Iran has a lot riding on the survival—both literal and political—of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. If the Bolivarian revolutionary beats cancer and wins another term as president, Tehran will continue to enjoy a strategic partnership with the world’s fifth largest oil exporter. But if Chávez dies, or if Venezuela’s democratic opposition finds a way to defeat him at the ballot box, the mullahs will lose their most important ally in Latin America, an ally who has effectively turned his country into an Iranian satellite.
With Chávez’s fate hanging in the balance, Tehran is understandably eager to cultivate new hemispheric relationships. It already has close ties with populist-left governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. But those countries have much smaller economies than Venezuela, and much less regional influence. Argentina, by contrast, is the fourth most populous country in Latin America, with an economy roughly the size of Venezuela’s. It has an educated population, good infrastructure, and an expanding nuclear energy program. It also has a history of nuclear cooperation with the Islamic Republic, dating back to the 1980s and 1990s.
The notion that Argentina would resume support for Iran’s nuclear program may seem fanciful. After all, Iranian agents plotted the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, two years after they orchestrated a similar attack on the Israeli embassy in that same city. The two bombings killed a combined total of 114 people and injured hundreds more. It’s been 17 years since the AMIA massacre (the worst terrorist atrocity Argentina has ever suffered), and Tehran still refuses to acknowledge its complicity, even though Interpol has issued arrest warrants for several current or former Iranian officials, one of whom (General Ahmad Vahidi) is now serving as defense minister.
And yet, despite all that, Argentina has recently been signaling its desire for a warmer relationship with Iran. The most explosive evidence of this attitudinal shift came from veteran journalist Pepe Eliaschev, who obtained a classified government document indicating that Argentine foreign minister Héctor Timerman has offered to freeze the 1992 and 1994 bombing investigations in return for Iranian economic concessions. (Timerman reportedly made this offer in Damascus, during a January 2011 meeting with his Syrian counterpart and President Bashar al-Assad.) Argentina is already Iran’s second largest trading partner in Latin America, behind only Brazil, and bilateral trade has grown significantly under President Cristina Kirchner, who took office in 2007.
The Eliaschev story was published in late March. Since then, new documents have surfaced that raise further questions about the relationship between Buenos Aires and Tehran. According to Univision, the Spanish language TV network, these documents show that Venezuela aims to build “at least 200 ‘socialist factories’” in collaboration with Argentina and Iran. The projects ostensibly involve “food processing and complex plans to manufacture industrial equipment.” Venezuela apparently spent around $165 million on these initiatives in 2010 and “provided about $180 million for the 2011 budget.”
Might the relevant funds be used for other, more nefarious purposes? The nature of the Iranian and Venezuelan regimes gives us ample reason for suspicion. On July 8, notes former National Security Council official José Cárdenas, three Republican House members from Florida (Connie Mack, David Rivera, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing “concern about information our offices have received regarding potential efforts by Iran to engage in nuclear cooperation with Argentina, using Venezuela as its interlocutor.” While Foggy Bottom casually brushed aside their worries, we can’t simply ignore reports that, in 2007, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked Chávez to help him secure access to Argentine nuclear materials. (In November 2008, Tehran and Caracas formally signed a nuclear-cooperation pact.)
As I have previously written, President Kirchner’s approach to the Islamic Republic is utterly schizophrenic. She has publicly demanded greater Iranian assistance with the 1992 and 1994 bombing investigations, but then (according to the document obtained by Pepe Eliaschev) privately offered to suspend those investigations in return for enhanced trade relations and possibly other concessions. The Argentine foreign ministry softly complained when General Vahidi, one of the AMIA bomb plotters, made an official visit to Bolivia, but Timerman subsequently praised Iran for offering to start “a constructive dialogue” about the 1994 attack. Such an offer is meaningless, of course, as long as Tehran continues to deny its culpability and harbor the Interpol suspects.
“If people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them,” Secretary Clinton said at a December 2009 State Department briefing. “We hope that they will think twice.” It remains unclear whether Argentina has gone beyond mere “flirting” with Tehran. But the issue is certainly a matter of legitimate and urgent concern for U.S. policymakers.
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.