BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—An Argentine prosecutor on Wednesday sought the arrest of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, accusing him of approving the 1994 car bombing that killed 85 people at a Jewish community center in the Argentine capital.
Prosecutor Alberto Nisman charged that six other Iranians and a Lebanese were involved in the attack, including a top Hezbollah figure, Imad Fayez Mugniyah. Mugniyah is already wanted by the United States for allegedly plotting the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner, which resulted in the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem.
Nisman said the accused met on Aug. 13, 1993, in Mashad, one of Iran's holiest cities, to approve the attack. He charged that the plot involved not only top political officials, but also lower-level diplomats in the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires.
"It wasn't a decision taken around a coffee table one day to the next by five or six gentlemen," said Nisman. He called it a well-calculated plan that was part of a "terrorist matrix" that included assassinations in France, Germany and Switzerland.
Nisman is the first Argentine official to publicly accuse officials in Tehran of involvement in the attack, which many here consider the Argentine equivalent of Sept. 11, and his charges lend credence to longstanding American claims that Iran and Hezbollah are sponsors of international terrorism.
But they aren't likely to result in arrests anytime soon. Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral must first approve Nisman's findings and issue arrest warrants. Then Argentina would have to seek the suspects' extradition from Iran—a request Iran is unlikely to honor.
Warrants could, however, prevent the suspects from traveling freely outside Iran; they'd be subject to arrest under international police agreements.
Nisman, who spoke to reporters in Buenos Aires, released few details of his investigation. A full report was given to Canicoba on a CD because of the volume of the material. It's unknown when Canicoba will rule on the matter.
How Nisman traced the bombing to a specific meeting attended by Rafsanjani is also unknown. In Washington, Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of counterterrorism operations and analysis for the CIA, said he doesn't know of anyone who can confirm the meeting.
"From an intelligence point of view, we know Mugniyah directed the operation," Cannistraro said. "There's been no confirmation of any meeting. ... No one has that precise intelligence. I do know there is not a hard source that is credible and attended that meeting."
Rafsanjani was the president of Iran from 1989 to 1997 and remains a powerful political force there. He ran for president last year, but was defeated by the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He currently serves as chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, a powerful body that attempts to resolve policy differences between the government and the clerics who must approve all government actions.
In 1997, German prosecutors said they believed Rafsanjani ordered the murder of an Iranian-Kurdish leader there, but Rafsanjani was never charged.
Rafsanjani also was the go-between in the arms-for-hostages deals that gave rise to the Iran-contra affair during Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Mugniyah has an extensive terrorist resume. He was indicted in the United States for Stethem's murder and is on the European Union's list of most wanted terrorists. He's variously described as Hezbollah's head of security and a founder of the organization. In addition to the Marines barracks bombing, he's thought to have been involved in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the kidnapping of journalist Terry Anderson there.
The United States has offered a $5 million reward for his capture.
The bombing of the AMIA Jewish center here has remained an open wound, with accusations of bungling and cover-ups being levied against successive Argentine governments. The only people tried in the case were two Argentine police officers accused of helping terrorists obtain a van used to carry a hidden bomb. Both were cleared.
Adding to the mystery, a former Iranian spy alleged in 2003 that Carlos Saul Menem, Argentina's president at the time of the bombing, received $10 million in a secret Swiss bank account as payment from Iran to quash the investigation. Menem, of Syrian descent, acknowledged the secret account but denied the hush money.
Later that same year, as Argentina tried to have Great Britain extradite Hadi Soleimanpour, Iran's former ambassador to Argentina, news reports emerged that the chief Argentine judge investigating the bombing—Juan Jose Galeano—paid a witness $400,000 for testimony and that he was writing a book on the case. He was removed from the case in 2004, and Nisman was appointed to investigate.
Against that backdrop, families of the victims had their doubts Wednesday.
"After more than 12 years, we had hoped for more results," said Sofia Guterman, whose 28-year-old daughter, Andrea, perished in the attack, which also injured more than 200. "I don't think it'll be very easy to extradite those people."
Lawyers representing the victims were a bit more upbeat. Marta Nercellas, who's investigated the Iranian connection even when her government wouldn't, told McClatchy Newspapers that there's new evidence in Nisman's case.
Nercellas said Nisman's report includes testimony from former Iranian spies and ex-Hezbollah fighters who now reside in Europe.
"There are new and different testimonies," she said.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Sanchez reported from Buenos Aires, Chang from Rio de Janeiro and Hall from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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