It looks like Alberto Nimsan was onto something.
On Jan. 18, Nisman, the Argentinian prosecutor responsible for investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires — along with a suspected quid pro quo between the two country’s governments partly aimed at concealing Iran’s involvement in the attack — was found dead in his apartment.
Nisman was scheduled to testify to a parliamentary committee the next day and was expected to accuse the government of president Cristina Fernandez Kirchner of swapping increased trade with Iran for a promise not to prosecute the Iranian officials who plotted the attack.
The New York Times reports that intercepted conversations between Argentine and Iranian officials “point to a long pattern of secret negotiations to reach a deal in which Argentina would receive oil in exchange for shielding Iranian officials” from being formally accused of orchestrating the terror attack.
The conversations were part of a 289-page criminal complaint written by Nisman and made public by an Argentine judge on Tuesday night.
If genuine, the Times notes, the transcripts show “a concerted effort by representatives of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government to shift suspicions away from Iran in order to gain access to Iranian markets and to ease Argentina’s energy troubles.”
Nisman’s death is tentatively being considered as a suicide, with the jurist felled by a single bullet wound to the head and clutching the gun that killed him. But there are indications that it may have been something much more sinister.
The lack of an exit wound suggested the fatal shot was fired at a further distance than Nisman could have managed had the wound been self-inflicted. His last WhatsApp was a photo of stacks of documentation related to the next day’s testimony and Nisman had apparently given his maid a grocery list for the following week. A 10-person government security detail was reportedly pulled off of his apartment the night of his assassination. Most damningly, there was no gunpowder residue found on Nisman’s hands, physical evidence that he didn’t discharge a firearm prior to his death.
Even President Kirchner doubts Nisman committed suicide, according to a statement on Thursday.
Theories abound as to who killed him and why. But no matter who’s responsible for Nisman’s death, the Iranian regime benefits.
After a decade of work, Nisman concluded that Iran’s government planned and executed the 1994 carbomb attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), in which 85 people were killed.
As Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar Matthew Levitt recounts in his book Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Iranian intelligence chief Ali Fallahian “was given overall operational responsibility for the attack,” which was approved by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council on August 14, 1993.
The act was carried out through a terrorist cell organised by an Iranian-born and Buenos Aires-based Shi’ite cleric named Mohsen Rabbani who had been given a sinecure at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires just months before the attack. Phone records connect the embassy to a number in Brazil’s border region belonging to a safe-house used by agents from Hezbollah, the Iranian regime’s adjunct in Lebanon, responsible for actually executing the attack.
The AMIA bombing was one of the worst anti-Semitic massacres anywhere on earth in decades. But it was part of what was then a consistent policy of big-ticket state-sponsored terrorism for Tehran’s revolutionary regime, which had only been in power for 15 years at the time.
Iranian agents assisted in Hezbollah and Shi’ite militia attacks on the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, and on attacks on the US embassy in the city in 1984 and 1984, that killed 394 people total. Hezbollah and a second Shi’ite group carried out of a series of attacks in Kuwait in 1983 that targeted the US and French embassies and nearly destroyed an oil terminal.
Tehran sent agents to assassinate 4 leading Iranian-Kurdish opposition activists in a Greek restaurant in Berlin in 1992, while pro-Iranian elements carried out a series of attacks in Paris in the mid-80s to punish France for its support of Saddam Hussein’s government during the Iran-Iraq War.
In total, Iranian elements assassinated 18 regime opponents on European soil in the late 1980s and early 90s. And Tehran assisted in the Hezbollah attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 23 people in 1992.
In 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected president. He helped shift the regime’s international posture away from the kind of revolutionary confrontation that had dictated the Islamic Republic’s foreign affairs up until that point.
Nevertheless, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards continued to export terror with high-level regime approval while Khatami (1997 – 2005) helped re-fashion the Islamic Republic’s image as a regime whose actions could be considered increasingly within the mainstream of acceptable international behaviour, an objective that’s been successfully advanced by Hassan Rouhani, the country’s current and similarly reform-minded president.
In 2011 Iranian agents were uncovered plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US in 2011. And in 2012 a Hezbollah suicide bombing targeted Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing 6 people. (Hezbollah operatives came close to pulling off a major attack against the Israeli embassy in Bangkok, Thailand in 2012.) Aside from Shi’ite organisations like Hezbollah and Iraq’s Badr Group, the State Department’s 2013 citation of Iran group as a state sponsor of terrorism notes its support for Al Qaeda elements in Iraq, some of which later formed the Islamic State.
Consequently, the AMIA bombing is a reminder of a period in Iranian history that likely embassies many of the country’s current crop of leaders: A time when blatant and essentially unprovoked attacks on civilian targets inside of foreign countries was one of the signal elements of the regime’s “revolutionary” foreign policy.
Twenty years after the AMIA bombing, Iran has successfully shed its pariah status while retaining terrorism as an instrument of policy. Nisman’s investigation threatened to upset that balance, partly by exposing how Iran managed this feat in the first place.
His specific allegation that high-ranking Argentinian politicians had compromised the integrity of the investigation into the AMIA bombing at Iran’s behest only proved how badly political elites in both countries want the truth of the incident to remain buried. And it showed how Iran believed it could edge its way back to respectability while continuing to support and abet terrorism far beyond its borders.
Nisman’s testimony would have shown that the AMIA bombing wasn’t jut a discrete event, but an ongoing, two decade-long conspiracy that implicated Argentina and Iran in the execution and cover-up of a major act of terrorism.
Nisman’s death may end up being part of that very conspiracy. His absence keeps the story buried: It is now even less likely that the attack’s Iranian plotters will face justice in Argentina (or countries with extradition treaties with Argentina), and his death shields Argentine leaders who treated the AMIA attack as an dreary diplomatic inconvenience rather than state-sponsored mass murder.
However, Nisman believed the evidence he had collected would outlive him. Four days before his death, he told an Argentine TV interviewer that “With Nisman around or not, the evidence is there,” according to the New York Times.
This post has been updated.
Michael B. Kelley contributed to this report.
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