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London-Tehran Relations Sour After Terror Suspect's Arrest

The detention of an ex-Iranian ambassador wanted by Argentinean officials in connection with a terror attack on a Jewish community center in 1994 has triggered a diplomatic dispute between Britain and Iran.

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British police detained a key suspect in the 1994 bombing of this Buenos Aires Jewish community center.

Since the arrest of former Iranian senior diplomat Hade Soleimanpour last Thursday in Durham, Britain, officials in Tehran have twice summoned top representatives at the British embassy, and newspapers and Iranian leaders have launched rhetorical tirades against their British counterparts.

In a particularly vitriolic editorial, the conservative Tehran daily Keyhand demanded the eviction of Britain’s ambassador from the Iranian capital. Direct contacts between London and Tehran have been simultaneously intensive and tense, with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi saying the arrest would harm bilateral ties.

In recent weeks, Argentinean investigators identified the former Iranian ambassador to Argentina as one of the masterminds behind a massive terrorist attack against a Jewish facility in Buenos Aires in 1992.

Khatami: Incorrect deed

"I declare from here that the British government will have to cease carrying on with this incorrect deed in a short period of time and apologize," Iranian President Mohammed Khatami said after a visit to the grave of Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Khatami also threatened to take an unspecified "strong action" against Britain.

In "incorrect deeds," Khatami referred to the arrest of the 47-year-old, who was registered as a student at a university in northeastern England. The arrest came after Argentinean prosecutors issued an arrest warrant against the diplomat. Prosecutors believe Soleimanpour to be the key planner of the July 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, the largest single act of terror in Argentinean history.

On June 18 of that year, just before 10 a.m., a bomb detonated in front of the community center leaving 85 people dead in the rubble of the decimated building and 200 more seriously injured. Two years earlier, an attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires killed 29 dead and injured 200.

Neither crime has ever been solved, but the Argentineans have long speculated that Iran played a role -- an accusation Tehran has forcefully rejected as a "Zionist" smear campaign organized by Argentina’s 300,000 person-strong Jewish community. Argentinean investigators maintain that evidence suggests that both Iran and the militant group Hizbollah played a role in the attack.

Little happened on the investigative front until after 1999, when former President Carlos Menem left office. Federal prosecutors then put the investigation on the front burner, at the same time presenting some uncomfortable allegations about the former leader. Menem, whose family is of Syrian origin, is under investigation by Argentinean justice officials on the suspicion that he accepted a $10 million bribe from Iran to cover up the attacks and that he keeps well-padded bank accounts in Switzerland.

Investigation advances

Investigators also appear to be making progress. Argentinean media reports this spring suggested the government was preparing to issue arrest warrants against a group of Iranian diplomats as well as ex-diplomat Soleimanpour, former Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

But the Iranian spiritual leader has not been the focus of investigators in Buenos Aires -- at least not at this stage. The fact that British officials arrested a former Iranian diplomat has nonetheless angered leaders back in Tehran.

"It’s already well known how much damage and suffering terrorism has caused for the Islamic Republic of Iran," said Mehdi Karroubi, president of the Iranian parliament. "Still, pressure just continues to be put on the Islamic Republic. The Iranian government must defend its own rights as well as those of the innocent ambassador."

Link to attacks in Germany

The current investigation in many ways mirrors an investigation in Germany into the 1992 murders of four Iranian Kurdish opposition figures at Berlin's Mykonos restaurant. Investigators later fingered an Iranian agent as the bloodbath's ringleader, and several of the suspects fled to Iran. German prosecutors in that incident accused senior members of the Iranian government of involvement in the attack.

The two investigations also have a link: Argentinean prosecutors have asked Abolghasen Mebahi, a witness in the German case now under protection, to provide testimony against Menem. Buenos Aires prosecutors believe Mebahi may have information about the bribes allegedly received by Menem as well as the 1994 attack against the Jewish center.

Iran has retaliated against Argentina for the latest investigative developments by cutting all cultural and commercial ties with the South American country.

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