Iranians arrest for 94 bombing pleases Argentine Jews

LONDON — Most Argentine Jewish leaders are pleased with the arrest of an Iranian believed to be connected to the 1994 terrorist attack on AMIA, Buenos Aires' main Jewish community center.

"We are very enthusiastic with the arrest" because it reflects "a remarkable change in this new Kirchner era," said Fabio Kornblau, the secretary of the AMIA Youth Department, referring to Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.

The arrest of Hade Soleimanpour, Iran's ambassador to Argentina at the time of the July 18, 1994 bombing that killed 85 people and wounded 300, took place Aug. 21 in Britain.

Intelligence authorities in Argentina and Israel have long believed that Iran was behind the terrorist attack, which was Argentina's deadliest to date.

As a result of the arrest, Iran has cut cultural and commercial ties with Argentina, and has warned Britain that diplomatic relations will be harmed.

That AMIA attack followed a terrorist bombing in 1992 at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people and which also remains unsolved.

When Kirchner attended a memorial service last month for the victims of the AMIA bombing, he said it was a "national shame that there has been no justice yet."

Kirchner ordered the release of Argentine intelligence information on the bombing soon after taking office this spring, reversing an order by the previous Argentine president, Eduardo Duhalde, that sealed the files.

The Argentine Jewish community — South America's largest — welcomed Kirchner's involvement in the case.

It was in sharp contrast to his predecessors, whom Jewish Argentines accused of failing to push hard enough for justice.

One of those predecessors, Carlos Menem, who was president at the time of the 1994 attack and who ran for re-election against Kirchner in elections this spring, reportedly was paid a $10 million bribe by Iran to cover up the Islamic republic's role in the attack. Menem denied the charges, which were detailed in a July 2002 report in The New York Times.

Some of the skepticism over what many Argentine Jews see as a reluctance to pursue justice is apparent even in reaction to the news of Soleimanpour's arrest.

One of the members of Memoria Activa, a group for victims and their families that formed after the bombing, said he had little hope the arrest would do anything.

"How long will it take until they let him free?" said the member, referring to Soleimanpour.

Soleimanpour appeared in court last Friday. He will remain in custody until his next court appearance on Aug. 29.

Iran has condemned the arrest of the former diplomat, who had been working as a research assistant at the University of Durham in northern England. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi released a statement saying, "The measure has been politically motivated and has been carried out under the influence of the Zionists."

Israel welcomed the arrest and praised Argentina for pursuing Soleimanpour. "We are very happy that the Argentines themselves issued the warrant" for the arrest, said Shuli Davidovitch, press secretary at the Israeli Embassy in London.

An Argentine judge, Juan Jose Galeano, issued warrants for the arrest of Soleimanpour and seven additional Iranian citizens in the week before the former Iranian ambassador was seized.

Argentina demanded the extradition of four other Iranians in March, sparking a diplomatic war of words between Tehran and Buenos Aires.

Several former Argentine police officers and an auto mechanic have been on trial in Buenos Aires in connection with the bombing for nearly two years. That trial is expected to conclude before the end of the year.

But Israeli intelligence officials in particular have long insisted that responsibility for the bombing goes much higher — to the very top levels of the Iranian government.

Israeli and Argentine investigators also have implicated Syria, a Jewish security source said.

The Lebanon-based militant Islamic group Hezbollah — which is supported by Tehran and Damascus — named the bomber in the wake of the 1994 attack. Israel believes that Soleimanpour and an intelligence officer working with him at the Iranian Embassy at the time assisted the bomber.

Both Soleimanpour and the intelligence operative left Argentina a week before the bombing in order to distance themselves from the attack, the security source said. Iran also withdrew its ambassadors from other South American countries in the days before the bombing, the source said.

Soleimanpour did not speak in court last Friday other than to confirm his name, but the BBC reported that a police officer said he denied the charges when they were read to him during his arrest. Britain's Crown Prosecution Service now will represent the Argentine government in pressing for his extradition.

A British court will then decide if he should be sent to Argentina or set free. If the decision goes against the former ambassador, he can appeal to higher courts in Britain and Europe.

"He could be in courts for years," the Jewish security source warned. "It could be a long, long time before he ever gets to Argentina.''