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January 24, 2008

US Officials Rejected Key Source on '94 Argentina Bombing


by Gareth Porter

The Iranian defector who was the source of Argentina's allegation that Iranian officials began planning the Jul. 18, 1994 terror bombing of a Jewish community center at a meeting nearly a year earlier had been dismissed as unreliable by US officials, according to the FBI agent who led the US team assisting the investigation in 1997-98.

The FBI agent, James Bernazzani, also says Argentine investigators had no real leads on an Iranian link to the bombing when his team was in Argentina. Three top officials in the US Embassy in Buenos Aires at the time including Ambassador James Cheek have confirmed the absence of evidence linking Iran to the bombing, which killed 85 people and wounded another 300.

All four discussed the case with this writer between November 2006 and June 2007.

Both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations have also charged consistently over 13 years that Iran was behind the blast. Argentine prosecutors issued indictments of seven former Iranian officials, including former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, in October 2006, but the case against five Argentines accused of being accomplices was thrown out in 2004, because of bribery of the key witness and other irregularities.

Bernazzani, now head of the FBI's New Orleans office, was in charge of the agency's office of Hezbollah operations when he was sent to Buenos Aires in late 1997 to lead a team of FBI specialists helping Argentine investigators to crack the AMIA bombing case.

In an interview in November 2006, Bernazzani threw new light on the man whose testimony became the centerpiece of the Argentine case against Iran, Abolghassem Mesbahi, an Iranian who claimed he had been the third-ranking man in Iran's intelligence service before defecting to the West in 1996. Mesbahi later testified that the decision to plan the bombing was made by top Iranian officials at a meeting on Aug. 14, 1993.

However, Mesbahi had been discredited among US analysts, according to Bernazzani, because he had lost his access to high-level Iranian officials well before the 1994 bombing and was "poor, even broke". Bernazzani said Mesbahi was "prepared to provide testimony to any country on any case involving Iran."

Bernazzani recalled that when he arrived in the Argentine capital, he found the only evidence the investigators claimed to have of Iranian responsibility was a surveillance tape of Iranian cultural attaché Mohsen Rabbani shopping for a white Renault van similar to the one allegedly used in the bombing.

However, the original intelligence report on the surveillance, which is available to researchers in the official Argentine investigation files, shows that Rabbani was filmed on May 1, 1993 nearly 15 months before the bombing.

That was also three and a half months before the time Mesbahi would later claim top Iranian officials had made the decision to plan the bombing operation.

Bernazzani said Argentine intelligence had also used a technique called "link analysis" of telephone records to make a circumstantial case that the Iranian Embassy had been involved in the plot. The analysis consisted of linking a series of calls made between Jul. 1, 1994 and the bombing 17 days later to a mobile phone in the Brazilian city of Foz de Iguazu, which must have been made by the "operational group" for the bombing. They claimed a link between a cell phone said to be owned by Rabbani and the other calls.

Bernazzani said he had regarded such a use of link analysis as "very dangerous", because, using the same methodology "you could link my telephone with bin Laden's." The Argentine prosecutors' 2006 report, however, devoted several pages to a presentation of the "link analysis" of phone calls as evidence of Iranian culpability.

The three top US diplomats in Buenos Aires from the time the AMIA was bombed Ambassador James Cheek, deputy chief of mission Ronald Goddard and chief of political section William Brencick all agreed in interviews that US and Argentine efforts had turned up no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah had been involved in the bombing.

Cheek, who was ambassador in Argentina from 1993 until late 1996, said in an interview last May, "To my knowledge there was never any real evidence [of Iranian responsibility]. They never came up with anything."

Cheek recalled that there had been only one promising lead pointing to Iran an Iranian defector named Manoucher Moatamer, who had claimed in 1994 to have inside information implicating Tehran in the bomb plot. But Cheek said it had soon become clear that Moatamer had actually been just a low-ranking official who hadn't known as much about Iranian government decision-making as he had claimed.

"We finally decided that he wasn't credible," Cheek said.

Deputy chief of mission Goddard, who was in Buenos Aires until late 1997, recalled in an interview that the US government had "suspected very seriously" that Hezbollah had carried out the bombing, because many Hezbollah sympathizers lived in the tri-border area where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet.

The investigation found no evidence, however, to link either Hezbollah or Iran to the bombing, according to Goddard. "The whole Iran thing seemed kind of flimsy," he said.

As chief of political section, Brencick was the primary Embassy contact with the Argentine investigation. He recalled in an interview that a "wall of assumptions" had guided the US approach to the case.

The dominant assumption, said Brencick, was that the bombing was a suicide attack against Jews, and that it therefore must have been done by Hezbollah, which had been carrying out suicide bombings against Israelis in Lebanon.

"What struck me initially was that there were a lot of assumptions but no hard evidence to connect those assumptions to the case," Brencick recalled.

Bernazzani said the US intelligence community's conviction that Hezbollah had a terrorist organization in the tri-border area, which it could have used to carry out the bombing, was not based on concrete evidence. "It's conjecture purely conjecture," the FBI agent said.

The case against Iran was entirely "circumstantial", according to Bernazzani, until the Argentine prosecutors identified the suicide bomber as Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Lebanese Hezbollah militant who Hezbollah insists was killed in fighting with an Israeli unit in southern Lebanon on Sep. 9, 1994.

That identification was contested, however, by Patricio Pfinnen, the head of counterintelligence for the Argentine intelligence agency, SIDE. Testifying on the case in court in October 2003, Pfinnen recalled that Berro's name had come from an informant in Lebanon he had recruited but whose credibility he had then come to question. Pfinnen expressed doubt that Berro was "the person who was immolated" in the bombing.

Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman told the press in November 2005 that Nicolasa Romero, the only eyewitness to the AMIA bombing who had claimed she had seen the driver of a white Renault van seconds before the blast, had identified Berro from pictures obtained from Berro's brothers in Detroit, Michigan.

Romero had admitted in secret court testimony, however, that she had been unable to identify Berro from two different sets of four pictures. Even after police prompted her by showing her the police sketch made from her description at the time, she said, she was only "80 percent certain" of the identification.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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