Argentines Reexamine Cost of Shifts in Middle East Policy

ARGENTINA may be discovering that traveling the political road from isolationism to alignment with the West can carry a hefty price tag.

The country's attempts to play a more prominent role in international affairs - without paying more attention to external security - may be one reason why it is now scrambling to find suspects in a bombing that killed nearly 100 people on July 18 when terrorists blew up the headquarters of a local Jewish organization.

Following the failure of investigators to prosecute anyone for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy, also thought to be the work of Muslim militants, officials are under increased pressure to capture those responsible for this latest incident.

Argentina is also now engaged in a war of words with Iran after an Argentine judge on Aug. 9 issued international warrants for four former Iranian diplomats suspected of involvement in the bombing. Argentina has shifted from threatening to cut ties with Iran to vowing it will maintain diplomatic links no matter what role the former Iranian diplomats may have played in the attack.

Last week, Iran recalled its ambassador to Argentina. And on Aug. 23 the Supreme Court decided not to take the case, claiming there was not enough evidence to substantiate the charges against the four diplomats.

Analysts say one factor behind the attack may be Argentina's foreign policy changes, specifically a shift from neutrality in the Middle East to support for Israel's position.

``The shift in policy of Argentina on the Mideast could have left some Arab leaders irritated,'' said Rodolfo Gil, an international-relations analyst based in Buenos Aires. ``[President Carlos Saul] Menem made changes as a way to generate power for the country, but he didn't take into account the effect of these changes of foreign policy.''

Referring to the decision by Argentine President Menem to send ships to the Gulf war after Iraq had invaded Kuwait in 1990, Mr. Gil says: ``You can send ships to the far seas of the Gulf, but terrorism hasn't forgotten the distances .... Their field of action is the entire world.''

The son of Syrian immigrants, Menem also offered to mediate in the Middle East conflict after assuming power in 1989. But analysts say that move was Menem's attempt to grab the international spotlight, not to create a new tenet of Argentine foreign policy.

The recent switch in Argentina's global politics has gone far beyond the Middle East. After decades of a closed economy and political isolation from much of the world, Argentina restored relations with Britain broken after the Malvinas war in 1982; signed international treaties, such as the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which bars the development of nuclear weapons in the Americas; and began voting with the superpowers in international organizations such as the United Nations.

In the past month, Argentina initially agreed - and then quickly backpedaled due to opposition at home - to send troops to any US-led invasion of Haiti.

Analysts say it was Argentina's demonstration of military equilibrium in the Southern Cone, begun during the era of former US President George Bush, that was essential in gaining US support when Argentina's foreign debt was rescheduled.

``Argentina didn't have anything economic to offer, but it could prove it was reliable in military matters, that they weren't going to do anything to destabilize the area,'' says Raul Alberto Gatica, director of international cooperation at the Buenos Aires-based Center of Studies for the New Majority.

Analysts say the July bombing and subsequent attention will not sway Argentina from its current course - building international ties as it strengthens relations with the United States.

The weak link in the policy is Argentina's failure to act on the external security front, analysts agree. ``Argentina didn't see the impact of the change of its international policies,'' says Jorge Arias, a professor at the School of International Relations at University del Salvador, a private institution in Buenos Aires: ``It didn't see that it also had to change its security policy.''

Opinions are mixed on whether the new security secretariat Menem established right after the bombing will be effective. Many Argentines remain wary of super-intelligence agencies after living through years of military dictatorships and internal repression. Some say Menem, facing elections next spring, set up the office to keep an eye on internal social unrest.

A special constitutional assembly that wrapped up three months of meetings on Monday approved a reform that allows an incumbent president to run for reelection.

.This election bid could be influencing Menem's desire to enact the security secretariat; analysts say he does not want a repeat of rioting that rocked the northern provinces last fall.

While skeptical about the officials heading the new security secretariat, Gil says Argentina has to improve its external security as it expands its international role.

``Right now the state intelligence agency is paying off journalists, paying off politicians, and listening to phone conversations. ... We need an institution that can provide security from external dangers,'' he says.

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