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An Argentina-Iran Gentlemen’s Agreement?

By Pablo Scuticchio

BUENOS AIRES—The troubled Argentina-Iran relationship took a sudden and unexpected turn on January 27. Their foreign ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Addis Ababa agreeing to reopen talks intended to clarify the unsolved 1994 terrorist suicide attack on the Argentine-Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. Although the investigation so far is inconclusive, evidence suggests Hezbollah authorship with assistance from members of Iran's government. With 85 victims, this issue has been the sole prism through which Argentine authorities approached the Islamic Republic over the last two decades. As a result, diplomatic dialogue between both states has been strained and hostile.

Still, though progress in the judicial investigation under current conditions has been difficult, the Memorandum of Understanding is a flop. Not only does it fall short in terms of concrete advances, but several irregularities suggest a serious lack of transparency at the core of the agreement. Basic human rights were grossly violated in a heinous terrorist attack. Moreover, victims’ quest for justice should not be sidelined and used as a bargaining chip as many victims' associations suspect as the principal outcome of the preliminary accord.

The Memorandum proposes the formation of a Truth Commission headed by a five member committee to establish authorship of the bombing although it can only issue non-binding resolutions recommending further action. This will allow an Argentine judge to interview suspected Iranian authorities only in Teheran since Iran never allowed their extradition. Within days of the agreement, the ambiguities and shortcomings were becoming apparent.

The accord quickly won support from organizations like Amnesty International and INTERPOL who see it as a means of avoiding an endless judicial investigation of the Argentine nationals who have been accused of being accessory to the crime and cover-up. During the early years the enquiry was rife with irregularities and the later years were devoid of any new advances. “There are precedents for Argentine judges travelling abroad to carry out investigations,” says Guillermo Jorge, a lawyer at the Centre for Transparency and Corruption Control. “Argentina is playing its last card. I see no alternative to this way forward in the case.”

However, the reception of this accord by the Argentine public was ambiguous, though President Cristina Kirchner called the agreement “historic”. Victims' associations and Jewish organizations in general vigorously repudiated the Memorandum calling it an abdication. Indeed, the bombing had become a rallying point for human rights activists—the investigation closely followed by public opinion. The current administration has been deeply involved in pressing the investigation and was not shy to criticize Iran's foot-dragging tactics as president Nestor Kirchner—Cristina Kirchner's predecessor and late husband—did at the UN General Assembly in 2007.

In September 2011, correspondents at the UN General Assembly were stunned that the Argentine delegation didn’t walk out during Ahmadinejad's incendiary speech as it had been doing for several years together with other Western nations. So the quiet approach to Iran to negotiate the Memorandum came as a surprise as Iran had bluntly rejected an Argentine offer to delegate the case to a court in a third country a year earlier.

Basically, three red flags raise questions as to the very integrity of the Memorandum.

First, it is doubtful that Teheran is genuinely interested in a fair process and thorough clarification of the facts. Throughout the 19-year investigation, Iran’s official policy was to rebuff any Argentine proposal that might have led to clarification of the terrorist attack—suggesting it was a “Zionist plot.” During the Memorandum’s ratification process, Argentine government officials failed to give a convincing explanation for the sudden Iranian change of heart.

Second, there were no consultations with the victims. Although by 2011 both states were moving toward a rapprochement, the possibility of any agreement with Iran on the bombing probe was vociferously denied by Argentine officials despite leaks that suggested otherwise. Indeed, this accord was passed by Congress in a matter of days by narrow majorities and no exploration of the genesis or structure of the Memorandum. As noted by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, professor of International Relations at Di Tella University, this was the first time in Argentine democratic life that an international accord was approved only by congressmen from the ruling party. Public deliberation, one of the hallmarks of human rights monitoring capabilities, was hurriedly sidestepped.

Finally, the Memorandum was drafted in such ambiguous terms that the difference in interpretation between the two countries could water down any real advancement in the case. Simply failing to define the word “questioning” in the Memorandum, under Argentine law allows  the suspect the right to refuse to speak during interrogation, while under Iranian law requires an Iranian judge to intercede, The Memorandum is so harshly criticized because the Iranian suspects will never be extradited. All the interrogations will be taking place in Teheran.

A prime suspect is the Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi. At time of the Buenos Aires bombing, Vahidi was commander of a special unit of the Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force.  After the Memorandum of Understanding was signed, the Iranian Foreign Minister publicly declared that Vahidi would not sit for interrogation. His Argentine counterpart bluntly replied that he will take upon himself that he does.

The bottom line is that the Memorandum is fraught with defects that suggest that those responsible for the bombing will never be identified or brought to justice. Both sides show a lackluster predisposition towards a satisfactory solution of the issue. The real motives for the Memorandum seem to lay elsewhere.

For Teheran, the investigation is a part of its foreign policy to reach Latin America. This effort is part of its larger strategy to get past the diplomatic isolation promoted by Washington’s sanctions-which traditionally supported Buenos Aires in its denunciation of Iranian complicity. The limits of the understanding were unequivocal when Argentina, together with most Latin American countries and opposing its stalwart ally Venezuela, voted against Iran in a late March session of the United Nations Human Rights Council dealing with reports on human rights violations in the Islamic Republic.

In Buenos Aires, closer bonds with Iran are understood to be an enhanced commitment to South-South relations. The overarching idea is that Argentina should define itself in the nascent multipolar order before it is too late. However, the decline of the West and the rise of the Rest is a yet incomplete process.. It would be a strategic miscalculation for Buenos Aires to consider that this type of foreign policy could yield significant benefits in the short term. As its pending litigation with the vulture funds holding part of its defaulted bonds shows, fiery rhetoric and the rejection of some standard international practices can damage Argentina’s negotiating position. Surprisingly, the U.S. State Department issued a mildly approving view of the Memorandum—conditional on concrete advances—far more accommodating than the universally bludgeoning assessments of the American mainstream media.

On a more encouraging note, experience in human rights treaties suggests that the monitoring capabilities developed by advocacy groups do enhance compliance. Fortunately, Argentina is home to several victims' rights associations, human rights groups and Jewish organizations with visible profiles and time-tested capabilities. A diverse lot, not all are unanimously convinced of the faulty nature of the Memorandum but are following closely how the case evolves. Failure to deliver acceptable results will incur political costs for an Argentine administration which is heavily invested in the case and places human rights issues at the top of its domestic and foreign agenda.

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Pablo Scuticchio is a research assistant at the National Defense College in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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