July 18 marks the twenty-eighth anniversary of the AMIA bombing, which killed eighty-five people and injured over 300 in a terrorist attack targeting Argentina and its Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. As evidence uncovered by Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who died under suspicious circumstances, and the Red Notice warrants issued by the INTERPOL in 2007 demonstrate, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its surrogate Hezbollah were responsible for this suicide attack. The AMIA bombing, the deadliest terror attack in Argentinian history, remains a grim reminder of not only the threat posed by the Iranian regime—the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism—to Jewish communities globally, but also the impunity Tehran’s operatives, proxies, and accomplices continue to enjoy in Latin America and beyond.
This year, the convening of a forum in Buenos Aires to combat anti-Semitism will be held against the backdrop of the AMIA anniversary. Among those attending will be Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, as well as other regional leaders and experts from twenty countries, whose presence offers a demonstration of support to those seeking justice in the AMIA case and helps ensure the memories of the victims will not be forgotten.
Distressingly, the anti-Semitism forum is taking place amidst security concerns resulting from Argentinian authorities’ June 8 grounding of a cargo plane—which until recently had been operated by Iran’s sanctioned Mahan Air until it was handed over to the Venezuelan state-owned Emtrasur in January. The aircraft’s suspicious flight patterns and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-linked crewmen, is evidence that Tehran has spent the last three decades deepening its illicit networks in the region.
The plane’s past itineraries in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay reflect the Iranian regime’s growing footprint in a region enmeshed in narco-trafficking, money laundering, and political violence. Other itineraries beyond the Tri-Border Area also hint at Tehran’s intricate sanctions evasion efforts in collusion with the region’s authoritarian regimes. The oversized crew of fourteen Venezuelans and five Iranians on an empty cargo plane also point to the ways in which Tehran has been ferrying regime officials and intelligence officers alongside other illicit cargo.
Additionally, the Iranian regime and its accomplices have enjoyed growing impunity in Latin America over the last three decades, and particularly over the last year. In January, Iranian vice president for economic affairs Mohsen Rezaei, a former IRGC leader wanted by Argentina on an Interpol Red Notice for his suspected role in the AMIA bombing, enjoyed a warm welcome in Nicaragua during Daniel Ortega’s swearing in ceremony. Three months earlier, an Argentinian court acquitted the country’s former president and current vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her associates of an alleged cover-up of Tehran’s role in the AMIA bombing. Meanwhile, the investigation into the suspected murder of Alberto Nisman, the Argentinian prosecutor who originally lodged the criminal complaint against Kirchner, has stalled.
Iran also seeks to exert influence in the region by expanding its soft power. HispanTV, Tehran’s Spanish-language propaganda outlet, promotes anti-Semitic conspiracies and engages in anti-Israel disinformation campaigns. Furthermore, the Iranian regime has, over the years, built a web of cultural centers, educational institutions, media outlets, and publishing houses across Latin America, using them to build a network of clients that it can incite and activate not only against Jewish communities but also against individuals they perceive as enemies of the regime and its proxies. Add to that the warm ties between Tehran and the authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, Iranian operatives and proxies, including Hezbollah, have accumulated significant logistical capabilities to pursue narco-trafficking, money laundering, sanctions evasion, and more importantly, the looming concern of potential terrorist attacks in the region.
What can be done to address this threat? Argentina’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in 2019 and adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism in 2020 were steps in the right direction. Buenos Aires, however, needs to complement these steps with a thorough investigation of the Iranian-turned-Venezuelan plane and its suspicious crewmen, cargo, and flight routes, regardless of where the evidence leads and whom it implicates. And while the United States and other allies have rightly expressed concerns, they should also take concrete action and offer to assist Buenos Aires to ensure all evidence of criminal activity and planning is processed and analyzed. At the same time, Washington should continue to sanction IRGC-linked entities and individuals, while continuing to push back against Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions and genocidal threats.
It took Argentina many years to take a clear stance on the AMIA bombing and treat it as an attack not just on the Jewish community but on all of Argentina. Since the Iranian regime, which has not shied away from propagating anti-Semitic incitement or hurling violent threats, remains a very real threat to Jewish communities around the world, a true commemoration of the AMIA attack and the honoring of the memories of its victims require vigilance against state-sponsored extremists committed to repeating similar attacks. Preventing such atrocities necessitates exposing, dismantling, and prosecuting the illicit networks that the Iranian masterminds have built over the last three decades.
Susan Heller Pinto is Vice President for International Policy at Anti-Defamation League. @shpinto
Aykan Erdemir is the Director of International Affairs Research at Anti-Defamation League. @aykan_erdemir