Argentina: Who killed Alberto Nisman?

By Fulton Armstrong

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

Conspiracy theories, accusations, and counteraccusations – usually driven by personal prejudices and political agendas – are not uncommon in Argentina, but the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18 has brought them to a crescendo.  Each theory probably contains a grain or more of truth, but none adequately explains how this respected man, who had spent 10 years investigating the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires 20 years ago that killed 85 and injured hundreds, wound up dead on his bathroom floor with a bullet in his head just hours before he was to testify before Congress.  Three main scenarios have emerged.

Scenario A:  Nisman was a national hero whose assiduous investigation of the AMIA attack, aided by Argentina’s intelligence agency (SIDE), had conclusively demonstrated an Iranian role in planning and funding Hezbollah’s execution of the bombing.  He was about to request the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on charges of colluding with Tehran to cover up Iran’s role – and they or unidentified loyalists ordered his murder to stop him.  Under this scenario, a stealth team working on behalf of the President suborned or sneaked by the 10 body guards placed around Nisman’s apartment to enter and – using a 22-caliber pistol that he’d borrowed from an aide – killed him.

Scenario B:  Nisman was a zealot manipulated by disgruntled SIDE officials and got in over his head in a plot to bring down the President and her government.  Nisman had charged Presidents with coverups before – accusing President Carlos Menem in 2006 of taking a $10 million bribe from Iran to keep investigations from leading to its operatives – and his distaste for CFK was well known.  In December, she fired long-time SIDE chief, Antonio Stiusso, who (according to this theory) sought revenge by helping Nisman make his case.  (Officials close to President made the unsubstantiated and dubious claim that the man who lent Nisman the gun, Diego Lagomarsino, was also an intelligence agent.)  Under this scenario, accepted by very few Argentines, Nisman took his own life.

Scenario C:  In the house of mirrors that is Argentine intelligence, power plays are shrouded in intrigue and hard to divine.  Under this scenario, persistent rumors suggest a struggle between pro- and anti-Stiusso factions in which Prosecutor Nisman was collateral damage, perhaps because of his eagerness to do the dismissed SIDE director’s bidding.  Precious little information is available to label the factions – pro- or anti-CFK, or pro- or anti-Israel, or even pro- or anti-Iran – but there’s a consensus that something was rotten in SIDE.  Eight days after Nisman’s death, CFK announced an effort to dissolve it and set up a replacement agency, and the Congress has already begun to take action.

However much partisans of one perspective or another want to believe these scenarios and their variants, information is too weak or contradictory to give much credibility to any.  CFK and Timerman’s advocacy of trade with Iran – primarily swapping Argentine grain for Iranian oil – and their negotiation on a joint investigation of the bombing weren’t secret.  The exchanges were the subject of numerous public statements since 2013, and a number of Argentine officials, including Stiusso and other senior SIDE officers, were involved in both initiatives.  Interpol officials, moreover, deny that either CFK or Timerman had ever requested suspension of arrest warrants for any of the Iranian suspects.  But the President’s attacks on Nisman before and after his death have been strident and personal – clearly crossing the line for a chief executive talking about a prosecutor – and her public statements, including flip-flopping on whether the death was a suicide, do have a certain odor that create the impression that, as Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude in Hamlet might say, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  The poisonous political climate in Buenos Aires over el caso Nisman appears likely to drag on – yet another crisis the country can ill afford.

February 9, 2015

Iran in Latin America: An Exaggerated Threat

By Aaron Bell

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Republican Mitt Romney referred to Russia as the United States’ number one geopolitical foe, but in the Latin American context he and his fellow conservatives have focused much more on another perceived competitor – Iran. Alongside China and the EU, Russia has indeed taken greater interest in Latin America in the past decade, investing in energy, selling military hardware, and even offering an alternative to Washington’s counternarcotics programs. But Romney and major elements of his party have given more attention to the newer, more enigmatic go-to threat of Iran and its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2012 Republican Party Platform warned that Venezuela had become “an Iranian outpost in the Western Hemisphere,” issuing visas to “thousands of Middle East terrorists” and providing a safe haven to “Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters, and fundraisers.” This past spring, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told a Congressional committee that Hezbollah was working alongside the Sinaloa Cartel to fund and organize terrorist activities. He claimed the organization had infiltrated the Venezuelan government so the Iranian government could launder money through Venezuelan banks to avoid international sanctions.

Relations between Iran and some members of ALBA expanded during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, during which he spent more time in Latin America than either Presidents Bush or Obama. He shared the stage with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega in denouncing the United States and its policies toward both Iran and the ALBA nations, and he pledged to invest in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries. The warmth of that contact gave credibility to rumors that Iran has used elite Quds soldiers and Hezbollah agents to create a web of Latin American agents available for terrorist strikes in the United States.  As required by the Republican-sponsored “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,” the State Department released a report this summer analyzing Iran’s regional activities. While it expressed concern over Iran’s political and economic links, it concluded that Tehran’s regional commitments had largely gone unfulfilled. Nonetheless, a handful of U.S. Congressmen and the media continue to warn of the looming Iranian threat along what conservative commentators call the “‘soft belly’ of the southern border.”

The Obama Administration has not dismissed entirely the negative impact that a country like Iran can have in Latin America, if nothing else by encouraging political leaders to sustain their anti-U.S. rhetoric campaigns. But the Administration has not subscribed to the right wing’s exaggerations about Iranian activity and indeed is seeking pragmatic agreements with Iran to resolve a series of concerns about its activities, particularly its nuclear program. A handful of members of Congress led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have accused the Obama administration of putting politics over national security by failing to challenge Venezuela and other Iranian allies, though the political advantage the president supposedly achieves with such a policy is unclear. Some xenophobic nationalists on cable TV believe the Iranian activities are part of Islamic imperialism, which poses a threat to Western civilization. Others see the threat as being embodied by Barack Hussein Obama, accusing the administration of hyping the Iranian issue as a pretext to justify the expansion of a U.S. military presence in South America. Today’s paranoia about Latin America is different from during the Cold War years, but only in the identity of the villain. Latin America’s role in the new narrative remains unchanged: it exists primarily as a base of operations for foreign enemies of the United States that must be monitored and pressured to ensure U.S. national security. While the rhetoric of ALBA leaders and their efforts to establish friendly relations with regimes like Iran fuel such paranoia, Washington would be wise to respond to actions rather than empty rhetoric. Fortunately, the Obama administration appears to be doing just that.

Arms, allies, and Ahmadinejad: Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Robert A. Pastor and Tom Long

Photo by: Bruce Tuten | Creative Commons | Flickr

On its 50th anniversary, the Cuban missile crisis continues to attract attention as a landmark event in U.S. foreign policy.  Unfortunately, the lessons that are often drawn from the crisis are the wrong ones – and they are predicated on a version of the history that is built on more fabrications than facts.  The lesson most often drawn from the crisis is that President John F. Kennedy’s firmness and resolve compelled Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev  to withdraw the missiles.  As Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it:  “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”  Unlike Chamberlain at Munich, Kennedy confronted Khrushchev and prevailed.

However, the more complete story that we now know – forcefully buttressed by a host of excellent books released to commemorate this anniversary – is very different, and one of the reasons is that we have learned much more about the complicated role of Cuban President Fidel Castro, who initially opposed the Soviet proposal to place Missiles in Cuba, but then felt betrayed when Khruschev decided to withdraw them without consulting.  We also learned that the nuclear warheads and a substantial number of tactical nuclear weapons were already stationed in Cuba when the missiles were detected.  If Khrushchev had not withdrawn the missiles, and the U.S. had invaded, which it was about to do, these weapons would have been used, triggering a nuclear holocaust.   More recently, we learned that Castro tried to convince the Soviets to leave the tactical missiles, which the U.S. did not know about, after the denouement of the crisis, but fortunately, Khruschev rejected that proposal.

We cannot be absolutely certain as to why Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles, but all the available evidence suggests several factors.   First, Robert F. Kennedy had conveyed a complex proposal to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin:  the U.S. would  not  invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew the missiles.  More important, he said that the U.S. would withdraw its missiles from Turkey but only on condition that this information would not be made public.  Because of this deal, Kennedy was able to “spin” the event so that it looked like we won without giving up anything.  Robert Kennedy also said that he feared that the U.S. military might take matters into its own hands if the crises were not resolved soon.  At the same time, Fidel Castro sent a long message to Khrushchev, saying he expected an imminent invasion by the U.S. and recommending that the Soviet Union launch a first strike against the United States.  Coupled with the shoot-down of a U-2 over the island and a straying of another U-2  in Soviet Asia, these various factors led the Soviet leader to fear that both he and Kennedy were losing control of events, and thus, an immediate resolution of the crisis was essential.   That is why he transmitted his decision on radio.

Today’s great U.S. foreign policy fear is that a nuclear Iran will destabilize the Middle East.  Once again, the drama plays out in the middle of a U.S. electoral campaign, as did the Cuban crisis.  Once again, there are calls for threats and “red lines.”  An honest look at the events of 1962 yields useful lessons for today.  First, we should expect our leaders to have the courage to negotiate with adversaries to avoid conflict – and to stand up to domestic voices, including generals and advisors, pressing for war.  The second, more challenging lesson requires a U.S. president to step inside Nikita Khrushchev’s shoes.  The Soviet premier was able to stand up to an ally to avoid being dragged into a war with nuclear ramifications.  If Israel insists on a pre-emptive attack on Iran, will a U.S. president have the courage to restrain his ally, as Khrushchev had in restraining Fidel Castro?

Robert A. Pastor is a professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Latin American and Latinos Studies. He has served as National Security Advisor for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter, and he was a Senior Fellow and director of programs on democracy, Latin America, and China at the Carter Center. Most recently, he is the author of The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future.

Tom Long is a doctoral research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.