U.S. Involvement in the AMIA Bombing Investigation: Keeping Iran “in the Dock”

The text below is the executive summary of the substantial research paper I completed during the spring semester of 2016 as the capstone requirement for earning a master’s degree in U.S. foreign policy and national security from the American University School of International Service.

I spent the better part of a year researching and writing this essay, and I would be remiss not to thank my advisor, Dr. Philip Brenner, as well as Carlos Osorio of the National Security Archive for their invaluable guidance and assistance throughout the course of this project.

The full paper is available here and is also embedded at the bottom of this post.

This substantial research project focuses on U.S. involvement in the investigation of the July 18, 1994 terrorist attack that destroyed the Buenos Aires headquarters of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, better known by its Spanish acronym, AMIA. My research suggests that the United States promoted a theory of culpability for the attack that implicated high-level Iranian government officials in the AMIA bombing not for the strength of the evidence, but rather due to political motives; primarily, antagonism toward Iran. During my research, I did not encounter any academic examinations of the U.S. role in the AMIA investigation, nor did I find any substantial studies of the ways in which geopolitical concerns may affect which investigative avenues the United States is willing to support when cooperating with other countries on terrorism investigations. Therefore, this research represents an initial step toward developing a better understanding of these little-studied aspects of international relations.

My conclusions derive from an extensive examination of many hundreds of pages of primary source documents related to the investigation of the AMIA attack and the circumstances surrounding it, including diplomatic cables, judicial filings, intelligence reports and internal government correspondence. I also relied on works by journalists and scholars who have done prior research on the AMIA bombing and related topics. My aim is not to definitively disprove the hypothesis I refer to as the “Iran Theory,” but rather to explore some of the major shortcomings in the evidence cited by its proponents in order to consider whether U.S. antagonism toward Iran and distrust of Argentina’s investigative abilities contributed to the persistence of this line of investigation.

The evidence for the Iran Theory is largely circumstantial. Essentially, its proponents argue that Argentina’s decision to suspend cooperation on nuclear technology with Iran in the early 1990s angered the Iranian government to such an extent that high-level Iranian officials ordered the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to carry out the AMIA attack. Hezbollah had threatened to retaliate against Israel’s abduction and torture of a Lebanese militant leader named Mustafa Dirani weeks before the AMIA bombing, which led some U.S. intelligence analysts to conclude that the attack also served as revenge for Israel’s treatment of Dirani.[1] Additionally, other apparent terrorist acts against Jewish and Israeli targets immediately following the AMIA bombing contributed to the perception within the U.S. government that these incidents constituted a “coordinated terrorist campaign…against Israel” carried out by Hezbollah with Iranian support.[2]

Additionally, proponents of the Iran Theory have cited the testimony of several Iranian defectors as corroboration for this hypothesis. However, the U.S. embassy in Argentina determined that the first defector to provide such testimony, Monoucher Moatamer, “wasn’t credible.”[3] An FBI investigator who worked on the AMIA case described a second defector who repeatedly implicated Iranian officials in the attack, Abdolghassem Mesbahi, as “full of shit.”[4] Furthermore, the FBI and CIA determined that a man calling himself Ahmad Behbahani, who also alleged the involvement of the Iranian government, was an imposter who was “lying about lots of stuff.”[5]

In 2007, James Cheek, the American ambassador in Argentina at the time of the AMIA attack, stated that “there was never any real evidence” supporting assertions of Iranian involvement.[6] Similarly, Ronald Godard, the Deputy Chief of Mission in the U.S. embassy at the time of the bombing, later said that the “whole Iran thing seemed kind of flimsy.”[7] Nevertheless, linking top Iranian government officials to the AMIA attack served to reinforce a broader U.S. government portrayal of Iran as a hostile nation capable of using terrorism against Western countries in pursuit of its political goals. The U.S. government relied heavily on the perpetuation of this narrative in attempts to achieve its major foreign policy objectives with regard to Iran; namely, constraining the country’s geopolitical influence and denying its attempts to attain nuclear enrichment capabilities.

In an August 1994 State Department cable, Cheek himself seemed to acknowledge this dynamic when he admitted “the absence of direct links” between Iranian government officials and the AMIA attack, while praising “a steady campaign to keep Iranian complicity in global terrorism in the public eye” that had “kept the Iranians in the dock where they belong.”[8] This statement foreshadowed later efforts by the United States to use the allegation of Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing as a justification for its antagonistic foreign policy stance toward Iran.

The most illustrative example of this is the extensive role the United States played in the campaign to get the international law enforcement organization INTERPOL to issue wanted advisories known as “red notices” against Iranian suspects in the AMIA case. The first such “red notices” were issued in 2003, but were rescinded in 2005 after evidence surfaced indicating improper handling of the AMIA case by Argentine judicial officials.[9] When the Argentine government submitted a request to have the “red notices” reinstated in early 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice instructed American diplomats to “approach host governments at the highest level to convey U.S. strong support in this matter.”[10] American Journalist Mark Perelman reported that the administration of President George W. Bush planned to use the charges against Iranian officials “to highlight Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism to convince reluctant U.N. Security Council members…that Iran’s nuclear ambitions should be neutralized.”[11]

The election of U.S. President Barack Obama represented the beginning of a shift in U.S. relations with Iran. In contrast to President Bill Clinton’s administration, which had pursued a policy of “containment” toward Iran,[12] and President George W. Bush’s administration, which had adopted an even more aggressive posture,[13] the Obama administration sought to deny Iran’s attempts to advance its nuclear capabilities through sanctions and diplomatic negotiations.[14] As part of this shift, the executive branch largely stopped relying on the Iran Theory to keep Iran “in the dock.” But still, opponents of rapprochement with Iran in the U.S. congress continued to raise the issue of alleged Iranian involvement in the AMIA attack as a justification for their opposition to the negotiations, which eventually resulted in an accord announced in July 2015.[15]

In addition to demonstrating how easily terrorism investigations can become politicized in both the domestic and international arena, the AMIA saga also highlights the necessity of closely and critically examining such cases. If scholars and policy makers want to accurately understand history, engaging in rigorous analysis of primary source documents like the ones cited in my substantial research paper should be the first step. Current public discourse and scholarship treats Iranian responsibility for the AMIA attack as virtually an unquestioned fact.[16] But as my essay demonstrates, a thorough consideration of the available evidence shows that the Iran Theory is substantially less robust than it has been made to seem.


[1] DCI Counterterrorist Center, “Counterterrorist Center Commentary: Hizballah Attacks Israel in Buenos Aires?” (Central Intelligence Agency, July 18, 1994).; This document is not yet available to the public.

[2] DCI Counterterrorist Center, “Counterterrorist Center Commentary: Possible Hizballah Bombing Campaign” (Central Intelligence Agency, July 27, 1994).; This document is not yet available to the public.

[3] Gareth Porter, “US Officials Rejected Key Source on ‘94 Argentina Bombing,” Antiwar.com, January 24, 2008, http://www.antiwar.com/porter/?articleid=12254.

[4] Dexter Filkins, “Death of a Prosecutor,” The New Yorker, July 20, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/death-of-a-prosecutor.

[5] CBS News, “Is Lockerbie Iran Defector A Fake?,” CBS News, June 3, 2000, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/is-lockerbie-iran-defector-a-fake/.

[6] Gareth Porter, “Bush’s Iran/Argentina Terror Frame-Up,” The Nation, January 18, 2008, http://www.thenation.com/article/bushs-iranargentina-terror-frame/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] James Cheek, “94BUENOSAIRES5695 – The Iran Connection: Iran Stays in the Dock for the AMIA Bombing” (U.S. Department of State, August 29, 1994), https://foia.state.gov/searchapp/DOCUMENTS/Waterfall/190108.pdf.

[9] INTERPOL, “Argentinean Red Notices for Iranian Officials Cancelled,” INTERPOL, September 27, 2005, http://www.interpol.int/News-and-media/News/2005/PR041.

[10] Condoleezza Rice, “07STATE29082 – Demarche Request – Argentina’s Request for USG Assistance in Connection with March 13-15 Interpol Executive Committee Meeting in Lyon, France” (U.S. Department of State, March 8, 2007), https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07STATE29082_a.html.

[11] Marc Perelman, “U.S. Set To Raise ‘94 Attack,” The Forward, November 3, 2006, http://forward.com/news/7417/us-set-to-raise-94-attack/.

[12] F. Gregory Gause III, “The Illogic of Dual Containment,” Foreign Affairs, April 1994, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/1994-03-01/illogic-dual-containment.

[13] Gareth Porter, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Charlottesville, Virginia: Just World Books, 2014), pp. 135-137.

[14] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Obama’s Crystal-Clear Promise to Stop Iran From Getting a Nuclear Weapon,” The Atlantic, October 2, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/obamas-crystal-clear-promise-to-stop-iran-from-getting-a-nuclear-weapon/262951/.

[15] See, for example: Examining the State Department’s Report on Iranian Presence in the Western Hemisphere 19 Years after the AMIA Attack (Washington, D.C.: House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 2013), http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/hearing/joint-subcommittee-hearing-examining-state-department’s-report-iranian-presence-western.

[16] Toby Dershowitz and Joseph Humire, “US should help Argentina solve terrorism case,” The Hill, January 18, 2016, http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/266101-us-should-help-argentina-solve-terrorism-case.

The full paper is available as a PDF below:


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