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

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).

In this Oct. 28, 1997 photo, Argentina's President Carlos Menem talks to reporters in Buenos Aires. ( AP Photo/Daniel Muzio, File)
In this Oct. 28, 1997 photo, Argentina's President Carlos Menem talks to reporters in Buenos Aires. ( AP Photo/Daniel Muzio, File)

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.

In this July 8, 1989 photo, Carlos Menem, accompanied by his wife Zulema Yoma, waves from the balcony of the Government Palace after being sworn in as president of Argentina, in Buenos Aires. (AP Photo/Alejandro Querol)

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.

President Carlos Menem arrive in Israel on an official state visit, the first by an Argentinian head of state, October 1, 1991. To his right is health minister Ehud Olmert, who welcomed him. (Vered Peer / IPPA / Israel National Library)

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.

In this July 18, 1994 photo, rescue workers search through the rubble of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association community center, after a car bomb destroyed the downtown Buenos Aires building. (AP Photo/Alejandro Pagni)

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.”

In this Jan. 1995 photo, Carlos Facundo Menem, the son of Argentina’s former president Carlos Menem, sits in a helicopter in an unknown location in Argentina. (AP Photo, File)

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.

Former Argentine president Carlos Menem is seen at a courthouse in Buenos Aires, Feb. 28, 2019, where he was on trial accused of hampering the investigation of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center. He was acquitted. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

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.

The men for whom Argentina issued international arrest warrants in connection with the deadly 1984 bombing of the AMIA building. (AFP)

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.

Syrian president Hafez Assad meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran, August 1, 1997 (Wikipedia)

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.

Alberto Nisman (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

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.

Senate President and Argentina’s Vice President Cristina Fernandez, left, holds hands with Zulema Menem, daughter of Carlos Menem, as they wait for the hearse with the remains of former Argentine president Carlos Menem at Congress’s door in Buenos Aires, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

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 family of former Argentine President Carlos Menem mourns during his funeral at the Islamic Cemetery in San Justo, Argentina, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

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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