Iran’s alleged role in the 1994 attack on the Jewish-Argentina Mutual Association (AMIA) community center in Buenos Aires was followed by eighteen years of tense relations between Argentina and Iran. Earlier this year, however, Argentine and Iranian officials agreed to establish a “truth commission” pertaining to the terrorist attack that killed 85 people, which indicates that Argentine-Iranian relations have entered a new chapter. The agreement has been hailed by officials in both capitals as a “historic” opportunity to seek the truth about the AMIA bombing. Nevertheless, a grander strategic scheme, unrelated to the 1994 attack, drives the rapprochement.
Argentina’s new tone toward Iran is best understood within the context of President Kirchner’s confrontational actions on the international stage. By nationalizing the energy company YPF – a subsidiary of Spain’s Repsol – resurrecting the longstanding dispute over the Falkland Islands, while going toe-to-toe with the IMF over the sovereign debt dispute, Kirchner has in fact conducted an antagonistic foreign policy toward Western powers. The decision to establish the “truth commission” with Iranian officials added the US and Israel to the list of governments increasingly irritated with an Argentina that seeks to redefine North-South relations in the 21st century, while challenging conventional taboos.
Without question, while irking Western powers and international financial institutions, Argentina is pursuing deeper regional integration and greater autonomy from the US.
The establishment of BancoSur – a monetary and lending institution established in 2009 for the purpose of providing South American countries an alternative to the World Bank and IMF – increased trade within the South American continent and voting patterns, particularly with respect to Cuba, at the Organization of American States underscore such efforts.
As an ally of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Kirchner’s position vis-à-vis Iran must be analyzed in the framework of a new regional order that has veered increasingly under Caracas’ influence. As Venezuela established deeper ties with Iran, Chavez’s regional allies followed suit to various extents. Clearly, as leaders in Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua have reached out to the Islamic Republic, they have defied the West’s wishes. The authors concur with analysts, such as Sergio Berenzstein, who contend that Argentina’s warmth toward Iran factors into Kirchner’s agenda of supporting this Venezuelan-led bloc that seeks to create a more multipolar world.
Beyond a regional realignment in Latin America, Kirchner views Iran as an opportunity to advance specific Argentine national interests. During recent years, Argentina has become increasingly reliant on energy imports. Therefore, greater ties with the world’s fifth largest producer of crude oil and sixth largest producer of natural gas could yield enormous benefits. Meanwhile, Iran is desperate to find more export partners as the noose tightens around its central bank. More likely than not, Tehran would reward Buenos Aires with generous energy deals if Argentina continues to resist Western pressure to honor the sanctions.
Since Kirchner became president in 2007, Argentine exports to Iran (primarily agricultural commodities) have increased 338%, reaching $1.08 billion in 2012.Overall bilateral trade has increased 200% within the last five years. As the international economic sanctions have led many Iranians to live with a shortage of goods, Argentine officials understand that Iran’s demand for Argentina’s soya beans, corn and wheat should remain steady for the near- to medium-term.
Nonetheless, this development in Argentine-Iranian relations has met its share of criticism and controversy – most notably from Washington, Tel Aviv and certain segments of Argentine society.
In response to a question about the “truth commission,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wrote: “Iran’s record of cooperation with international authorities is profoundly deficient, which underlines the concern that its engagement on this matter be focused on achieving justice promptly.” Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing“astonishment and disappointment” with Argentina and condemning Buenos Aires for holding an “unacceptable attitude” toward Israel. Sergio Widder, director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Latin America asked, “How will it be possible to close the case by collaborating with those who have denied any part in the bombing […] Furthermore, how can Argentina trust a totalitarian regime with absolutely no respect for human rights?” These voices, according to Kirchner and her allies, have no interest in obtaining any truth about the event of 1994. Kirchner’s supporters dismiss these critics as agents of foreign interests that seek to utilize the 1994 attack as a geopolitical football to further isolate Iran.
Of course, predicting the longer-term consequences of Kirchner’s policies vis-à-vis Iran is difficult. Moreover, as demonstrated by the 8N movement, Kirchner already faces a plethora of domestic concerns. This movement was formed last year by upper-middle class and wealthy Argentines who grew angry with Kirchner, accusing her administration of only catering to the needs of her political support base. The rise of inflation, skyrocketing crime rates, a damaged foreign investment climate and greater government control over the media are contentious issues that have created much political turmoil in Argentina and added momentum to the 8N movement. Thus, the thawing of Argentine-Iranian relations may not capture the average Argentine’s attention. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the “truth commission” will yield results and if it fails to achieve its objective, there is reason to question how close Argentina and Iran can grow.
Nonetheless, by merely collaborating with Iranian authorities, Buenos Aires is making a bold statement. In 2009, former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned that if Latin American states “want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them.” Clearly, Washington will apply pressure on any state in the western hemisphere that refuses to tow the West’s line vis-à-vis Iran. Argentina knows this. But does it care? Considering that China has surpassed the US as an export partner for Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru, the decline of US economic influence is unquestionably giving Latin American leaders, such as Kirchner, more freedom to thumb their nose at Washington when it suits their interest to do so. Clearly, Kirchner is convinced that forming a partnership with Iran will advance Argentina’s interests and she appears unafraid of the associated risks.