enter into dialogue with the paymasters of those alleged to have murdered dozens of his fellow citizens.

As Pepe Eliaschev, the journalist responsible for breaking the original story of the secret negotiations with Iran, reminded us, the government of Argentina has never denied that, in January of this year, Timerman left the official delegation accompanying President Fernandez de Kirchner on a tour of the Middle East to hold a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al Assad -- himself warmly welcomed to Buenos Aires for an official visit last year -- in the city of Aleppo, nor that he met Iran's foreign minister during the same visit.

In light of the initial revelations in March and Timerman's delighted response to Iran's offer of "dialogue" last week, it seems hard to doubt that the Beunos Aires is negotiating with Tehran to sweep the bodies of the AMIA dead, the bulk of them Jews, under the carpet, and that these negotiations were entered into with the assistance of the government of Syria, itself embroiled with massive unrest and responsible for the deaths of some 2,000 pro-democracy protesters.

Is all of this in the name of improved trade relations? Perhaps. Or perhaps Argentina's appeasement can be explained by its knowledge that Iran is indeed responsible for the AMIA massacre and might carry out another attack if not placated further. Or maybe it's to do with the influence of those supporters of the current Argentine government -- a minority, but not a miniscule group either -- that regard Iran as an exemplary nation and Zionism as the root of all evil. What's certain is that the Argentine government, one which makes a great deal of its human rights and anti-imperialist credentials, seems very anxious to genuflect to Iran, a country credibly accused of slaughtering dozens of Argentinian citizens.

Eamonn Mcdonagh lives in Buenos Aires and tweets at @eamonnmcdonagh. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL