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
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.