The president who crossed Iran: Why Carlos Menem, dead at 90, isn’t old news
Decades ago, Argentina’s president found himself mired in a deadly sequence of interactions with Iran, as the regime pressed relentlessly for the bomb; if only that were history
David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).
Carlos Menem, the former president of Argentina, died at the weekend, aged 90.
His passing made some headlines — he served as president for 10 years, after all, in 1989-99, pardoned the mass-murdering 1976-83 military dictators, overhauled the Argentinian economy, steered his country away from the Soviet embrace and into warm ties with the United States, and was the subject of multiple corruption investigations, only avoiding jail when convicted for arms trafficking thanks to parliamentary immunity.
He was a flamboyant figure in his prime, a so-called playboy president who, early in his term, happily accepted a red Ferrari as a gift from an Italian businessman, dined with actors and models, and later married a former Miss Universe.
But it was all a long time ago. Old news. The headlines were relatively minor.
Menem, though, is a fascinating figure, at least some of whose biography, orientation, decisions and policies continue to resonate even after all these years — worryingly so in one area most of all: Iran and its ongoing march to the bomb.
Carlos Saul Menem was the child of Syrian Muslim immigrants, related, at least through marriage, to the Assad regime. But he abandoned his religion — converting to Catholicism, as was required by Argentina’s constitution for a would-be president — and then, the way Syria certainly saw it, abandoned his parents’ homeland too.
Installed in office, he chose Israel as the destination for his first foreign trip.
In an even more direct affront to Damascus, and a far heavier blow, however, he reneged on a commitment to help Syrian President Hafez Assad with Argentinian nuclear and missile technology.
Fatefully, he also suspended close nuclear cooperation with Iran, including on uranium enrichment, having concluded, according to the late Argentinian investigator-prosecutor Alberto Nisman, that Tehran’s nuclear intentions were “non-peaceful.”
‘I’m considered a traitor to the Arab cause’
In 1994, days after the suicide bombing of Buenos Aires’ AMIA Jewish community headquarters, the worst terrorist attack in Argentina’s history, I interviewed Menem in his presidential office (for The Jerusalem Report magazine) and encountered a man plainly terrified that the blast, in which 85 people were killed, was at least partly a message for him.
Coming two years after the Hezbollah bombing of the Israeli Embassy in the capital, in which 29 people were killed, the AMIA outrage had him fearing for his life, Menem told me. “I too am under threat,” he wailed. “I am considered a traitor to the Arab cause.”
Eight months later, when his son was killed in a helicopter crash, Menem blamed Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy terrorist network.
In our interview, Menem promised to place “all the state’s resources” at the disposal of the investigators probing the AMIA attack. But the petrified president plainly did nothing of the kind.
The investigation was skewed, and conclusive evidence that the blast was carried out by a Hezbollah operative, and commissioned by Iran, was only obtained years later by Nisman.
The specific motivation for the 1994 AMIA bombing, Nisman told this writer in 2013, was to punish Argentina for halting its nuclear cooperation with Iran.
On Sunday, hours after Menem’s death, the leadership of Argentina’s Jewish community, still grieving for the AMIA dead and still traumatized by the corruption of the investigation, issued a strikingly angry statement on the former president.
Menem “dies in freedom,” it noted bitterly, “despite the fact that his Government used the institutions of the Argentine State to perpetuate impunity and cover up the responsibility of those who committed and were accomplices in the attacks.”
No suspects have been convicted in the bombing. Several Iranian officials have been indicted and remain on an Interpol wanted list.
Patient, ruthless, relentless Iran
It was all a long time ago, but so much of this should and does still resonate and matter.
There’s no knowing how Syria’s bid for nuclear weapons might have progressed, had Menem not decided to abort Argentina’s cooperation with the Assad regime. Plainly, Damascus did not abandon the bid; the Olmert government blew up its Al-Kibar reactor site in 2007.
And there’s no knowing how much further ahead Iran’s strategic bid for nuclear weapons might now be, had Menem not suspended nuclear cooperation with the Islamic Republic. Israel, not incidentally, has alleged that Tehran also funneled immense amounts of money into the Assad program that the IAF destroyed.
There’s also no knowing whether Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, had anything to do with the death of Menem’s son.
But thanks in large part to the indefatigable Nisman, Iranian and Hezbollah responsibility for both the 1990s Buenos Aires terror attacks, suspected by Menem, is known and proven.
The prosecutor would pay with his life in 2015 for his exposure of Argentina’s concerted cover-up of Iranian involvement; he was found murdered in his home hours before he was to present the evidence he had collected against one of Menem’s successors, Cristina Kirchner, today Argentina’s vice president, for her central part in the sordid affair.
Closing the dismal circle, it was Kirchner, who has thus far managed to avoid prison for her role in the cover-up, who waited with Menem’s family for his hearse to arrive at Congress as part of his funeral ceremonies.
His conversion notwithstanding, Menem was laid to rest in an Islamic cemetery, alongside his son.
The blasts in Buenos Aires that terrified a president underline Iran’s coldhearted ruthlessness in support of its goals, and in deterrence of those who stand in its way — most especially when it comes to its patient, relentless nuclear weapons drive.
Unfortunately, that’s not old news at all.
** An earlier version of This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel