Analyzing Argentina’s foreign policy can sometimes be more suited to psychiatrists than journalists. Consider, for example, how President Cristina Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman have handled bilateral relations with Iran.
In 1992 and 1994, Buenos Aires was rocked by a pair of deadly bombings, the first of which hit the Israeli embassy, and the second struck the headquarters of Argentina’s largest Jewish Community Center. Hundreds were killed or wounded by the attacks, and subsequent investigations left no doubt that Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah were responsible. Indeed, the murderous operations had been directed from the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires.
Unfortunately, official inquiries into the bombings stagnated for several years as a result of judicial apathy and government corruption. Then, in the mid-2000s, the late Argentine president Néstor Kirchner revived the investigations and aggressively pursued justice. Four years ago, international arrest warrants were issued through Interpol against several high-profile Iranians, including an ex-president and leaders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. In speeches before the United Nations and at various official gatherings in Washington, Néstor Kirchner demanded greater Iranian cooperation with the bombing probes and condemned Tehran for its refusal to hand over suspects wanted by Interpol. His wife, Cristina, who succeeded him as president in 2007, kept up the pressure.
Now it appears that Buenos Aires has changed its position dramatically—or maybe not. Two months ago, veteran Argentine journalist Pepe Eliaschev published a stunning article in the pages of Perfil, a Buenos Aires newspaper. The article, based on confidential documents, revealed that Timerman had secretly traveled to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, asking him to help improve Argentina’s economic relationship with Iran. Timerman also noted the urgent need of $1.2 billion. In exchange for closer bilateral trade and financial ties, Timerman offered to freeze all judicial proceedings related to the 1994 Jewish Community Center bombing and let the Iranians off the hook.
The scandal that erupted following the publication of Eliaschev’s piece called into question the integrity of Timerman and Kirchner. Both remained silent at first, and then eventually both declared in unison that they would not “dignify” the article’s allegations with a response. But they never denied the story. Indeed, a few days ago, Eliaschev was summoned to the Argentine attorney general’s office, where he was asked to reveal his sources. (He refused.)
The issue of an alleged deal with Iran surfaced again in late May, when Perfil reported that, according to data from the agriculture ministry, Argentine exports to Iran doubled between 2009 and 2010, with continued growth this year. Rafael Bielsa, who served as foreign minister under Néstor Kirchner, told Perfil that, after he left his diplomatic post, “there was a change in the government’s attitude with respect to trade relations with Tehran.” Bielsa called this “an outrage.”
Is Bielsa correct? Has Argentina indeed made a strategic decision to pursue warmer economic relations with the Iranian theocracy at the expense of justice? One is tempted to say, yes. But then, how do we explain the recent incident with the Iranian defense minister and former Revolutionary Guard commander, Ahmad Vahidi?
When General Vahidi visited Bolivia in late May, the Argentine foreign ministry filed an official complaint with La Paz, noting that Vahidi is wanted by Argentina and Interpol for orchestrating the 1994 Buenos Aires attack. Bolivia’s foreign minister swiftly apologized, and Vahidi left the country.
When it comes to Iran, the Kirchner government seems to be schizophrenic. How could it publicly rebuke Tehran for its lack of cooperation with the bombing inquires, but then privately offer to suspend those inquires in return for economic concessions? How could it claim to be honoring the victims of two heinous terrorist attacks, but then effectively propose whitewashing those attacks? Why would it make such a proposal, and seek to expand trade with Iran, but then suddenly express outrage when General Vahidi visited Bolivia?
Argentina’s unpredictable Iran policy highlights its broader credibility problem. In its dealings with bondholders, private companies, the United States, Israel, and others, the Kirchner government has proven dangerously erratic and completely untrustworthy. It may yet return to a hard-line position on the two Iranian-backed bombings. But the damage to Argentina’s reputation has already been done.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.