A nod for envoy to Argentina
By Kenneth Timmerman
The Washington Times
May 26, 1999, Wednesday
There's been a lot of talk recently about Clinton administration gestures
to Tehran. But the most meaningful gesture the president has made is also
the one that has received the least attention: the nomination of a prominent
Iranian-American, Hassan Nemazee, to be U.S. ambassador to Argentina.
Not that Mr. Nemazee, an investment banker in New York, has anything
to do with the current Tehran regime. Far from it. But by naming an Iranian-American
for the first time ever to be the U.S. ambassador to a major trading partner,
Mr. Clinton, perhaps unwittingly, has made an important gesture to Iranians.
To Iranians in this country, he has once again reaffirmed the American
dream. Mr. Nemazee, who is a naturalized American citizen, was lucky to
have been overseas on a business trip at the time of the Iranian revolution,
and has never returned to his home country. Most of his family's holdings
in Iran were seized by Ayatollah Khomeini, and used to fuel the regime's
political and terrorist agenda. But like many of his compatriots, he showed
a flair for business and built a new fortune in his new homeland from scratch.
Back in Iran, Mr. Nemazee's nomination has scarcely been commented upon
in the official state-controlled press in Tehran - and for good reason.
The virulent anti-American rhetoric of the regime is at a loss to explain
how the Great Satan could show any respect for an Iranian national.
If the administration's intention in nominating Mr. Nemazee were merely
to display some sort of affirmative action through diplomacy, the White
House could have named him to a less important post. But there are important
reasons why Mr. Nemazee is the right man for Argentina, one of America's
largest trading partners in Latin America.
In July 1994, terrorists planted a bomb that ripped apart the AMIA Jewish
center if Buenos Aires, killing some 90 persons and wounding hundreds more.
Within weeks of the attack, the government of President Carlos Menem expelled
Iranian diplomats from Argentina, because of their suspected involvement
in the deadly plot.
But while the United States promised to help Mr. Menem with their investigation,
little assistance was actually provided. Sources close to the investigating
magistrate in Buenos Aires have told me it took nearly three years before
they were able to bring a Persian-language translator from D.C. to Buenos
Aires to sift through hundreds of hours of surveillance tapes that documented
meetings between the Iranian diplomats and Iranian nationals operating
in Argentina and in the tristate area on its borders with Paraguay and
Brazil. Even now, they are discovering new clues that lead back directly
to Tehran, thanks to these newly translated tapes.
Despite repeated requests from the Argentine government, the FBI to
this day has provided little assistance; nor has the United States shared
communications intercepts that could provide valuable clues to the Argentine
investigators. And yet, it is clear the Islamic Republic of Iran continues
to maintain terrorist cells in the tristate area, and could use them to
commit deadly terrorist acts again.
For more than two years, we have had no ambassador in Buenos Aires,
a situation that has only contributed to relegating the AMIA case to the
Hassan Nemazee has a strong track record of working together with the
U.S. Jewish community, and has shown a strong interest in the AMIA investigation.
Because of his background, Hassan Nemazee is particularly sensitive to
the long arm of the Iranian regime, and as ambassador will provide the
Argentines with invaluable insight and support. By confirming Mr. Nemazee
in a timely fashion, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can help focus
greater attention on resolving this important and tragic case, and help
ensure Iran will not be allowed to carry out such attacks again.
Attempts to derail Mr. Nemazee's nomination are being led by a former
business partner, Sohrab Vahabzadeh. Mr. Vahabzadeh sent a four-page letter
to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, North Carolina
Republican, within days of Mr. Nemazee's nomination last January, calling
for a full committee investigation of Mr. Nemazee's business record. Mr.
Vahabzadeh included a claim he had been swindled by Mr. Nemazee. In fact,
Mr. Nemazee won a $4.5 million settlement in the New York Supreme Court
two years ago against Mr. Vahabzadeh, a fact conviently absent from his
scorching complaint to Mr. Helms.
Mr. Vahabzadeh's complaint was replayed point by point in an article
Forbes magazine purchased from a free-lance reporter, which led The Washington
Post's Al Kamen to note on May 10 that Mr. Nemazee's nomination was "in
trouble." What a shame if senators were to listen to a disgruntled
former business partner, whose allegations were rejected by a New York
court, instead of giving Mr. Nemazee the full public hearing he deserves.
Argentina faces presidential elections this October that could prove
a turning point in that country's fragile democracy. Neo-fascist groups
are angling to win a greater share of the vote from the more traditional
parties, a development that could bode ill for Latin America as a whole.
We need an intelligent, informed and well-connected ambassador in Buenos
Aires well ahead of the polls. Jesse Helms could not find a better political
appointee for the job than Hassan Nemazee.
* Kenneth Timmerman is a contributing editor of Reader's Digest and
also executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, a human
rights advocacy group.