Before he was murdered, the Argentinian prosecutor investigating the massive 1994 Buenos Aires bombing wiretapped over 40,000 phone calls. His one question: Did the Argentinian government conspire to cover up Iran’s involvement in the attack?
On May 12, three judges serving on Argentina’s Federal Cassation Court, the nation’s highest criminal appeal chamber, put an end, at least for the moment, to any hope that the accusations brought by the late prosecutor Alberto Nisman against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and other officials over the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center would be properly investigated.
Nisman, who was found dead in his apartment in suspicious circumstances last January, had accused the president and some of her colleagues of covering up Iran’s involvement in the AMIA massacre, which claimed the lives of 85 people and injured hundreds more. Nisman had been investigating the AMIA atrocity for more than ten years, adding an additional layer to his inquiries when he unearthed what he believed to be evidence of back-channel negotiations between the Argentine government and the Iranian regime to cover up the massacre.
The court’s decision signaled that, as far as the Argentine judicial system is concerned, there is no possibility, for now, of Nisman’s complaint against the government being properly and impartially examined. However, it is important to note that since no investigation has taken place, no verdicts have been handed down. The prospect remains of the case being reopened at a later date, subject to a change in Argentina’s political climate and the presentation of new evidence.
Such evidence may be present in the trove of some 41,606 recordings of wire-tapped telephone conversations that Nisman obtained through a court order. What those recordings strongly suggest is that Jorge Alejandro “Yusuf” Khalil, an Argentine citizen now seen as Tehran’s main back-channel interlocutor with the Argentine government, was actively involved in negotiating the fateful Memorandum of Understanding with Iran. This, in Nisman’s view, was designed to have the international arrest warrants against the five Iranian suspects in the AMIA atrocity dropped, thus putting an end to Argentina’s demand to extradite them for trial.
An idea of the importance of the recordings can be gleaned from a February 2013 conversation between alleged Argentine government intelligence operative Ramón Héctor “Allan” Bogado and Khalil. In that call, which was widely reported in the Argentine press, Bogado told Khalil, “We have a video of the [AMIA] attack,” leading Khalil to reprimand him for not being more careful when speaking on the phone. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure who Bogado meant by “we,” but one distinct possibility may be that the AMIA bombing was filmed by Argentina’s intelligence services, or that a video recording of it, perhaps containing vital evidence about the identity of the terrorists who carried out the attack, fell into their hands.
In order for the significance of the “Nisman Tapes” to be fully appreciated, a brief recap of the events of that bloodstained winter’s day in 1994 is in order. On July 18, a suicide bomber drove a van packed with explosives into the headquarters of the AMIA Jewish community organization in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The resulting blast killed 85 people and left hundreds injured, in what was one of the worst incidents of anti-Semitic violence since World War II.
After the failure of the initial, corruption-drenched investigation into the bombing, carried out under the Presidencies of Carlos Menem, Fernando de la Rúa, and Eduardo Duhalde, Alberto Nisman was appointed as Special Prosecutor in charge of the investigation in 2004 by Duhalde’s successor Néstor Kirchner—the late husband of current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In 2006, at a time when Néstor Kirchner’s administration was, as far as we can tell, supporting efforts to capture the AMIA bombers, Nisman formally accused Iran of planning the attack and Hezbollah of carrying it out. He also sought international arrest warrants for a number of senior Iranian officials.
After declining to pursue some of the suspects on the grounds of sovereign immunity, Interpol eventually approved international warrants for the arrest of Ahmad Vahidi, then the Deputy Defense Minister of Iran; Ali Fallahijan, a former Minister of Intelligence; former government adviser Mohsen Rezaee; Mohsen Rabbani, an attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires at the time of the attack; former diplomat Ahmad Reza Asghari; and Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, a Lebanese citizen and Hezbollah operative, who was to die in a car bombing in Syria in 2008. Iran, naturally, denied any involvement in the AMIA attack and refused to extradite the suspects.
As part of his ongoing investigation into the attack, Nisman obtained an order to tap Khalil’s telephones. These recordings provided the basis for the formal denuncia [complaint] made by Nisman in January 2015 concerning a criminal conspiracy involving President Fernández de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, and other senior officials, aimed at covering up the AMIA massacre. It was this intrigue which, in Nisman’s view, gave rise to Argentina’s notorious Memorandum of Understanding with Iran, the real aim of which, he believed, was the abandonment of criminal charges relating to the AMIA bombing against the accused Iranians, and not, as the Argentine government has claimed, the gaining of an opportunity to question them. The Memorandum was ruled unconstitutional by a Federal Appeal court in May 2014, a ruling which the government has appealed.
A few days after lodging the complaint, and the night before he was due to present its contents to a committee of the Argentine Congress, Nisman was found dead with a bullet in his head in the bathroom of his apartment. Though the Argentine government has sought to portray his death as suicide, the investigation into it has been marked by incompetence and malpractice on a scarcely believable scale, thereby fueling the suspicion that Nisman was in fact murdered.
Before proceeding further, I will present brief portraits of some of the principal characters whose voices appear on the recordings, or whose names are mentioned during the conversations.
Jorge Alejandro “Yusuf” Khalil
Prior to Nisman going public with his accusation of a cover up of the AMIA massacre, Khalil was not someone known to Argentines in general. He has been variously described as a Muslim leader (though he is not a cleric), a “community leader,” and figure of importance in the At-Tauhid Mosque in the Buenos Aires city district of Flores. This is the same mosque with which Mohsen Rabbani—a former cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires and one of the AMIA suspects—was associated during the years he was posted in Argentina. Nisman appears to have wanted to intercept Khalil’s communications because he suspected him of being the key figure, or one of the key figures, in back-channel negotiations between the ruling circles in Argentina and Iran. In one of the recordings transcribed below, Khalil referred to Hector Timerman, Argentina’s Foreign Minister, as a “fucking Jew.”
Luis D’Elía lacks any official role in the government. Nonetheless, he is often to be found in the front row of the audience when President Fernández de Kirchner makes important announcements, confidently rubbing shoulders with ministers and other senior officials. D’Elía has travelled to Iran on at least one occasion and is an open admirer of the Islamic Republic. His office is adorned with a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini.
D’Elía first came to public attention as a piquetero leader in the social crisis that followed the economic collapse of 2001-02. He briefly held a low-level government position in the government of President Néstor Kirchner, who eventually grew tired of his scheming and fired him after he presented a letter to the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires in which he supported Iran’s position with regard to the AMIA investigation and its refusal to extradite the suspects. Though Néstor Kirchner’s widow and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, never appointed him to an official position, there is every indication that his “anti-imperialist” and, especially, anti-Zionist world view have found greater favor with her than they did with her deceased husband.
At least on the face of it, Esteche is one of the leaders of the Quebracho Leftist revolutionary movement, and has served jail time for activities in this regard. However, he has long been suspected of working with Argentina’s state intelligence services, and what he is heard saying on the wiretaps obtained by Nisman only tends to confirm this. He shares with D’Elía and Khalil a passionate hatred of Israel, believing that the Jewish state is an immensely powerful country that interferes in Argentina’s affairs on practically a daily basis.
Rabbani was the cultural attaché of the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires at the time of the AMIA attack. His extradition was sought by Nisman, who suspected his involvement in the planning and execution of the attack.
Ramón Héctor “Allan” Bogado
Though the Argentine government has denied that he was ever on the books of any of its spy agencies, it seems certain that Bogado has carried out activities on behalf of the government in the shadowy zone between intelligence and politics. He now faces charges with regard to bargaining with the state over the sentence to be given to Esteche for activities unrelated to the AMIA bombing. His defense in this other matter involved presenting screen captures from a telephone chat that purport to show Bogado’s ready access to the Cabinet Office.
The government’s denial that he has ever been formally employed as a spy may be correct. But that denial ignores the distinction between those with a legally registered job as an intelligence operative and the legions of inorgánicos such as Bogado—those who do work for one or other spy agency, sometimes over a period of years, and who are paid cash in hand for their efforts and do not acquire any social security, retirement, or other benefits. As they leave no trace on the payroll or anywhere else, they also offer governments the great benefit of being able to deny any knowledge of their existence if their activities ever come to light.
President of the Confederación de Entidades Argentino Árabes (Confederation of Argentine Arab Entities – Fearab), an Arab-Argentine community organization.
Sheik Abdul Karim Paz
This convert to Islam was born Santiago Paz Bullrich and is a scion of one the most patrician families in Argentina. He is a cousin of Patricia Bullrich, an opposition member of the committee of the Congress before which Nisman was supposed to testify the Monday after he died. Karim Paz lived and studied in Iran for a number of years and also appears to be associated with the At-Tauhid Mosque in Buenos Aires.
Zannini was detained for a number of years by the 1976-83 military dictatorship. Following its collapse, he moved to the distant southern province of Santa Cruz, where Néstor Kirchner and his wife were beginning to make their way in local politics. He soon found a place for himself in their innermost circle, which he maintains to this day. On June 16, Daniel Scioli, the Governor of Buenos Aires Province, an ally of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and likely next president of Argentina, announced that Zannini would be his running mate in the general election due in October.
Eleven years as Secretary General of the Presidency and his appointment as the new head of the main state intelligence service in December 2014 testify to the fact that he enjoyed the complete confidence the late President Néstor Kirchner and continues to enjoy that of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
American readers might like to think of Parrilli and Zannini as the Valerie Jarrett and Denis McDonough of the Fernández de Kirchner administration, with the difference that they have occupied their current roles for more than a decade now.
Andrés “El Cuervo” Larroque
A member of Congress for President Fernández de Kirchner’s Frente Para La Victoria electoral vehicle and a key figure in the La Cámpora pro-government youth movement, a seed bed for promising talent to be inserted into the organs of state power. Along with Timerman and Fernández de Kirchner, Larroque was one of those accused of organizing the coverup by Nisman.
THE NISMAN WIRETAPS:
November 27, 2012, Khalil and unidentified person:
Khalil: I have just come from La Matanza [a district of Greater Buenos Aires] where I had a meeting with “El Cuervo” Larroque, from La Cámpora… they called me earlier because they wanted to talk to me, to say that they had a message from the government that they wanted passed on, and now I am heading to Martínez [a district of Greater Buenos Aires] to pass on the message, to the Ambassador’s residence [of Iran].
In another telephone conversation intercepted the following day, he describes his relationship with the two governments and his roles as follows:
I’m not working for them, [the Argentine government] I’m working for our people, for our embassy [that of Iran]…they sent me to do something, since I’m the link…”
This recording was made just two months before the announcement of the signing of the Memorandum, and if it isn’t clear evidence of the existence of back-channel negotiations with the Iranians involving Khalil and Larroque, it’s hard to know what it might be.
Khalil: Right, and another point, listen to me now; if the media call you today, try to keep a low profile for ten days at least.
Khalil: I know why I am telling you this, later, tomorrow, I will explain to you.
D’Elía: No, no, no, Parrilli just told me the same thing.
Khalil: Because they have just called me and told me that those on the other side are up in arms, do you see, and we don’t want […] and we don’t want any of our players to run any risks, no risks at all, and we don’t want anyone breaking their balls.
D’Elía: Good, perfect.
This sounds very much like Khalil giving instructions to D’Elía to keep his mouth shut in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the signing of the Memorandum with Iran. From this recording it seems clear that Khalil is the top dog in this relationship. The mention of Oscar Parrilli is also notable—at the time he was Secretary General of the Presidency, and is now head of the Agencia Federal de Inteligencia, the rebranded but unreformed state intelligence service. In short, he is one of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s most trusted advisers; one of the very few people who enjoys her full confidence.
March 28, 2013, Mohsen Rabbani and Adalberto Assad, the latter speaking from Khalil’s telephone:
Rabbani: It’s very important, there are sectors of the government that have told me that they are ready to sell oil to Argentina, sell tractors, sell steel and also buy arms […] So you had better organize a business meeting with the government and we will say that in the government of Iran there are firms that work with oil and want to collaborate with you.
Assad: […] This very day the Minister [probably Julio Alak, then and now Minister for Justice and Human Rights] told me that the President is Arabist, do you see? It motivates her as well, it motivates her all this, our culture.
Assad: The other day in the Te Deum for the 25 of May [May Revolution commemoration] an imam recited from the Koran and she stood up, sheikh [Rabbani], she stood up out of respect for the Koran. Do you understand?
Assad: The President and I felt a very strong emotion.
Rabbani: How good! How good! Let them know that Iran is a friend of Argentina and of the people, and we are on the side of [the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo] Chávez and of Argentina.
The least that could be said about this recording is that it exhibits a prominent member of the Arab-Argentine community talking with one of the prime suspects in the massacre of dozens of his fellow citizens as if it were the most normal thing in the world, boasting for good measure of his connections with the government. As regards Rabbani, he does not seem to follow the conversation with great attention and his talk of trade with Argentina is not very credible, given the fact that Argentina itself has advanced industries in the areas he mentions as possible Iranian exports. The idea of Argentina being able to produce weapons that the Iranian regime would be interested in buying seems fanciful indeed.
Khalil: There is a little… just between us, there is a bit of disappointment over there [Iran]. … Some words were said which did not go down well. It looks like that fucking Jew [Foreign Minister Hector Timerman] screwed something up.
D’Elía: Really? What did he say?
Khalil: No, there was something signed about the question of the arrest warrants as well, but anyway we will talk about this in person.
D’Elía: Okay, right.
Khalil: We’ll talk about it. And that comment he made didn’t go down well either, do you remember, “Do you think that I like negotiating with the Iranians?” That went down really badly, do you see?
The disappointment in Iran referred to by Khalil is seemingly related to the fact that, by this stage, it had become clear the arrest warrants for the Iranian suspects were not going to be lifted simply because of the Memorandum being signed and ratified by Argentina. Khalil also mentioned the existence of what seems to be a separate, secret agreement relating to the question of the arrest warrants, which the Iranians believe Timerman had not complied with. This may have contained assurances to the Iranians about the lifting of the warrants.
Since the scandal broke, the Argentine government has gone to great lengths to claim that at no time did it ever request Interpol to lift the arrest warrants for the wanted Iranians. This might be true, but is beside the point. In the normal course of events there are only two ways for such warrants to be lifted: Either the relevant legal authority (rather than the Executive Branch) in the country requesting the detentions rescinds them, or the wanted individuals are located. The relevant legal authority in Argentina was Federal Judge Canicoba Corral, who granted Nisman’s request for the issuing of the arrest warrants, and at no point did he request that they be lifted.
What may have occurred is that the Argentine government gave secret assurances to the Iranians about lifting the arrest warrants in the full knowledge that they would not be able to order this, and relied on the warrants automatically being rescinded upon the planned encounter between the Argentine judicial authorities in Tehran with the suspects, when the whereabouts of the wanted men would no longer be unknown to those pursuing them. Why would they do something so manifestly stupid? Overconfidence and a penchant for decision making on the hoof may at least be part of the answer. We will never know for sure until the day comes when Nisman’s allegations are properly investigated.
Khalil: How’s it going?
D’Elía: Fine, I have an urgent message from the Argentine government. To pass over there [to Iran], it’s totally urgent, before tomorrow.
Khalil: Before tomorrow? Where are you?
D’Elía: In Government House.
Khalil: Okay, I am headed in that direction.
D’Elía: Listen to me, let’s go to the Embassy [of Iran]. Why don’t we meet there at 12.30? […] I called a while ago, he [the Iranian Chargé d’Affaires ] is in a meeting. But let’s deal with this there is no subject more important than this.
The Saturday after this exchange (which took place on a Tuesday), Foreign Minister Timerman met his Iranian counterpart Mohamamd Javad Zarif in New York, supposedly to enquire about the progress of the process of approval of the Memorandum in the Parliament of Iran. According to Nisman, President Fernández de Kirchner “sought certain public pronouncements from Tehran, which even if they were false would be useful for the cover up, the objective of which was always the improvement of geopolitical and commercial relations with Iran.” The giddily optimistic account of the meeting between Timerman and Zarif presented in the government mouthpiece Página/12 tends to support Nisman’s view in this regard, with fact that the meeting lasted an hour rather than the scheduled twenty minutes being seen in the rosiest possible terms; a smiling Timerman is quoted as saying that Zarif had told him that the meeting had lasted twice as long as any he had had with John Kerry in the same location. The Argentine Foreign Minister’s pathetic pleasure in what he takes to be a small victory over the United States and confirmation of his country’s role in the premier league of international diplomacy shines forth from his every word. He also quotes Zarif as telling him that the Memorandum had been approved by Iran’s National Defense Council and had hence been formally ratified.
When asked about this recording, the then-Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich declined to deny that D’Elía was a regular visitor to Government House.
September 27, 2013, Khalil and Karim Paz:
Khalil: I’ll tell you what, it is…
Karim Paz: OK…
Khalil: …necessary that the government of Iran, along with the Argentine government, tomorrow announce the setting up of the Truth Commission.
Karim Paz: It seems to me that they [the government of Argentina] committed a lot of mistakes, but the Iranians have the patience of an elephant, so they will put up with it.
Khalil: Yes, exactly.
Karim Paz: It all seems a bit sloppy to me, Argentina is sucking up to the United States. But anyway, they [the government of Iran] will put up with it all. But I don’t think they are going to announce that it’s [the Truth Commission] being formed tomorrow. The Iranians aren’t coming that prepared to the meeting. The meeting was called in a hurry at Cristina’s [President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner] request […] I am not sure if Argentina is going to play its part in all this correctly because it’s also sloppy. Don’t forget and we must remember that Iran had nothing to do with the AMIA [attack] do you see, so let’s not be stupid. Argentina treats Iran as if it had something to do with it and it’s not like that, even if Argentina is only doing it for the gallery, the truth is that it’s pretty fucked up.
Karim Paz: But they’ll work something out.
Khalil: We’ll talk, if there’s any news I’ll let you know.
Karim Paz: Fine, fine, We’ll see each other tonight.
Full comprehension of this exchange is somewhat impeded by either Khalil’s peculiar way of expressing himself or by the recording having missed something, so it’s not clear for whom it’s necessary “that the government of Iran, along with the Argentine government, tomorrow announce the setting up of the Truth Commission.”
What is clear is that Khalil is concerned about the outcome of the following day’s meeting between Timerman and Zarif, and that he sees Karim Paz as a reliable source of information about Iran’s intentions, or at least as an outlet for his anxieties regarding the result of the encounter. Notable also is the fact that Karim Paz sees the meeting as having been hurriedly called at the request of the Argentine government, anxious for a public confirmation from the Iranians that all was going swimmingly with the publicly known aspects of the Memorandum, the better to allow the clandestine understandings to be acted upon unhindered.
Nisman going public with his complaint produced something approaching panic in Khalil, evident from the number of calls he made that day, and audible in his voice when he rang D’Elía, who told him that the has received instructions from the Presidency to “maintain silence” on the matter. Khalil later called Fernando Esteche, who informed him of a meeting that would take place between those involved in the case and Carlos Zannini, the government’s Legal and Technical Secretary, along with Oscar Parrilli, by now the new head of the renamed state intelligence service. No two individuals are closer to the President than Zannini—now the leading vice-presidential candidate in the forthcoming election—and Parrilli.
In yet another conversation the same day, Khalil told Rubén Pascolini, a confidante of D’Elía with a low-level position in the government, that he wanted to meet with government representatives to devise a common approach to Nisman’s denuncia. If this didn’t happen, Khalil continued, he would have to decide for himself what to do, to which his interlocutor replied, “No, no, no.” It’s not hard to imagine the relief felt by Khalil and various others he spoke to that day on learning of the death of Nisman.
In both political and legal terms, the government’s response to the release of the recordings I’ve described (which are only a tiny fraction of the total, with the remainder possibly containing valuable information about Iran’s relations with Argentina) has been both simple and successful. The government claims that the conversations are just the ramblings of political nobodies, people with no influence or role at the highest levels of the state, and that the very idea of them conducting back-channel negotiations with Iran is absurd.
This defense, successful though it has been, includes a rather obvious weakness: If one wanted to set up a back-channel negotiation with a foreign power, then who better to do so than the likes of D’Elía and Khalil? They provide the resource most coveted by governments everywhere that get involved in illicit activities—deniability.
Had even the most basic steps to investigate Nisman’s complaint been taken, it would have been easy to find out whether Khalil and his interlocutors were fantasists or not. For example, the register of visitors to Government House would show whether D’Elía was really there when he claimed to be. Or perhaps not, as most of the records of visits to Government House appear to have gone up in smoke in a mysterious fire in March.
In any case, there are dozens of other measures that could have been taken, such as finding out the approximate location from which cell phone calls were made, checking bank records, and checking on the movements of those recorded speaking to Khalil inside and outside the country.
But nothing like that is going to happen now, at least while the current Argentine government remains in power and even afterwards, until its loyalists placed in the legal system have been removed or they resign. With Nisman dead, the driving force behind the investigation into the AMIA attack and the cover-up that followed has been removed from the scene. With the noble exceptions of Prosecutors Gerardo Pollicita and Germán Moldes, who did what they could to advance Nisman’s complaint, the other actors in the Argentine judicial system charged with examining it have reacted with a mixture of spasms of fear and snorts of contempt.
If one wanted to set up a back-channel negotiation with a foreign power, then who better to do so than the likes of D’Elía and Khalil? They provide the resource most coveted by governments everywhere that get involved in illicit activities—deniability.
The government and the conspirators must be so pleased with themselves. Nisman is gone, his denuncia is blocked, and there have been no negative consequences for Argentina of any sort on the international stage. The investigation into Nisman’s death has descended into low farce, and the verdict of suicide that will probably be reached won’t be believed even by those who sign it.
Perhaps all this explains why the President felt able to fire off an anti-Semitic diatribe on Twitter in which she painted herself as the victim of a global plot by malevolent Jews intent on both war with Iran and destroying Argentina’s economy, as well as encouraging the launch of a new Jewish communal body anxious to display its unwavering loyalty to her.
Pleased though they may be, the government and the conspirators can relax only for the moment. The history of the aftermath of the 1976-83 military dictatorship shows that no bribe is big enough, no threat terrifying enough, and no legal trickery enduring enough to block the demand for justice forever.
After decades of thinking they had gotten completely away with their atrocious crimes, hundreds of old men—arrogant torturers, lords of life and death in their day—now live out their final days in Argentina’s jails, in some considerable measure due to the efforts of President Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband.
A disproportionally large number of the victims of that dictatorship were Jewish, but their Jewishness has been subsumed into a broader narrative of a heroic, though failed, revolutionary struggle. Thus, justice could be sought for them as Argentine heroes with their Jewish origins regarded as no more than a harmless quirk in their identity.
The AMIA dead, by contrast, were murdered just for being Jewish (or for walking in the environs of a Jewish communal building) and easy to kill. Nisman, himself Jewish too, died because he investigated their deaths and the attempt to prosecute their killers with too much diligence. It’s evident that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sees the whole AMIA issue as essentially a foreign struggle being played out on the innocent shores of Argentina. Her dearest wish is probably for the whole wretched saga to just go away. It’s likely that a large proportion of the population of Argentina agrees with her on this.
The struggle for justice for the victims of the dictatorship was sustained for years outside of Argentina by foreign human rights groups and, when circumstances made it either too dangerous or apparently hopeless to do so solely inside the country, exiled Argentines. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from that for the AMIA and Nisman cases.
There is unlikely to be any justice for the AMIA dead, or for Nisman either, until their cases are internationalized. The obstacles to setting up a UN special tribunal to investigate the murders are probably insurmountable. The least that could be done, however, is to make it impossible for Argentina’s next president and future ministers to have normal relations with democratic nations without the AMIA issue and the death of Nisman being raised at every opportunity. This would at least have the effect of keeping up the morale of those inside Argentina who continue to struggle for justice, while waiting for the political circumstances that will allow justice to be done.
Banner Photo: Viktor Gmyria / 123RF