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    Middle East
     Nov 15, 2006
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 bombing occurred.

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 cooperation.

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 1994.

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 to Iran.

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 July 1994.

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 with Argentina.

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 resumed".

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.

(Inter Press Service)

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