Argentine Judge Implicates Iran Leaders in Bombing

An Argentine judge wants former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and eight other officials detained for the 1994 suicide bombing of a Jewish center that killed 85 people and wounded more than 200.

Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral told reporters he wanted Iran to comply with his request, saying that he had received "serious" evidence warranting the detentions. He said he was trying to get Interpol's help.

"How Interpol or the Iranian state evaluates this request is beyond my jurisdiction," he said Thursday.

He did not say whether he had issued arrest warrants. Interpol didn't immediately return phone calls seeking comment Friday.

Investigators say the cultural center was attacked with an explosives-packed van that was driven up to the building and detonated in the worst attack ever on Argentine soil, which was orchestrated by leaders of the Iranian government and carried out by the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah.

Prosecutors sought the detention of Rafsanjani and other former Iranian officials, including former intelligence chief Ali Fallahijan, former Foreign Minister Ali Ar Velayati, two former commanders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, two former Iranian diplomats and a former Hezbollah security chief for external affairs.

Alberto Nisman, the lead prosecutor, said in November 2005 that investigators believed a 21-year-old Lebanese Hezbollah militant was the suicide bomber.

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Iran's government has vehemently denied any involvement in the attack following repeated accusations by the Argentine Jewish community and other leaders here.

Iran's leading diplomatic envoy in Buenos Aires, Mohsen Baharvand, told The Associated Press that his government would oppose any efforts to detain Rafsanjani or other Iranian nationals. Baharvand, Iran's charge d'affaires, said the case was politically motivated.

Baharvand called the detention effort a "huge propaganda" campaign against his country, adding Iran was "a scapegoat for the shortcomings of the countries that are not able to find the real perpetrators of this act."

"These are baseless allegations against my country," he added.

Two special prosecutors urged Canicoba Corral last month to seek international and national arrest orders for Rafsanjani, who was Iran's president between 1989 and 1997 and is now the head of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the parliament and ruling clerics.

Nisman said last month that the decision to attack the Jewish center "was undertaken in 1993 by the highest authorities" of the Iranian government at the time, and that the actual attack was entrusted to Hezbollah.

In March 2005, Argentina's government acknowledged that it failed to do enough to prevent the bombing and asked for the forgiveness of the victims' families.

President Nestor Kirchner said that the "lack of serious investigation" of the attack occurred during the government of his political rival, former President Carlos Menem, who held office from 1989 until 1999.

A judge who had been investigating the bombing, Juan Jose Galeano, was dismissed from the case in 2004 at the urging of victims' groups angry over his handling of the probe.

For years, Galeano headed a much-criticized investigation that culminated in September 2004 with the acquittal of a group of former Argentine police officers and civilians accused of supplying the vehicle used in the bombing.

The destruction of the seven-story Jewish center, symbol of a Jewish population numbering more than 200,000, was the second of two attacks targeting Jews in Argentina during the 1990s.

A March 1992 blast destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people in a case that also has been blamed on Hezbollah.

Some speculated the bombing was inspired by Argentina's support for the U.S.-led coalition that expelled Iraq from Kuwait during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Others said Argentina's Jewish community, one of the largest in Latin America, represented an obvious target for Israel's opponents.

Although Jewish community leaders and others have suspected the involvement of Middle East terrorists, a lack of progress in tracking down the masterminds has made families of the victims increasingly bitter.

Israeli Ambassador Rafael Eldad told the independent Argentine news agency Diarios y Noticias that the judge's step was a "very significant" development and expressed hope it would help resolve the case.