Paul Pillar

Iran South of the Border

Those who endeavor to keep Iran demonized have had to work overtime lately. The imminent departure from office of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the smarmy, Holocaust-questioning Iranian president, was bound to be a loss for the demonizers because he has been for the past eight years an outward face of the Islamic Republic that is easy to dislike. Their loss was made all the greater when the Iranian presidential election yielded a resounding victory for Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate and reasonable-sounding of the candidates. Since then we have seen in Israel and the United States a campaign, by those who would not welcome any agreement with Iran, to throw cold water on hopes and expectations stemming from the election result. That campaign has forged on, seemingly oblivious to (but in reality, perhaps quite conscious of) how U.S. obduracy in the wake of Rouhani's election would send all the wrong kinds of signals to Iran about U.S. intentions. It is such signals, more so than anything having to do with Rouhani's views or political position, that would impede successful negotiation of a nuclear agreement with Tehran.

The throwing of water has been accompanied by digging up of dirt on Rouhani. One accusation that was seized upon was that Rouhani had been part of Iranian decision-making that had led to the bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires in 1994. That incident got back in the news last month when an Argentine prosecutor issued a report that talked about an Iranian presence in the Western Hemisphere that allegedly provides an infrastructure for terrorist attacks to be carried out either directly or by Iran's all Hezbollah. The dirt-diggers suffered a setback when the same prosecutor subsequently stated that according to his findings, Rouhani was not part of any decision-making circle in Tehran connected to the 1994 bombing.

Other parts of the prosecutor's report nonetheless provided some fodder for a larger front in the campaign to sustain alarm about Iran: the idea that the United States is vulnerable to attack through its soft underbelly, from Iranians infiltrating through Latin America. Part of the attraction of this theme is that the threat it postulates is closer and thus scarier than something that might happen on the other side of an ocean. The theme also meshes conveniently with the debate on immigration and specifically with the increased expenditure on border security measures that was a price for securing some of the votes in favor of the immigration bill that passed the Senate. The idea is that more security along the southern border will keep out not only scruffy illegal immigrants looking for jobs but also sophisticated Iranian terrorists looking to kill Americans.

Alarmists recently suffered a setback on this front, too. The State Department has completed a Congressionally-mandated report on Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere. The legislation that required the report also called for a strategy to counter “Iran's growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere”—an example of prejudging conclusions on the very subject the report is supposed to cover. The State Department's conclusions, to the chagrin of those who called for the report, are said to be considerably less alarmist, pointing to a lack of evidence of active Iranian cells or Iranian plots in the hemisphere. One of the authors of the legislation, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), is nonetheless not dissuaded, saying that he knows better than the State Department on this subject. A subcommittee, which Duncan chairs, of the House Homeland Security Committee has scheduled a hearing for next month on “Threat to the Homeland: Iran's Extending Influence in the Western Hemisphere.”

Questions have been raised through the years about the responsibility for that attack in 1994 against the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Some have pointed to deficiencies in the original investigation by the Argentines and to the possibility that anti-Semitic elements within Argentina (which certainly exist) conducted the attack. Among the biggest reasons for believing that Hezbollah (with whatever that may imply regarding Iranian involvement) was indeed the perpetrator of that attack, as well as a bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier, are the likely motivation and the timing. This part of the story, however, usually goes unmentioned by those ringing alarm bells about Iranian terrorism. Each of the two attacks followed by about a month a significant Israeli hostile action back in Lebanon. In 1992 it was the assassination of Hezbollah's Secretary-General, Abbas al-Musawi. In 1994 it was an airstrike on a Hezbollah training camp that killed about 50 recruits. If Iran and Hezbollah were responsible for the attacks in Argentina, this was almost certainly part of the larger pattern of tit-for-tat retaliation for Israeli acts, including terrorist acts. The same pattern has been even more obvious in Iran's more recent attempts to retaliate for the assassinations of its nuclear scientists.