Why Argentina is reaching out to Iran
Argentina announced it would work with Iran to resolve a deadly 1994 anti-Semitic attack in Buenos Aires. Trade considerations underlie the deal.
After years of impasse, Argentina and Iran this week announced an agreement to work together on solving one of the deadliest anti-Semitic attacks anywhere since World War II. The deal emerged in the midst of deepening trade ties andÂ has generated skepticism from the United StatesÂ and Israel.Â
In 1994, aÂ suicide bomber drove a van full of explosives into the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building, killing 85, wounding about 300, and tearing at the heart of theÂ Buenos AiresÂ Jewish population, the largest in Latin America.Â An Argentine special prosecutor in 2006 accused Hezbollah, the Lebanese group with strong ties to Iran and Syria, of executing the attacks with financing from Iranian government officials.
Argentina and Iran announced this week an agreement to create a joint commission of international legal experts to investigate the 1994 attack.Â As part of the agreement, prosecutors will be allowed for the first time to interrogate suspects â€“ in Tehran.
The announcement, signed by Foreign Minister Minister HĂ©ctor Timerman and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Albar Salehi, on the sidelines of an African Union meeting in Ethiopia, symbolizes Argentinaâ€™s warming ties with Iran as both countries seek nontraditional trading partners to shore up their flagging economies.
Banned from international credit markets because of outstanding debtsÂ with the Paris Club and World Bank, Argentina has brokered bilateral agreements with autocratic regimes like Iran.Â Pinioned by international sanctions, Iran has also had to look for new partners, finding in South America a sympathetic group of populist governments,Â according to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist and professor atÂ Virginia Tech university.
â€śIt has to establish friendly relations with countries so that it can trust that its assets wonâ€™t be seized,â€ť says Professor Salehi-Isfahani.
Additionally, Iran is attempting to keep its food prices down amid a currency devaluation aggravated by sanctions on its oil, says Salehi-Isfahani.
â€śArgentina has quickly become one of Iranâ€™s principal food importers, so this is becoming a relationship Iran needs to nurture,â€ť he says.
Argentina has cut Iranian crude imports to comply with existingÂ sanctions, but continues to export large volumes of agriculturalÂ goods, helping Iran avoid food shortages that would likely trigger social unrest,Â Salehi-Isfahani says.Â
Trade between Iran and Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela rose to $3.6 billion in 2011, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. With the exception of Brazil,Â Iran's anti-Americanism is a sympathetic cause among these SouthÂ American nations.Â The trade has undermined Washington's and Tel Aviv's efforts at isolating Iran by helping the country maneuver around economic sanctions and lending an air of credibility to its regime.Â
â€śWe see Argentinaâ€™s rapprochement with Iran as dangerous for the entire region because Iran is a sponsor of international terrorism with a regime that doesnâ€™t respect human rights. Argentina has nothing in common with Iran and should have nothing to do with it,â€ť says Sergio Widder, the representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, in Buenos Aires.
The US State Department says it is monitoring Iranâ€™s engagement with the Western Hemisphere closely.
Iran is among several oil-rich countries with a consumer class, including Angola and Azerbaijan, that Argentina has sought as trading partners to help plug its widening energy deficit and to buy its agricultural and domestic products.
Though still accounting for a small portion of Argentinaâ€™s overall trade, the partnerships could become more valuable thanks to recent joint chambers of commerce that opened last year in Buenos Aires.
Skepticism over 'truth commission'
Israel and the US have expressed wariness about Argentinaâ€™s increasingly normalized relations with Iran.
Israel, which for years has attempted to isolate Iran through international sanctions in a bid for the country to drop its nuclear program, condemned the joint â€śtruth commissionâ€ť announced earlier this week to investigate the AMIA case.Â Israel's foreign ministry said in a press release that it receivedÂ news of the agreement "with astonishment ... and deep disappointment."
Israelâ€™s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that holding a joint investigation with Iran was â€ślikeÂ inviting the murderer to participate in the murder investigation.â€ť
The US Embassy in Buenos Aires also expressed doubt about the Argentine-Iranian accord. â€śWe are skeptical that a just solution can be found in the arrangement announced,â€ť says a press officer.
Fears are periodically raised in the Argentine press about the possibility of Iran gaining access to Argentinaâ€™s atomic energy program, though the US State Department dismissed the possibility in a press conference late last year, calling Argentina a firm ally in the international campaign to keep Iran from developing nuclear technology.
South American trade with strongmenÂ
Argentina is leading Latin America in forging new trade partnerships with fast-growing, oil-rich, autocratic regimes in Africa and the Middle East. In 2012, huge delegations of diplomats and businesspeople traveled to Angola, ruled by strongman JosĂ© Eduardo dos Santos and Azerbaijan, whose president, Ilham Aliyev, has been criticized for a rise in religious persecution of non-Muslims.
Such leaders make strange bedfellows for Argentine President Cristina FernĂˇndez de Kirchner, who, along with her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, has been a vocal champion of human rights.
The agreement with Iran represents a turnabout for Argentina. Ms. Kirchner had previously appealed to the United Nations to pressure the Iranians to comply with its earlier investigation into the 1994 AMIA bombing. However, at last yearâ€™s General Assembly meeting, Kirchner announced Argentina would be seeking to resolve the case jointly with Iran, initiating several rounds of secret negotiations that riled Argentinaâ€™s Jewish community.
To date Iran has ignored international arrest warrants for nine people Argentina suspects in the attacks, including a former Iranian president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Iranâ€™s current defense minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi.
Whether Argentina can win Iranâ€™s cooperation through trade when international sanctions have failed remains to be seen.Â