Issue: 06/24/03

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Evidence Fuels Iran Terror Debate

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Hard new information on the involvement of the Iranian government in terrorism, coupled with mounting concern that Iran is much closer to developing nuclear weapons than previously thought, has brought the White House to a policy Rubicon, administration officials and think-tank analysts tell Insight. President George W. Bush recognizes that he must craft a tougher approach toward a regime he identified 18 months ago as a member of the Axis of Evil, White House officials say. And yet the president's top advisers continue to be split between two conflicting and mutually exclusive approaches.

"As of now, there is no Iran policy," American Enterprise Institute scholar Richard Perle tells Insight. Until recently Perle was chairman of the Defense Policy Board, and he remains close to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "It is well known within the administration that Iran is the single most active source of terrorism and is the biggest financier of terrorism. And yet, no clear strategy has been developed to deal with Iran," Perle says.

Several interagency meetings scheduled to determine a new U.S. policy toward Iran have been canceled in recent weeks as the debate intensified within the administration. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage even has called the Islamic Republic of Iran "a democracy," and the State Department continues to counsel a careful dialogue with the Tehran regime. The Pentagon and the White House, however, believe instead that the United States should devise ways of destabilizing and ultimately assisting the overthrow of the regime in favor of a secular and (hopefully) pro-Western government. They argue that anything less would "undermine" the president's war on terror.

New details of the involvement of the Iranian government in a murderous suicide bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AIMA) community center during July 1994 in Buenos Aires, just released by an Argentine judge, could help tip the balance in favor of the Pentagon and those White House officials who favor regime change in Iran.

The nine-year investigation by Judge Juan Jose Galeano led in March to international arrest warrants being issued for four Iranian government officials, as well as for notorious Lebanese terrorist Imad Mugniyeh. After alerting Interpol, which issued "red notices" on the five men, the judge formally requested that the Iranian government arrest them and make them available for trial. "The Iranian government has told us angrily that they will not comply and that the judge is stupid," sources close to Galeano tell Insight from Buenos Aires.

In addition to Mugniyeh, who works for Iran's Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) and lives in Iran with an Iranian wife, those indicted are Mohsen Rabbani, a cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires, diplomat Barat Ali Balesh-Abadi and Ali Akbar Parvaresh, a former education minister identified in the indictment as "one of the founding members of the Pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards] and one of the ideologues of the Ministry of Information."

The fifth man facing arrest is Ali Fallahian, the former MOIS minister. "In asking for Fallahian," sources close to Galeano tell Insight, "we were showing that the whole Iranian government was behind the attack. Fallahian was just the point man for the Iranian government."

A previously classified report from the Argentinian intelligence service SIDE, quoted throughout the 400-page indictment, which this magazine obtained from sources in Buenos Aires, names more than two dozen participants in the actual attack who were recruited by Mugniyeh and Rabbani from Hezbollah operatives and from among the Iranian community in Argentina. The indictment also notes the unusually high number of visits to Buenos Aires by Iranian government officials coming from Germany, Iran, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil in the month before the attack. All were traveling on recently issued diplomatic passports and had no legitimate reason for coming to Argentina.

MOIS used two local companies - G.T.C. and Imanco SA, a rug importer - as cover for intelligence activities related to the attack, according to the indictment. Imanco investor Mohammad Hossein Khosravi maintained an import business in New Jersey, according to documents cited in the indictment. The Iranian intelligence service also placed operations officers undercover with the Islamic Republic News Agency and with commercial delegations of the Ministry of Reconstruction (also called the "Reconstruction Jihad"), an official importing organization that was "part of the security forces," the indictment states.

The state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) was used to transport the explosives for the attack from Colombia, where they had been purchased from drug traffickers, according to the indictment. "The Iran Shipping Lines had a double purpose," prosecutor Alberto Nissman tells Insight. "In addition to normal shipping activities, it assisted MOIS in logistics in the U.S. and Europe, and handled logistics of Hezbollah in South America."

Galeano likened the preparations for the AIMA bombing with other known cases of Iranian-government terrorist attacks, in particular the murder of Shahpour Bakhtiar outside Paris in August 1991 and the assassination of Kurdish dissidents in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992. In all three cases, the Iranians used official government organizations, diplomatic passports and multiple undercover teams to prepare the target and carry out the actual terrorist attack.

Abraham Kaul is the president of AIMA, whose offices were decimated by the 1994 attack that killed 85 Jews and wounded some 200 others. Kaul is worried that the new Argentine government of President Nestor Kirchner will undermine the trial expected to take place this October. "Argentina must follow through on this indictment," Kaul says. "Either this government supports terrorism or it is against it. That's what their actions in this trial will show."

A former Iranian intelligence officer, Abdolghassem Mesbahi, alleged in May 2000 that Iranian officials had paid $10 million into a Banque Degroof Luxembourg account in Geneva, Switzerland, controlled by then-president of Argentina Carlos Menem, in exchange for his efforts to impede the investigation. Menem has denied the allegations. In February 2002, the Swiss government announced it was investigating the existence of Menem bank accounts in Switzerland. It later announced having frozen $10 million of Menem's funds, including money in accounts at the Banque Degroof.

The AIMA bombing was the second attack in Argentina against an Israeli or Jewish target. On March 17, 1992, a similar attack leveled the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29. "Why did two such attacks occur during Menem's presidency?" Kaul wonders.

Hoover Institution senior fellow Abraham D. Sofaer believes the bombings came in retaliation for Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon. "The Iranians struck back against Jews in Argentina because they couldn't hit Israel directly," Sofaer tells Insight. "They saw these attacks as a kind of quid pro quo." Sofaer served as legal adviser to the State Department from 1985 to 1990.

On Feb. 16, 1992 - just one month before the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires - two Israeli helicopters had destroyed the convoy of Hezbollah leader Abbas Mussowi in southern Lebanon. Two years later, on May 21, 1994, Israeli commandos captured top Hezbollah leader Mustafa Dirani and brought him to Israel for detention. Dirani was believed by Israel to have kidnapped on Iran's behalf an Israeli airman, Ron Arad, shot down over southern Lebanon in 1986. Iranian intelligence hit the AIMA Jewish Community Center two months after Dirani was captured. "That Iran allowed itself to be used as an instrument of Hezbollah revenge is very significant and, together with the evidence that Iran was behind the Khobar Towers bombing of a U.S. Army barracks, very troubling," Sofaer says.

After a German federal prosecutor demanded the arrest of Fallahian following the Mykonos trial in 1997, the European Union as a group withdrew its ambassadors from Tehran in protest. Fallahian was replaced with another mullah at the intelligence ministry, but continues as an adviser for intelligence affairs to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini.

So far, however, the Bush administration has not considered taking the AIMA case to the United Nations to demand international sanctions on Iran.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight and recently was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

For more on this story, read "Defector Alleges Iranian Involvement in Sept. 11 Attacks."