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Iran defense minister a terror suspect

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

Ahmad Vahidi, nominated Thursday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to serve as Iran's defense minister, is a suspected international terrorist sought by Interpol in connection with a deadly 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Argentina.

Mr. Vahidi, a former commander of the elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force, was one of 15 men and three women named to Cabinet posts by Mr. Ahmadinejad as he begins his second term in office. The choice is likely to further chill relations between Iran and the international community, especially Israel.

Interpol, the international police agency based in Lyon, France, placed Mr. Vahidi and four other Iranian officials on its most-wanted list in 2007 at the request of Argentine prosecutors, who say the men played a role in planning the July 1994 attack on the seven-story community center in Buenos Aires.

The bombing, which killed 85 people, is thought to have been carried out by members of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia and political party with close links to Iran.

Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst on Iraq and Iran at the Congressional Research Service, said that Mr. Vahidi is also suspected of having played a role in a 1996 attack on the U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia known as Khobar Towers.

Mr. Vahidi is not the first prominent Iranian to be wanted in connection with terrorist attacks. Presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai, a former revolutionary guard commander, was among the five Iranians identified by Interpol in 2007, as was former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

But Mr. Vahidi's ascension to the high-profile post of defense minister suggests that Mr. Ahmadinejad will continue his policy of defiance toward the West.

"This sends a signal that the Iranians are unconcerned with anybody's sensibilities about the regime's prior record of terrorism," said Kenneth Piernick, a former chief of the FBI's Iran-Hezbollah unit.

"His reputed intimate involvement in various acts of terrorism, particularly against Argentina and the United States, makes his selection especially flagrant. This does not look like an unclenched fist."

Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, "In general it does not seem Ahmadinejad's policy has been changed in terms of domestic and foreign policy. These people involved in the Quds Force or people who come from the Revolutionary Guard, they have been in previous governments and this government as well."

Indeed, Mr. Vahidi served as deputy defense minister during Mr. Ahmadinejad's first term.

Mr. Khalaji did say, however, that the Interpol warrant would make it difficult for Mr. Vahidi to travel abroad.

While analysts pored over Thursday's Cabinet choices for clues to Mr. Ahmadinejad's intentions, Mr. Katzman of the CRS said it was the selection of Mr. Vahidi that stood out for him.

"Vahidi was commander of the Quds Force during the late 1980s to early 1990s, and his choice certainly sends a very strong signal that Ahmadinejad plans to continue, and maybe even accelerate, Iran's material support for pro-Iranian parties and militias in the region," Mr. Katzman said.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's election has been protested by hundreds of thousands of Iranians, who poured into the streets after the state-run media and later Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Mr. Ahmadinejad had won nearly two-thirds of the June 12 vote.

Protests against the government have continued throughout the summer, though many protest leaders and leading reformist politicians are now facing trial on charges of inciting a "velvet revolution."

Meanwhile, many Iran analysts say, the Revolutionary Guard has effectively taken control of the country. Mr. Ahmadinejad began installing former associates from the guard in Iran's civil service after he won his first election in 2005.

The Quds Force, named for the Arab word for Jerusalem, helped facilitate attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq in recent years by aiding, equipping and funding the Shi'ite militias involved.

Interference from the Quds Force became so intense that the Bush administration in its final months in office designated the organization a foreign terrorist entity, a designation that President Obama has not lifted.

Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said the elevation of Mr. Vahidi "is reflective of the hard-line nature of the new Cabinet."

"This should heighten concerns about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. There is still an outstanding warrant for those men, including Vahidi, who are responsible for the bloody and brutal attack on the Jewish community center and Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires," he said.