Following the Senate’s approval last week, Argentina’s House of Representatives voted early Thursday to adopt a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with Iran to unblock the judicial inquiry into the terrorist attack against the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Aid Association (AMIA), which left 85 people dead and more than 300 injured.
After much debate, the agreement was finally ratified without the support of any legislators from the opposition.
The Iranian parliament still has to ratify the agreement, which will allow Argentine federal judges to travel to Tehran to question five Iranian nationals accused of planning the bombing, for whom at Argentina’s request Interpol had issued red notices (arrest warrants) in 2007.
Among victims and relatives of the victims, positions are divided between those who see the agreement as a step back and those who view it as an opportunity, however uncertain, to move forward in a case that is at a standstill due to lack of cooperation from Iran.
Tehran has challenged the evidence allegedly found by Argentine prosecutors against the Iranian nationals and refuses to extradite the suspects.
One of the suspects is Iran’s current Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who, despite the Interpol red notices against him, travelled to Bolivia in 2010 to meet with President Evo Morales.
As she announced the MoU, Argentina’s central-left president, Cristina Fernández — who in the past had taken a firm stand before the United Nations General Assembly demanding that Iran comply with the extraditions– vowed she “would never allow the AMIA tragedy to be used as a pawn in a geopolitical game of chess played out by foreign interests.”
With this move, however, Argentina distances itself from the Western powers that are pressuring Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment programme through economic sanctions, but without ruling out military actions, which is what Israel is openly proposing.
“Argentina is not taking a neutral stance with this agreement. On the contrary, to Western eyes the memorandum constitutes an implicit alliance with Iran,” Argentine political scientist Andrés Malamud, a researcher at the University of Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences, told IPS.
According to Malamud, the foreign policy pursued by Fernández and her predecessor, her late husband Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), had been marked until now by a tacit understanding with the United States.
Under that agreement, Washington backed Argentina’s efforts in multilateral financial institutions in exchange for Buenos Aires’ support in the fight against terrorism. “The AMIA case served as a kind of guarantee for that non-written pact,” Malamud said.
“From now on, though, Argentina’s foreign policy will be viewed as anti-West. It’s not a position that can’t be reversed, and the consequences are not yet serious. But it’s no longer up to our country, which is now tied to decisions that will made in Washington, Tehran and Jerusalem,” the expert said.
For Malamud, the Fernández administration’s argument is simple: the investigation is blocked and the agreement is the only possibility it has of making any progress. But, “what is the leading consequence of this high risk move that has low chances of success?” he asked.
“The answer is Argentina’s realignment in the international scenario, distancing itself from the West and moving closer to the South or to emerging powers, in Argentina’s official version, or to pariah states, in the opposing Western version,” Malamud said.
The agreement would also seem to align Argentina more closely with its counterparts in South America, namely Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has always been clear in his support to the Iranian regime, as has been Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and to a lesser extent Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011).
In 2010, the government of then President Lula da Silva joined Turkey in an attempt to mediate with Iran in the controversy over Tehran’s nuclear programme, but the initiative was rejected by the United Nations Security Council by a “humiliating 12 votes against two,” Malamud recalled.
“Some see the alliance with Iran as beneficial for Argentina because it opens up markets, can be a source of technology or can give legitimacy to the country in the new international order that is being forged. But the most recent precedent in this sense, (the attempted mediation) by Brazil and Turkey, was not a positive one,” he said.
Brazil and Venezuela voted against Argentina’s request for red notices at Interpol’s General Assembly. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, however, adopted a less enthusiastic stance on this issue and did not meet with her Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when he attended the Rio+20 summit in 2012.
Legislators of Argentina’s governing party, such as Senator Daniel Filmus, insisted on highlighting that ratifying the agreement in no way entails supporting a regime that denies the Holocaust, refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist as a state, or persecutes minorities.
But the agreement is trapped in an international scenario that forces its players to adopt positions. While the powers of the Western Hemisphere pressure Iran to drop its nuclear programme, Argentina offers Tehran a possibility for an understanding between the two countries, without any guarantee that it will bring results in the AMIA investigation.
As Argentina’s Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman cautioned, the agreement could fall apart if the suspects refuse to be questioned. Although he added that they would also have that right if the investigation was conducted in Argentina, and that has not been possible so far.
“The agreement will have to be judged based on its results,” Malamud said.
“If the inquiry commission achieves something substantial, the government will score a point. If the West sinks under an economic Armageddon, it also scores,” because Argentina will have forged ties with energy producing countries, he said.
“But if the United States or Israel bomb Iran and defeat it, Argentina will be forced to go back two spaces,” he said.
He does not rule out any of these possibilities or that the Argentine government will have to “pay a very high political price” if it fails.