Argentina's Iranian nuke connection
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - A report by Argentine prosecutors in support of the arrest
warrants just issued for seven former Iranian officials for the 1994 terror
bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires reveals that Argentina was
continuing to provide Iran with low-grade enriched uranium and the two
countries were in serious negotiations on broader nuclear cooperation when the
The new revelations on Argentine-Iranian relations in the October 25 report by
prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcello Marquez
Burgos undermine the official argument that Iran's top leaders were motivated
to order the bombing by Argentina's decision in 1992 to cut off its supply of
nuclear materials to Iran.
The new information underlines the fact that Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and other
Iranian officials still viewed Argentina as willing to cooperate with Tehran on
the sensitive subject of nuclear technology, despite US pressures to end that
The arrest warrants for former president Rafsanjani and six other former top
Iranian officials were issued only after the United States had applied
diplomatic pressure, according to a November 3 report by Marc Perelman in the
Jewish daily Forward. Perelman also reported that the administration of US
President George W Bush intends to cite the indictment as part of its campaign
to get Russia and China to support a United Nations Security Council resolution
on sanctions against Iran.
The main theory about Iran's motive for ordering the bombing of the
headquarters of the Jewish organization AMIA (Asociacion Mutual Israelita
Argentina) on July 18, 1994, which killed 85 people, is that Iran wanted to
retaliate against Argentina for its decision to cut off exports of nuclear
materials. That motive was asserted by former Iranian intelligence officer
Abdolghassem Mesbahi in a 2002 deposition and repeated in a report by the
Argentine State Intelligence Service (SIDE, for Servicio de Inteligencia del
Estado), in September 2002.
A related theory advanced by the prosecutors is that Iran was angry at the
government of Carlos Menem for realigning its foreign policy more closely with
that of the United States, for example by sending warships to the Persian Gulf
during the US-led war there in 1991.
But the prosecutors' report shows that Argentina never completely terminated
its nuclear cooperation with Iran, and that the Iranian and Argentine nuclear
organizations that had negotiated the original contracts were negotiating on
restoration of full cooperation on all three agreements from early 1992 through
The report identifies three distinct agreements reached between Argentina and
Iran in 1987-88. The first involved help in converting a nuclear reactor in
Tehran so that it could use 20%-enriched uranium (ie, low-grade uranium that
cannot be used for weapons production) and indicates that it included the
shipment of the 20%-enriched uranium to Iran. The second and third agreements
were for technical assistance, including components, for the building of pilot
plants for uranium-dioxide conversion and fuel fabrication.
The indictment shows that the US put strong pressure on the Menem government to
terminate all nuclear cooperation with Iran. In December 1991, according to the
detailed account in the report, the US Embassy in Buenos Aires informed
Argentina's Foreign Ministry that the United States could not accept the
continuation of the contracts on nuclear cooperation with Iran. In January
1992, Argentina announced the suspension of the shipments of nuclear materials
But the report also documents the fact that Iran did not take the suspension as
final or anticipate an end to the other contracts on nuclear technology.
According to a February 10, 2002, cable from Argentina's ambassador in Iran, an
Iranian Foreign Ministry official reaffirmed to him the "priority" that the
Islamic Republic placed on nuclear-technology transfer from Argentina and said
the foreign-policy positions taken by Argentina with which Tehran did not agree
- such as sending warships to the Persian Gulf - "apparently did not alter the
pragmatic attitude held by Argentina".
On February 26, according to the account, the director of the American
Department of Iran's Foreign Ministry "emphasized the need to reach a solution
to the problem that would avoid damage to other contracts". Thus Iran was
signaling its hope of finding a negotiated solution that could end the
suspension and maintain the other contracts with Argentina as well.
Less than three weeks after that Iranian bid for negotiations, on March 17,
2002, a bomb blast destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 26
people. Argentina, the US and Israel have long maintained that Iran was
responsible for both that blast and the bombing of the AMIA headquarters in
But it seems unlikely that Iranian leaders would have ordered or knowingly
supported any terror bombing in Buenos Aires just when they were concerned with
nailing down an agreement to protect their important interests in relations
The report goes on to present new information that also appears to rule out an
Iranian role in the 1994 AMIA bombing. It confirms that Menem canceled the
second and third nuclear-technology contracts with Iran, but not the first
contract involving the low-enriched uranium.
The prosecutors' report further reveals that after the Menem decision, Iran and
Argentina entered serious negotiations aimed at restoring full nuclear
cooperation. The general manager of INVAP, the Argentine firm that dominated
the National Commission on Atomic Energy, testified to investigators that
during 1992, there were "contacts" between INVAP and the Atomic Energy
Organization of Iran (AEOI) "in the expectation that the decision of the
national government would be revised, allowing the tasks in the contracts to be
The report does not indicate what results the talks produced. But an article in
the Christian Science Monitor on February 18, 1993, quoted an Iranian official
saying that his country was still purchasing low-grade uranium from Argentina
and said the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed that a shipment
of low-enriched uranium would arrive in Iran within a year.
From 1993 to 1995, according to the same INVAP official, the negotiations with
the AEOI continued, aimed at "reaching a definitive solution" to the issues
surrounding the two canceled projects. It was not until 1996, according to the
report, that Iran communicated its intention of taking legal action against
Argentina over the cancellation of the two nuclear-technology contracts.
The new evidence on nuclear-technology relations between Iran and Argentina is
a serious blow to the credibility of the central assertion in the indictment
that Rafsanjani and other former Iranian officials decided at a meeting on
August 14, 1993, to plan the bombing of AMIA. That assertion was based entirely
on the testimony of Iranian defector Abdolghassem Mesbahi, who was evidently
unaware of the continued uranium exports and continuing negotiations revealed
in the prosecutors' report.
Mesbahi's credibility on Iran's alleged role in the bombings was also damaged
by his spectacular allegation that Menem had received a US$10 million payoff
from Iran to divert the investigation away from Iranian involvement - an
allegation the defector later withdrew.
To square these diplomatic revelations with the charges against Iran, the
prosecutors quote what they call a "hypothesis" advanced by SIDE that Iran uses
"violence" to induce "victim countries" to agree to "negotiations convenient to
Iran's interests". But they offer no further evidence to support that theory.
The investigation of the 1994 bombing by the Argentine judiciary, which has no
political independence from the executive branch, has had little credibility
with the public, because of a bribe by the lead judge to a key witness and a
pattern of deceptive accounts based on false testimony.
Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His
latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.