Argentina finds itself again in the midst of a huge institutional crisis, which far from affecting just that country, it casts a terrible prospect over Latin America, and indeed the world as a whole, undermining the cause of justice in the face of terrorism.
Last Monday, the prosecutor in charge of the AMIA case, Alberto Nisman, was found dead in his apartment, conspicuously on the eve before he was supposed to grant a hearing to the Congress. Nisman had just recently announced he had compiled definitive evidence, composed by the most part of wiretappings, which would implicitly involve key figures of the Argentinean administration as having conducted secret negotiations with Iran. Nisman had worked in the case for over a decade, but had come about to gather the bulk of his evidence in recent years, especially after 2011. Back then, according to reports, the Argentinean executive power decided to launch – in what essentially became a radical swift of policy – some sort of a covert “wiedergutmachung” (“make well again”) with the Iranians, forsaking the AMIA bomb in exchange of promises to receive oil, weapons, and trade preferences with Argentina.
The AMIA, an acronym for “Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina”, is a cultural center and one of the principal institutions of the Argentinean Jewry. Since rebuilt, the bombing of the center took place in July 1994. After the explosion and the collapse of the building, the most terrible terrorist attack Argentina has experienced so far claimed the lives of 85 people. According to the investigation lead by Nisman over the years, the hypothesis signaling high Iranian officials as the intellectual culprits of the incident has now become conventional wisdom among counterterrorist specialists. In 2013 the prosecutor was invited by American congressmen to testify in Washington, as to give an account of his findings, including the scope of Iran’s presence in South America. It should be recalled however, that the Argentinean government refused to let Nisman go.
Ironically enough, it was Nestor Kirchner, the former president and late husband of Cristina Fernandez, the current madam president in office, who appointed Nisman to the case. Kirchner, who passed in 2010, although clouded in corruption scandals, is recognized for committing ample State resources and political support to push the investigation forward. Soon after he was sworn in back in 2003, Kirchner outlined new foreign policy directives. He stressed the need of doing justice in a way unparalleled to his predecessors, and spared no condemnation to the Iranian authorities.
The first Kirchner government went a long length to bring the Iranians to justice. In light of the evidence Nisman uncovered in 2006, Argentina raised through INTERPOL eight red notices against high Iranian officials. The list includes former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmad Vahidi, former head of the elite Quds force (and Defense minister under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), and Imad Mughniyah, a senior member of Hezbollah killed in 2008, plausibly by the Israeli Mossad. In recent years however, after the death of Mr. Kirchner in 2010, Mrs. Fernandez seems to have shifted her predecessor’s policy on the matter, embracing Iran for the alleged practical gains summarized at the outset.
Under the guise of acting accordingly to realpolitik imperatives, the Argentinean government has not only seriously undermined the little independence the Foreign Ministry had left, but it has rather exposed its inability to assess reality: it does not understand where the national interests of the country truly rest. In other words, even if one could ignore the moral principles that call for the just resolution of the AMIA case, the rapprochement with Iran lacks any practical or feasible dimension.
To begin with, the first question every analyst should pose is why did the Kirchner administration (under Cristina Fernandez) decide to risk so much political capital by signing a memorandum with Iran? It was signed nearly a year ago, on the on the basis of “establishing a commission of truth” to enlighten the facts. So why would the government asses such strategy convenient? Why would a country that brags about its Human Rights promotion policies every year at the U.N, suddenly decide to go all the way into the opposite direction? Let alone, in terms of domestic support, why risk antagonizing with the Jewish community? Why contradict the one group amidst society that is naturally concerned the most in a true resolution of the case? On this issue, the contrast between husband (Nestor) and wife (Cristina) could not be starker.
To answer these questions, one must begin by addressing numbers. To put it bluntly, money talks. The bilateral trade between Argentina and Iran has skyrocketed in recent years, resulting in a very profitable balance for the South American nation. Take for instance that in 2013 alone, agricultural exports to Iran accounted for the 15% of the entire Argentinean trade surplus. Government officials might quickly haste to point out that the revenue has decreased, from a peak of $1,45 million in 2010 to $800 in 2014, as if that would prove sufficient evidence to discharge all the accusations. The exports might have decreased indeed, but instead of reflecting a political decision, the drop is possibly related with variations in the prices of agricultural commodities, as well as with the results of the U.N imposed sanctions, which greatly hinders the Iranian economy. Although such worrisome trade relationship would require a separate study, it is undoubtedly fair to point out that Iran has truly become one of the principal destinations of Argentinean exports.
In the second place, to explain Fernandez’s foundered policy, one must take into account a very well-known fact. The “Oil-for-food” formulation that would seem to be at work here has already been implemented with Venezuela, though without significant long-term results. In a way comparable to Iran, the Venezuelan autocrats in power are desperate for food. With massive shortages of basic dietary products across the nation, it would not be farfetched to suggest that the situation could grow to become a serious threat to the regime survival. Iran, to be clear, is not there yet. However it might as well be in the near future. According to a Gallup Poll published in 2013, half the Iranian population lacks the money to provide themselves or their families enough food. As more and more Iranians stand in line to receive food baskets from the government, it look as if payment problems, correlated with international financial sanctions, are delaying commercial food cargoes bound to Iran.
Say for a moment we were to stand with Caracas and Tehran and see things through the prism of the realpolitik – that is, assuming we could leave the ideological discussion to focus on practical issues alone. In such light, it seems self-evident that Venezuela and Iran, both holding a formal alliance with one another, are in pursuit of a common strategy to carve a way around to making business again. Be as it may, there is no silver lining on sight. Western enforced sanctions or distrust towards such despotic regimes are not going away overnight. Furthermore, the current shock on the price of oil is quickly burning their already drained reserves.
So what’s the deal for Argentina? The current government seemed to believe it could act as a broker between these States. Starting with Venezuela, Argentina has maintained close relationships with the Chavez regime since 2003. Fernandez on this subject followed in the footsteps of her late husband president. Nevertheless, her judgment being less centered, Fernandez has crafted an unconditional alliance founded upon unconstitutional lines. To give two telling examples, controversy aroused over allegations of a “parallel embassy” in Caracas, ran directly by aides of the Argentinean president; and there is also the case of the cash-stuffed suitcase, an incident which revealed that Hugo Chavez directly financed Kirchner’s presidential campaign. Truth is that the former greatly invested in the latter, as to secure a so much needed friend. Like Iran, despite being one of the largest oil producers in the world, Venezuela find itself bedridden with a handful of minded-like populist regimes.
It is said Mrs Fernandez is of the opinion the West is in decay. Such has been her belief that she sought to commit countries like Angola, China and Russia to Argentina, notoriously omitting to denounce Human Rights in the process (while these formally remain a core principle of Argentinean self-assured foreign policy.) Presented with this trend, it should come as no surprise that this same government entertained the possibility of forsaking the AMIA case, in exchange of monetary guarantees, vague as they may be. For it should be noted, that Argentina is also finding itself increasingly isolated. At the brink of default, economic mismanagement gave way to an acute energy crisis. So far the government has tried solving it with very short term measures for no avail. In addition, there is an enormous inflation rate that has not seen the end of tunnel yet. On the contrary, last year the inflation reached 24%, forcing the government to shut down the licit currency market. As a result, the Argentinean economy is in tatters, and Fernandez’s cabinet is running out of ideas to save face before the next presidential elections are held in October this year. In short, if the regime is to survive four more years, drastic measures of the most selfish order are warranted. Even in a scenario where Fernandez is not allowed to run for a second re-election (banned constitutionally), her direct confidants might still hold the reins of power should they manage to successfully groom a candidate and win the elections.
Still, it would appear Argentina boarded the train of Iranian styled progress quite late, up the point in which the railroad track leads to a no end. And it happens the train is about to hit a barrier. Over the last six to five years, Teheran has signed hundreds of bilateral agreements with Latin American countries. Amounting for multimillionaire sums, it is not nearly clear how the funds are going to be spent, if they are spent at all. To escape its geopolitical confinement, to break its isolation, Teheran has promised collaboration in paramount infrastructure projects it cannot even afford. The Iranians thus pledged to Nicaragua they would embark on a venture to build them an ocean port. To Bolivia, they were willing to grant $1.1 million dollars to build extraction and gas processing facilities. For the time being, given the circumstances discussed above, these promises don’t stand scrutiny, nor are they likely to be realized in the future.
The current Kirchner administration under Fernandez apparently wanted to solidify a “unity axis” to weather the looming economic storm, both in the international arena and at home. It may thought that it could achieve a positive outcome by completing a circle – even if that meant joining the club of nations that harbor terrorists, either directly or indirectly. AMIA and the prosecutor, responsible for bringing justice about, were obstacles that had to be dealt with. It is most likely in this sense that the memorandum with the Islamist regime was conceived. Argentina simply needed a justification to “make well again” with the Middle Eastern country. Kirchner and her close acolytes either naively believed that Iran would commit itself publically to the due (pending) process, or more conceivable, assumed that the mere announcement of such intention would enable them to collect rewards. In sum, the “Oil-for-food” formulation becomes, as Nisman put it, “impunity (in exchange) for beef and grain”. It was the result of covert negotiations the government must be obliged to disclose.
In May 2011 an event that stressed the self-imposed double standard of the Argentinean government occurred. In that occasion, Ahmad Vahidi, a prime suspect in the investigation, traveled to Bolivia in a state visit to foster military cooperation with the Andean nation. Wanted by INTERPOL, his mere presence in Latin American soil made the contradiction in Argentinean foreign policy manifest. La Paz, allied with Buenos Aires, failed to notify its southern ally that Vahidi was coming. Nonetheless it could be argued that the Argentinean intelligence service failed utterly in not seeing this happening. Perhaps, however, the opposite occurred and the Argentineans did know about it, only they couldn’t come clean about it – not to endanger the unity between friends in ominous need for each other. That said, I suspect that a similar plot might have sealed the fate of prosecutor Nisman. If the Argentinean services were not involved in what seems to be a professionally executed murder, it is likely that they conceded to pressures and cleared the way for foreign agents, perhaps from the Quds force. This remains a game of high stakes very much connected to the Middle East conflict and alas terror has seized the day.
After hearing the tragic news, segments of the Argentinean society quickly mobilized in different parts of the country to express outcries of indignation, chanting for justice. Free societies must not, under any circumstances, give in to the mafia tactics of terrorists and the States that sponsor them. The Argentinean government must not be allowed to act as if nothing had happened, and this will require international pressure. Western democracies must take a stand. In the U.S, the murderer of Nisman should be regarded as a serious event, not just because it is a matter of principle, but also because the prosecutor uncovered vast evidence of the network Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah mounted in South America. The newly formed ties between the U.S and Cuba, which are symbolic in their own way, could pave the way for a quality dialogue to broadly discuss counter-terrorism strategies. Yet if we are to follow Argentina’s senseless pragmatic logic, the “carrot and stick” approach should work just fine: the country sells the memory of their dead to the highest bidder, even if the latter is bluffing and has no money to bargain with.