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The Secret Deal at the Heart of the Nisman Accusations Against Argentina’s Government: Fact or Fiction?

Prosecutor Alberto Nisman died before he could prove the president was aware of a deal to absolve Iran of involvement in the 1994 AMIA center bombing. The government, for one, says it cannot import Iranian oil.

by Gaston Cavanagh
Feb 12 2015, 12:25am

Photo via Presidencia de Argentina

Did they or didn't they?

Did the top diplomats of Argentina and Iran strike a secret deal in Syria in 2011 that would absolve Iran's alleged involvement in the bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center, all in exchange for an economically beneficial agreement for both countries?

"There was a pact," the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation of the 1994 AMIA center bombing, Alberto Nisman, told VICE News days before his mysterious death.

"A secret agreement between both countries to bring down the Interpol 'red notices' issued for five Iranians suspected of having participated in the AIMA attack in Argentina in 1994," Nisman said.

This is how Nisman — who accused Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of a cover-up of Iranian involvement in the AIMA center bombing — described a meeting that took place in January 2011 in Syria, between Argentina's foreign relations minister Hector Timerman and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi.

Kirchner and Timerman have categorically denied the allegations.

But the theory was the foundation of the claim that Nisman was preparing against Argentina's government and which unraveled into a "Kennedy-level" political scandal after the prosecutor was found dead, a day before he was set to publicly make the accusation at Congress.

Nisman's body was discovered in a pool of blood in the bathroom of his Buenos Aires apartment on January 18. He was 51.

Speculation about the nature of the prosecutor's death has only increased with the revelation on Tuesday that a second ballistics test found no traces of gunpowder on Nisman's hands, muddying the Kirchner government's initial suggestion that Nisman had committed suicide.

Days Before Dying, Prosecutor Accusing Argentina's President of Cover-Up Told Us His 'Proof is Strong.' Read more here.

President Fernandez de Kirchner spoke before a boisterous crowd of young supporters in an impromptu rally on Wednesday at the Casa Rosada. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Initially, officials also reported that no documents relevant to the case had been discovered in the prosecutor's apartment. But they were later forced to backtrack, after it was revealed that a draft of an arrest warrant for Kirchner herself was found in Nisman's wastebasket.

Other irregularities have damaged the government's handling of the case.

The entry wound of the bullet that killed Nisman was about an inch behind the prosecutor's right ear, angled upward, which has led many to call Nisman either a master contortionist or a murder victim.

On Tuesday, reports of DNA belonging to someone other than Nisman found on a coffee cup in the prosecutor's apartment began to circulate. The DNA's owner was not immediately identified, but an aide to Nisman, Diego Lagomarsino, already admitted that he visited Nisman on the night before he was found dead, and that he provided the prosecutor with the gun used in the killing.

"There should be DNA evidence on the coffee-maker as well, not just the cup," a source close to Lagomarsino told VICE News. "He made the coffee himself."

'They prefer silence because they have nothing to say, or they cannot say what they think,' Kirchner said.

In one of her many public speeches and statements on the matter, Kirchner had accused Lagomarsino of being an undercover spy, part of a vague theory alleging that forces in Argentina's Intelligence Secretariat opposed to her government orchestrated Nisman's death in a plot against her.

Sources close to the investigation told VICE News that on Thursday prosecutor Viviana Fein — the woman now in charge of investigating Nisman's death — is expected to acknowledge that Lagomarsino has never been a government spy, in another setback for Kirchner's camp.

A group of federal prosecutors sympathetic to Nisman's cause are planning a "march of silence" on February 18 to commemorate the one-month mark since he died.

Perhaps sensing that the demonstration could be large, Kirchner on Wednesday held an impromptu rally with a crowd of young supporters from La Campora, the youth wing of her party, on the patio of the Casa Rosada presidential residence.

Kirchner, speaking to the energetic college-age group from a balcony overlooking the patio, made reference to the march of silence in Nisman's honor, without directly referring to its organizers.

"They prefer silence because they have nothing to say, or they cannot say what they think," Kirchner said.

Antonio Stiuso, the Feared Ex Spy Chief Making Argentina's Government Tremble. Read more here.

Elia Espen, member of the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, takes part in a march for justice in the case of Alberto Nisman in Buenos Aires on Feb. 4. (Photo by Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Hector Timerman did in fact travel to the Syrian city of Aleppo in January 2011, but denies a secret arrangement was carried out.

Two years later, the two foreign ministers signed a memorandum of understanding during a meeting in Ethiopia, on January 27, 2013, which improved diplomatic relations between the two countries that had become strained in the aftermath of the AMIA center bombing.

The governments promised justice would be served for the 85 victims of the attack. But according to Nisman, both countries were instead working toward "fabricating Iran's innocence."

So where is the proof? How can it be demonstrated that this pact existed, and what was the prelude that led to the memorandum that was officially signed in 2013? This is something that only Nisman knew — or claimed to know.

No official record of this pact is known to exist. Even more damning, Interpol's red notices, or international arrest warrant alerts, were never dropped for the Iranian suspects. Nothing contained in the 2013 memorandum of understanding can be interpreted as conspiracy or a secret agreement; it is written in standard diplomatic language.

Nisman told VICE News there was an explanation for the discrepancy, but he chose to not elaborate before his presentation to Congress.

The agreement was made extra-officially, off-the-record, Nisman explained. But, he insisted on January 16, that he had evidence to prove the "secret pact" occurred. Two days later, he was dead. And now his evidence — gathered in boxes of hard-drives and CDs containing audio recordings of intercepted phone calls — is in the hands of a judge.

Salehi, the Iranian diplomat, allegedly took note of the arrangement proposed by Argentina in 2011 — an oil-for-grain deal — and informed then-President Ahmadinejad: "Argentina is no longer interested in resolving those two attacks," Nisman quotes in his complaint, without attaching an original document or providing any conclusive proof. "Rather, they prefer to improve their commercial relationships with Iran."

At this moment, Nisman claimed, a secret negotiation period began between the two governments, which lasted until September 2012, prior to signing the memorandum.

Argentina Prosecutor Who Accused Kirchner had Steady Contact With US Embassy, Leaked Cables Show. Read more here.

"The seventh article of the [memorandum] with Iran is the only one that is operative in the memorandum, which says that we will inform Interpol that the conflict between Argentina and Iran is being resolved because of mutual cooperation between both states," Nisman told VICE News. "This, is a diplomatic way of saying 'Bring down the red notices'."

The seventh point in the memorandum of understanding is titled "Interpol," and says: "This agreement, after being signed, will be sent jointly by both chancellors to the secretary general of Interpol, in compliance with the requirements demanded by Interpol in relation to this case."

The then-secretary general of Interpol, Ronald Noble, told news outlet Pagina 12: "Timerman, and each one of his officials in the Argentine government that I have met with, and discussed this matter with, had the same position: Interpol's red notices against the Iranian citizens had to stay, no buts about it."

Timerman also ridiculed the idea that Argentina would ever swap Iranian oil for Argentine grains, saying that oil from Iran has too much sulfur for refineries in his country.

In his final conversation with VICE News, Nisman addressed the role Interpol allegedly played in this decision.

"Noble, rightfully so, decides — for several reasons — to not bring them down, and that's where the whole problem lies," Nisman said. "It was the only thing Iran cared about, more than the accusation, they had told me while I [visited] Interpol."

"Interpol [...] intervened in time to avoid the downgrade in search priorities," Nisman said on page 13 of his complaint.

Timerman has explained that he met with Interpol on several occasions, requesting the red notices be kept in place, a point that was validated by Noble in a letter to Timerman dated January 16.

"After Mr. Nisman accused me of doing exactly the contrary, I called Mr. Noble, [...who] made it very clear that every time that I met with him, and there were two times that I met with him, I always explained how important it was to keep the red notices in force," Timerman said in an interview published Tuesday by The Washington Post.

Timerman also ridiculed the idea that Argentina would ever swap Iranian oil for Argentine grains, saying that oil from Iran has too much sulfur for refineries in his country.

There is another card stacked against Nisman's claims. According to Argentine law, only the judge in the AMIA case, Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, may request that the red notices be brought down.

"It is enough to read the response from Noble, and to know Argentine law," Timerman told VICE News in an email last week. "There is nothing left to add."

Switching Rs with Ls, Kirchner's 'Chinese' Tweet Marks Another Gaffe for Argentina. Read more here.

Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter @GastonCavanagh.