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Argentines Skeptical Over Impact of Ex-Iranian Official's Arrest in 1994 Bombing - 2003-08-29

The former Iranian ambassador to Argentina is to appear Friday in a London court in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The arrest has sparked an intense war of words between officials in Buenos Aires, London, and Tehran. But some people question whether the arrest will advance the nine-year investigation.

Hadi Soleimanpour, Iran's former ambassador to Argentina, was detained August 21 in northern England, where he was studying at a local university on a student visa.

His arrest was a result of a warrant issued by Argentine judge Juan Jose Galeano, who has been investigating the attack on the Argentina Israeli Mutual Association - known by its Spanish language acronym as AMIA - since it occurred in 1994.

The car bomb that exploded at the AMIA headquarters in Buenos Aires killed 85 people and injured hundreds. More than nine years later no one has been held responsible.

Laura Ginsberg's husband Jose died in the bombing, leaving her to raise their two young children alone. Since the attack, Ms. Ginsberg has fought hard to bring the perpetrators of the blast to justice. But she says that the arrest of the former Iranian ambassador is not a significant breakthrough in an investigation that has been ineffective from the start.

"This man, Soleimanpour, is in the investigation since the beginning, his name appeared in the case since the beginning of the investigation and it is hard to believe that now Galeano could gather all the information to arrest him," she said.

But apparently sufficient evidence does exist, as Judge Galeano has issued arrest warrants for a dozen Iranian officials who were in Argentina at the time of the explosion.

Police in Brussels detained Iranian diplomat Saied Baghban in connection with the AMIA case, but released him after several hours of questioning because he has diplomatic immunity.

So far, Mr. Soleimanpour is the only Iranian in police custody, but his arrest and possible extradition to Argentina has sparked a bitter debate between British, Iranian, and Argentine leaders. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami threatened "strong action" against Britain if Mr. Soleimanpour is not released.

The United States and Israel have long suspected Iran of being behind the attack, a charge that Iran has repeatedly denied.

It is the diplomatic dispute that the AMIA lawyers are paying close attention to. AMIA attorney Miguel Bronfman says Tehran could influence the British extradition case.

"Yes, we are afraid of that. In these cases, this is not just a judicial case, it is a political case. Well, Iran is a strong state in the international scene and ... well, I think that apart from the judicial steps, Great Britain will pay attention to Iran's requests," he said.

American journalist Joe Goldman agrees. He has written extensively on the AMIA case and says pressure from Iranian officials, coupled with claims that Judge Galeano has destroyed files and bribed witnesses will make the extradition of Hadi Soleimanpour and others Iranians difficult.

"I think Soleimanpour is somebody who might know something, though, about what happened, and is somebody who might prove to be a very interesting witness," said Mr. Goldman. "Unfortunately, due to the really reprehensible conduct of this judge, I think any kind of an extradition request is going to be denied."

For Laura Ginsberg this is a harsh reality that will continue to prolong her search for the truth. "This is part of a political maneuver where the need to have an international responsibility [for] the crime is the first priority here in Argentina," she said.

While leaders in Tehran, London, and Buenos Aires debate the political and legal issues in this highly sensitive case, Argentine investigators will continue to press for the arrest and extradition of Iranian officials in connection with the worst act of terrorism in the country's history.