Thursday, August 28, 2003

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Britain tried in earnest to woo Iran (for the past quarter-century, one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism) into joining an international coalition opposing al Qaeda. As he traveled to Tehran on September 24, 2001, for example, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw predicted a “new era” in relations with the Islamic regime. Now, 23 months later, the ugly reality is setting in: Iran has been harboring al Qaeda terrorists, and relations between London and Tehran have been hurtling steadily downhill in the wake of mounting evidence that Iran was behind the July 18, 1994 car-bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association (AMIA) cultural center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people died and nearly 300 more were wounded. It was perhaps the most deadly anti-Semitic incident worldwide since World War II.

Last Friday, Hadi Soleimanpour, Iran’s former ambassador to Argentina, was arrested in Britain on a warrant issued by Argentina, which accuses him of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the AMIA attack. Mr. Soleimanpour, who entered Britain on a student visa last year, was one of eight Iranians ordered arrested by an Argentinean judge, Juan Jose Galeano (a highly respected magistrate who has been vigorously pursuing the investigation for years) in connection with the massacre. Citing the seriousness of the charges and the risk of flight, a British judge ordered the former Iranian diplomat held without bail — at least until today.

Ever since the bombing nine years ago, both Washington and Jerusalem have charged that Iran was behind the AMIA attack. The charges received a strong boost last year when a deposition from Abdolghassem Mesbahi, a defector from Iranian intelligence, was leaked to the New York Times by Argentinian officials who were apparently upset with the slow pace of the AMIA bombing investigation. The allegations from Mr. Mesbahi, who defected to Germany in 1996, were explosive. He said that the Iranian government (which has loudly proclaimed its innocence) started planning the attack in 1992. Mr. Mesbahi alleged that the Iranian government paid Argentinian President Carlos Menem a $10 million bribe to deny that Iran was involved in the crime. The money supposedly came from a $200 million Swiss bank account fund controlled by then-Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In March, Judge Galeano alleged that four top Iranian officials in Tehran (among them the former Iranian intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian) were involved in the bombing and asked Interpol to arrest them. Judge Galeano also alleged that elements of the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah participated in the attack.

To put it mildly, Iran is not taking this very well. Tehran has severed economic and cultural ties with Argentina, and a foreign ministry spokesman condemned Mr. Soleimanpour’s arrest in Britain as illegal, asserting that it had been carried out under the influence of a Zionist regime. Leaving aside the usual bluster from Tehran, the situation is a serious one. The Iranian government clearly feels it is under siege: In addition to the terrorism charges, the International Atomic Energy Agency, under intense U.S. pressure, is demanding the right to carry out more intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities. Moreover, Iran cannot feel happy about the presence of more than 150,000 U.S. troops in next-door Iraq and Afghanistan, and the possibility that the mullahs could meet the fate of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. The noose may have started to tighten around the neck of the dictatorship in Tehran.

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