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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 back burner.

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.


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