The political and legal consequences of the July 1994 Hezbollah attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and destroyed a Jewish community center in the Argentine capital, aren’t even close to being fully exhausted. On December 29, an Argentine appeals court reopened a legal case accusing Christina Fernandez Kirchner, Argentina’s populist ex-president, of colluding with Iran, which is Hezbollah’s primary state sponsor, to shield the Islamic Republic regime from any public scrutiny or prosecution related to the AMIA attack. In return, Argentina would supposedly have gotten the opportunity to purchase oil from Iran, and sell agricultural products on the Iranian market as well. For over a decade, exposing this cover-up was the project of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead and likely murdered in his Buenos Aires apartment in January of 2015. The crime scene was manipulated in order to make it appear as if Nisman had committed suicide, and his killer still hasn’t been identified or caught.
Nisman was investigating allegations that Kirchner and her foreign minister, Hector Timerman, had reached a secret quid pro quo with their Iranian counterparts in order to quash any public blame and stall investigations into Tehran’s involvement in the AMIA bombing. If proven correct, the allegations would show that the AMIA attack was more than just a one-off event and had exposed deep systemic rot within an Argentine government more concerned with keeping up a relationship with a country that had just carried out a terrorist attack on its territory than with achieving any measure of justice for its own murdered citizens. The fact that the AMIA case is still percolating over 20 years later—and nearly two years after Nisman’s apparent murder—is a measure of vindication for the late prosecutor’s work.
Nisman’s killing might have been aimed at ending his investigation into Argentine government complicity in hiding Iran’s involvement in the AMIA bombing. Even if Kirchner had something to gain from Nisman’s investigation being interrupted or discredited, her troubles hardly ended with the prosecutor’s death: Just two days before the appeals court reopened the case against Kirchner, the former president was indicted on corruption charges related to a public works project; earlier in 2016, she was also indicted for allegedly “manipulating currency exchange futures markets” during her time in office.
But the AMIA bombing, and Nisman’s murder, aren’t lurching towards some kind of final resolution, even after this week’s developments. Eamonn McDonagh, an Argentina-based political analyst and translator, noted by email that “those responsible…have had a two year head start on the justice system to destroy government records and other evidence.” The Argentine “deep state” has successfully insulated itself from legal scrutiny so far: Nisman’s apartment was quickly contaminated in order to render the crime scene forensically useless shortly after his death, and there’s still never been an official legal ruling on how the prosecutor actually died. The appeals court’s decision to reopen the investigation lends legitimacy to Nisman’s assertions of a covert deal between Buenos Aires and the mullahs, but has no bearing on the investigation into his death, an inquiry which is still ongoing and appears unlikely to ever result in a conviction.
The ruling could still have some tangible political consequences in Argentina. McDonagh said that because of quirks in the Argentine criminal justice system and the possibility of Kirchner getting elected to parliament later this year and thus gaining parliamentary immunity, it’s unlikely the ex-president will spend any significant time in jail as the result of either of her corruption indictments or the AMIA investigation. But the charges reinforce many Argentines’ sense of Kirchner’s “endless corruption and vicious character,” and she’s still facing “a future of lawyers, courtrooms and giving evidence for years to come.”
That’s also an apt description the labyrinthine saga of the AMIA bombing, where the guilty parties have already been identified over the course of repeated investigation. It’s clear by now that Nisman’s allegations of a quid pro quo were credible and that elements of the Argentine deep state had him killed; Washington Institute for Near East Studies scholar Matthew Levitt has identified many of the members of the Hezbollah cell that attacked the community center, a team which enjoyed the support of a credentialed Iranian diplomat. Yet none of that scrutiny has resulted in justice for the attack’s victims, or a full reckoning for Argentina’s alleged trade-offs with the Iranian regime.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.