Why Argentina is reaching out to Iran

Argentina announced it would work with Iran to resolve a deadly 1994 anti-Semitic attack in Buenos Aires. Trade considerations underlie the deal.

Don Rypka/AP/File
In this March 1992 file photo, firemen and rescue workers walk through the debris of Israel's embassy after a terrorist attack in Buenos Aires. Israel summoned the Argentine ambassador on Tuesday in protest over an agreement between Iran and Argentina to jointly investigate the terror bombing 19 years ago of a Jewish center that killed 85 people in Buenos Aires and that was widely blamed on Tehran.

After years of impasse, Argentina and Iran this week announced an agreement to work together on solving one of the deadliest anti-Semitic attacks anywhere since World War II. The deal emerged in the midst of deepening trade ties and has generated skepticism from the United States and Israel

In 1994, a suicide bomber drove a van full of explosives into the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building, killing 85, wounding about 300, and tearing at the heart of the Buenos Aires Jewish population, the largest in Latin America. An Argentine special prosecutor in 2006 accused Hezbollah, the Lebanese group with strong ties to Iran and Syria, of executing the attacks with financing from Iranian government officials.

Argentina and Iran announced this week an agreement to create a joint commission of international legal experts to investigate the 1994 attack. As part of the agreement, prosecutors will be allowed for the first time to interrogate suspects – in Tehran.

The announcement, signed by Foreign Minister Minister Héctor Timerman and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Albar Salehi, on the sidelines of an African Union meeting in Ethiopia, symbolizes Argentina’s warming ties with Iran as both countries seek nontraditional trading partners to shore up their flagging economies.

Banned from international credit markets because of outstanding debts with the Paris Club and World Bank, Argentina has brokered bilateral agreements with autocratic regimes like Iran. Pinioned by international sanctions, Iran has also had to look for new partners, finding in South America a sympathetic group of populist governments, according to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist and professor at Virginia Tech university.

“It has to establish friendly relations with countries so that it can trust that its assets won’t be seized,” says Professor Salehi-Isfahani.

Additionally, Iran is attempting to keep its food prices down amid a currency devaluation aggravated by sanctions on its oil, says Salehi-Isfahani.

“Argentina has quickly become one of Iran’s principal food importers, so this is becoming a relationship Iran needs to nurture,” he says.

Argentina has cut Iranian crude imports to comply with existing sanctions, but continues to export large volumes of agricultural goods, helping Iran avoid food shortages that would likely trigger social unrest, Salehi-Isfahani says. 

Trade between Iran and Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela rose to $3.6 billion in 2011, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. With the exception of Brazil, Iran's anti-Americanism is a sympathetic cause among these South American nations. The trade has undermined Washington's and Tel Aviv's efforts at isolating Iran by helping the country maneuver around economic sanctions and lending an air of credibility to its regime. 

“We see Argentina’s rapprochement with Iran as dangerous for the entire region because Iran is a sponsor of international terrorism with a regime that doesn’t respect human rights. Argentina has nothing in common with Iran and should have nothing to do with it,” says Sergio Widder, the representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, in Buenos Aires.

The US State Department says it is monitoring Iran’s engagement with the Western Hemisphere closely.

Iran is among several oil-rich countries with a consumer class, including Angola and Azerbaijan, that Argentina has sought as trading partners to help plug its widening energy deficit and to buy its agricultural and domestic products.

Though still accounting for a small portion of Argentina’s overall trade, the partnerships could become more valuable thanks to recent joint chambers of commerce that opened last year in Buenos Aires.

Skepticism over 'truth commission'

Israel and the US have expressed wariness about Argentina’s increasingly normalized relations with Iran.

Israel, which for years has attempted to isolate Iran through international sanctions in a bid for the country to drop its nuclear program, condemned the joint “truth commission” announced earlier this week to investigate the AMIA case. Israel's foreign ministry said in a press release that it received news of the agreement "with astonishment ... and deep disappointment."

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that holding a joint investigation with Iran was “like inviting the murderer to participate in the murder investigation.”

The US Embassy in Buenos Aires also expressed doubt about the Argentine-Iranian accord. “We are skeptical that a just solution can be found in the arrangement announced,” says a press officer.

Fears are periodically raised in the Argentine press about the possibility of Iran gaining access to Argentina’s atomic energy program, though the US State Department dismissed the possibility in a press conference late last year, calling Argentina a firm ally in the international campaign to keep Iran from developing nuclear technology.

South American trade with strongmen 

Argentina is leading Latin America in forging new trade partnerships with fast-growing, oil-rich, autocratic regimes in Africa and the Middle East. In 2012, huge delegations of diplomats and businesspeople traveled to Angola, ruled by strongman José Eduardo dos Santos and Azerbaijan, whose president, Ilham Aliyev, has been criticized for a rise in religious persecution of non-Muslims.

Such leaders make strange bedfellows for Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who, along with her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, has been a vocal champion of human rights.

The agreement with Iran represents a turnabout for Argentina. Ms. Kirchner had previously appealed to the United Nations to pressure the Iranians to comply with its earlier investigation into the 1994 AMIA bombing. However, at last year’s General Assembly meeting, Kirchner announced Argentina would be seeking to resolve the case jointly with Iran, initiating several rounds of secret negotiations that riled Argentina’s Jewish community.

To date Iran has ignored international arrest warrants for nine people Argentina suspects in the attacks, including a former Iranian president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Iran’s current defense minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi.

Whether Argentina can win Iran’s cooperation through trade when international sanctions have failed remains to be seen. 

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