clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Argentina's insane political scandal, explained

President Kirchner announces the dissolution of Argentina's intelligence agency
President Kirchner announces the dissolution of Argentina's intelligence agency
Cadena nacional

The news from Argentina reads like a real-life locked room mystery: on January 18, Alberto Nisman, a prosecutor who had recently accused Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of conspiring with Iran to subvert the prosecution of a terrorist attack, was found dead in his home, the door locked from the inside.

Although Nisman's death initially looked like a suicide, many believe that he may have been murdered. The gun that killed him was found lying next to his body, but there was no gunshot residue on Nisman's hands, suggesting that he was not holding it when it was fired. And a number of Nisman's colleagues and supporters have come forward to say that he had made appointments to see them in the days following his death.

On January 22, President Kirchner, who had initially referred to Nisman's death as a suicide, publicly changed course and released a statement saying that the death "was not a suicide," and that Nisman had been "manipulated" by forces seeking to undermine her, who may have then killed him.

Then, on January 26, Kirchner unexpectedly announced that she would submit a bill to dissolve the Argentinian intelligence service and replace it with a new federal intelligence agency.

And the story grew even stranger on February 3, when news broke that Nisman had reportedly drafted a warrant for the president's arrest before his death. The 26-page document was found in the garbage in Nisman's apartment. It calls for President Kirchner and her foreign minister Héctor Timerman to be impeached and removed from office, and then arrested. However, there is no further information about who created the document. And if it was in fact Nisman, it is not clear whether he planned to try to execute it, or if it was simply a draft that he thought he might use in the future.

There's a lot more going on here than meets the eye, though. Here are the basics.

The AMIA bombing was Argentina's worst terrorist attack

Until his death, Nisman was a prosecutor leading the investigation into what's known as the AMIA attack, a 1994 terrorist bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish Center (the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, hence AMIA) in which 85 people died. It was the worst terrorist attack ever committed in Argentina.

In 2006, Nisman formally accused Iran of responsibility for the AMIA attack, alleging that the attack itself had been carried out by the pro-Iran Lebanese militant group Hezbollah with Iranian support. (Iran and Hezbollah both deny this.) In 2007, Argentina obtained Interpol arrest warrants for five Iranian nationals believed to be responsible for the attack, including Mohsen Rabbani, who was Iran's cultural attache to Argentina at the time of the bombing.

Nisman accused President Fernández de Kirchner of trying to trade impunity for oil

Last month, Nisman publicly accused President Kirchner of colluding with Iran to derail his investigation in exchange for Argentine access to Iranian oil. On January 14, just days before his death, he filed a 289-page criminal complaint alleging that government officials had conducted secret talks with Iran in which they offered to shield Iranian officials from charges that they planned the bombing in exchange for oil imports.

The complaint included transcripts of wiretapped conversations between Argentine negotiators and Iranian officials, the New York Times reports. In one call from 2013, Luis D'Elia, a powerful union leader who served in the administration of Kirchner's husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, said that he was negotiating on behalf of "the boss woman," and that the government was interested in sending a delegation of negotiators from the national oil company to Iran in order to further the deal.

Other transcripts recorded discussions of how to place the blame for the bombing on right-wing activists, and suggestions that Argentina might swap grain, beef, and even weapons for Iranian oil.

Nisman was found dead just days after filing his complaint

Nisman was found dead just a few days after he filed the complaint. Although he was inside his home and the door was apparently locked from the inside, Nisman's friends and family, as well as much of the Argentinian public, expressed skepticism that he would have committed suicide. His mother and ex-wife have both told journalists that they did not believe he killed himself.

The president initially posted a statement on her website calling Nisman's death a suicide. However, a few days later she changed course and posted a new statement in which she said she was "convinced" that his death was "no suicide." Her administration now attributes his killing — and the allegations in his complaint — to "rogue intelligence agents."

The journalist who initially broke the news of Nisman's death, Damián Pachter, fled to Israel days later due to fears that he was being followed by an intelligence agent. Pachter, who worked for Argentina's English-language Herald newspaper, wrote in Haaretz that he believed he had spotted an intelligence agent tailing him as he went to meet a source. "Argentina," he wrote, "has become a dark place led by a corrupt political system."

Kirchner's government denies Nisman's allegations

Kirchner's government has denied Nisman's accusations. It claims that there are numerous inconsistencies in his complaint.

Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman denied offering Iranian officials impunity in exchange for oil, noting that the government had maintained the Interpol "red notices" calling for the arrest of Iranian suspects in the AMIA bombing. Ronald Noble, who led Interpol from 2000 to 2014, backed him up. "I can say with 100 percent certainty, not a scintilla of doubt, that foreign minister Timerman and the Argentine government have been steadfast, persistent and unwavering that the Interpol's red notices be issued, remain in effect, and not be suspended or removed."

Jorge Capitanich, the president's cabinet chief, said that the complaint has "no supporting evidence," and that one of the men it described as an intelligence agent in the complaint does not, in fact, work for the Intelligence Secretariat.

Telam, Argentina's official news agency, published an article detailing a number of "inconsistencies" within the complaint. For instance, it said that Argentina's government would need the cooperation of private agribusiness companies in order to export grain to Iran — and yet none of those companies were mentioned in the complaint.

Kirchner announced that she will seek to dissolve the security service in response to Nisman's death

On the evening of January 26, President Kirchner addressed the nation to announce that she would submit a bill to dissolve the existing intelligence service, and replace it with a new federal intelligence agency. Kirchner implied that the security services were continuing to operate as they had during the period of military rule, describing the security reforms as a way to address a "debt" that had been owed to the country since its transition to democracy in 1983.

Kirchner said that the proposal would be discussed at an emergency session of Congress this week, and that the director and sub-director of the new agency would need to be approved by the senate.

What Argentina could gain from a deal with Iran

It's easy to see why Iran would want the sort of deal described in Nisman's allegations, but what would be in it for Argentina? Why would Kirchner's government want to help Iran evade responsibility for a devastating terrorist attack on Argentinian soil?

The theory that has received the most attention is oil. Argentina's policies had left it starved for energy, and Iranian oil would offer a potential solution. However Telem claims that the oil-for-impunity theory doesn't make sense, because Iran exports crude oil, but Argentina needs refined petroleum products. "Iran does not produce what Argentina needs to acquire from global markets."

Closer relations with Iran would also fit with Argentina's broader policy of working towards a "multi-polar" world that is not dominated by the US and Western Europe. To that end, Argentina has strengthened ties with its neighbors in South America, including the Mercosur economic bloc, and reached out to Russia's Vladimir Putin. Argentina's ally Venezuela also has a strong relationship with Iran, which may have encouraged Argentina to increase its ties as well.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.