They came with the cruelest of intentions. On the morning of July 18, 1994, terrorists parked a van packed with more than 600 pounds of explosives in front of a Jewish community center in central Buenos Aires, Argentina. When the van detonated, the community center collapsed. Eighty-five innocent civilians perished, and hundreds more were injured. The appalling attack came two years after another hideous bombing in Buenos Aires, when the Israeli embassy was blown up by a suicide bomber. That attack killed 29 people, including many children.
It was suspected at the time that Iran and its subsidiary terrorist organization Hezbollah were behind the carnage. Time bore that out. After a long investigation, in 2006 Argentina, in the words of Bloomberg Businessweek, "charged Iran and the Hezbollah group with organizing the bombing and issued eight arrest warrants, one of them for former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani." Iran denied any involvement in the attacks, but "seven years later, [Argentine President Cristina] Fernandez [de Kirchner] said she signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iranians to set up a truth commission into the bombing."
But the "truth commission" appears to have been have been anything but - indeed, it is evident that the commission was designed essentially to exonerate the Iranians. Here's how the deal worked: As a result of the arrangement, the Iranian suspects would be taken off of Interpol's wanted list. Economically flailing Argentina, meanwhile, which has suffered gravely under Kirchner's gross mismanagement, would have access to Iranian oil, and would also be allowed to export grain and meat to Iran.
At least that's what Argentine Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman alleged recently. Speaking on Argentine television last week, Nisman, a dogged anti-terrorism investigator, said that "based on wiretaps of telephone conversations between Mohsen Rabbani, an Iranian mullah and former cultural attache to the Iranian Embassy in Argentina, Jorge Alejandro Khalil, an Iranian Buenos Aires-based diplomat, union leader Luis D'Elia and lawmaker Andres Larroque," he determined that there was a quid-pro-quo at play. Argentina would agree to let terrorist murderers remain free; Iran would in return ply Buenos Aires with economic favors. President Fernandez and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman were both alleged to be in on the plot. Argentine officials denied Nisman's allegations; still, he announced plans to testify to the country's National Congress on Monday of this week.
It would come as no surprise that Kirchner would look to Iran for an economic lifeline. The economy she presides over is in shambles. Her interventionist policies have left growth stagnant, unemployment rising, and the peso weakening. The one-time economic powerhouse is falling further and further behind other non-Western nations. (At this point, it's difficult to believe that Argentina once enjoyed European-level living standards.) And the behavior of her administration on the world stage has left Argentina bereft of respectable allies.
Argentina now also suffers a major shortage of foreign currency. This is in part a result of the president's deliberate decision to default on Argentina's national debt last year - the country's second default in only 13 years. Shortages of essential goods are now seizing the country; the Financial Times recently reported that Argentine women are having a hard time finding tampons. It's little wonder, then, that Kirchner would feel tempted to cut a deal with a rogue nation in order to secure some economic spoils in the form of reduced energy costs and a big export market for soya. (Though with oil prices already falling rapidly, it's debatable whether the Iran deal helps the Argentine economy much.)
But like Argentina's selective default, the Iran arrangement shows Kirchner's shortsightedness, as well as her moral obtuseness. Most of the murdered, after all, were Argentine citizens. What kind of message does cutting a deal with Iran send about the value she places on the lives of her citizens? Timerman, Argentina's foreign minister and a supposed human rights activist, is guilty of similar misjudgment. They have sacrificed the protection of their citizenry for economic growth that may prove to be a chimera.
Tragically, the brave Nisman won't get the chance to testify at the national assembly. Mere hours before he was due to arrive for his testimony, the prosecutor was found dead by a gunshot wound in his Buenos Aires apartment - this despite living under armed guard. Initial reports indicate that Nisman died by his own hand, though questions remain. Indeed, there is widespread suspicion in Argentina and abroad that Nisman's death was no suicide - it was an assassination. Thousands of Argentines have taken to the streets to protest what they view as Nisman's murder.
Kirchner and Timerman's decision to cut a deal with Iran will only end up hurting Argentina. Nisman's death (as we well as his revelations) threatens to further isolate Argentina, a country that is badly in need of friends. As President Kirchner is about to learn the hard way, trading national security and justice for prosperity almost always results in neither.