Unease in Argentina over bombing evidence

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The Independent Online
DOUBTS - and fears - are stirring in Argentina about the reliability of evidence against six Iranian diplomats accused in the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires on 18 July causing the deaths of up to 100 people, and in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 in which 27 people died.

The doubts centre on the fact that the case against the six is based entirely on the testimony of an Iranian diplomat who defected in Venezuela, Manoucher Motamer, that has not been independently verified. The fears arise out of concern that hasty action against Iran could produce catastrophic reprisals in Argentina.

Senior government sources in the Argentine Foreign Ministry warned this week that it would be prudent to tread carefully 'for fear of the third bomb.' What is being called in Buenos Aires the 'third- bomb syndrome' is having the effect of a bucket of cold water being flung upon the government's initial eagerness to respond swiftly to what was presented as conclusive evidence that Iran was behind the two attacks.

Even President Carlos Menem, who this week said that at the very least the Iranian ambassador should resign or be expelled, quickly softened his remarks which he said were uttered 'in the heat of the moment' and said he would wait until the Foreign Ministry had decided what to do.

Yesterday the Deputy Foreign Minister, Fernando Petrella, said the expulsion of the ambassador, Hadi Soleimanpour, was not on the cards 'for the time being' as the authorities still hoped that Iran would co-operate in the investigation. Iran denies any involvement and has challenged Buenos Aires to provide evidence to back up the judge's allegations.

Argentina said yesterday it had recalled its cultural attache from Tehran on Friday and had not named a replacement, but denied that this had any political significance. 'It's pure coincidence,' a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. The ambassador was withdrawn 10 days ago.

The case passed yesterday directly to the Supreme Court, because those accused are foreign diplomats. Judge Juan Jose Galeano, who has led the official investigation until now, has issued international arrest warrants for four former employees of the Iranian embassy and demanded the withdrawal of diplomatic immunity from two current employees so that they can be interrogated by the Supreme Court.

But the only evidence being brought is a videotape of a 10-hour interview with Mr Motamer in Caracas on 23 and 24 July conducted by Judge Galeano. In that interview, Mr Motamer apparently named the six accused Iranian diplomats and is said to have provided details of an operations network of Iranian-backed terrorist groups throughout Latin America, as well as warning of an imminent attack in London. Within hours car bombs blasted the Israeli consulate and a Jewish charity building in London .

The bona fides of Mr Motamar, who has since gone to earth under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Venezuela, have also been put into question. Iran insisted until recently that he was never a member of its diplomatic service and was merely a small trader from Isfahan. He is described by sources in Venezuelan intelligence as being a long-time double agent who had infiltrated Iranian intelligence under the benevolent eyes of the CIA.