U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN THE AMIA BOMBING INVESTIGATION: KEEPING IRAN “IN THE DOCK”

01 Apr 2016

U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN THE AMIA BOMBING INVESTIGATION: KEEPING IRAN “IN THE DOCK”

By Mike Lasusa

A substantial research paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in International Affairs: United States Foreign Policy and National Security

AMERICAN UNIVERSITY Washington, D.C.

April 2016

Introduction

On the morning of July 18, 1994, a bomb exploded in Buenos Aires, destroying the headquarters of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, better known by its Spanish acronym, AMIA. The blast killed 85 people and injured more than 200 others in an incident that would become known as the deadliest anti-Semitic terrorist attack in Latin American history.

Over the past two decades, a labyrinthine body of evidence has accumulated about the AMIA bombing. Yet, despite the emergence of several plausible theories of culpability, no one has ever conclusively proven the identity, much less the guilt, of any of the perpetrators.

Nevertheless, from the day of the attack day until the present, various elements of the United States government have advanced the idea -- now widely accepted in foreign policy circles -- that high-level Iranian officials orchestrated the attack through their contacts with the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. In fact, as of this writing, a timeline on the website of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center definitively attributes responsibility for the AMIA bombing to Hezbollah. At the same time, some experts and observers over the years have questioned the “Iran Theory.” For example, in 2014, the Argentine judge handling the AMIA case, Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, said the Iran Theory is “still a hypothesis.” Both Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly denied that they had any role in the bombing. And the American ambassador in Argentina at the time of the attack, James Cheek, has stated that “there was never any real evidence” supporting assertions of Iranian involvement.

This begs the question: why did so many U.S. foreign policy decision-makers accept and promote a theory implicating Iran in the AMIA attack despite the weakness of the evidence and plausible alternative explanations? And what effects did this have on official investigations of the incident?

This essay will argue that U.S. antagonism toward Iran played a major role in the propagation of the Iran Theory. Linking top Iranian government officials to the AMIA attack served to reinforce a broader U.S. government portrayal of Iran as a hostile nation capable of using terrorism against Western countries in pursuit of its political goals. The U.S. government relied heavily on the perpetuation of this narrative in attempts to achieve its major foreign policy objectives with regard to Iran; namely, constraining the country’s geopolitical influence and denying its attempts to attain nuclear enrichment capabilities.

Additionally, many decision-makers involved in various aspects of the AMIA case adhered to the widespread -- and perhaps well-deserved -- perception that the Argentine justice system was so dysfunctional as to be incapable of identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators of the bombing.5 This made it relatively easy for U.S. officials to discount lines of investigation pursued by their Argentine counterparts that did not implicate Iran. Moreover, a majority of Argentines themselves also believed their government could not properly handle the case, which put pressure on Argentine officials to follow the lead of foreign investigators. Combined with U.S. predisposition toward the Iran Theory, this dynamic helped shift the focus of the investigation away from determining who carried out the plot and toward establishing that it had been ordered by the Iranian government.

This essay does not seek to definitively disprove the Iran Theory. Rather, it aims to explore some of the major shortcomings in the evidence cited by its proponents in order to consider whether U.S. antagonism toward Iran and distrust of Argentina’s investigative abilities contributed to the persistence of this line of investigation. It will also briefly outline an alternative theory of culpability (the so-called “Syria Connection”) and compare the U.S. treatment of that hypothesis to its treatment of the Iran Theory.

During the research for this essay, the author did not find any academic literature on how geopolitical concerns may have affected the course of the AMIA inquiry. Nor did the author encounter scholarship regarding the possible effects of geopolitical concerns on other investigations of suspected incidents of international terrorism in which the United States became involved. Therefore, this essay is intended to serve as a starting point for other scholars who become interested in these little-studied aspects of foreign relations.

 

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