The embrace between the authoritarian left in Latin America and the Islamist regime in Iran is as tight as ever, as evidenced at the inauguration in Managua last week of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Now 76 years old, Ortega has been a fixture of Nicaraguan politics since the Sandinista revolution of 1979 that overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. At last November’s election, Ortega won a fourth term in office in a ballot that was marred by voter fraud and the suppression of opposition political parties.
One of the many photographs snapped at Ortega’s Jan. 10 inauguration ceremony showed a proverbial rogues gallery. Smirking and flashing victory signs as they flanked a relaxed-looking Ortega were Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s disputed president; Miguel Diaz-Canel, the president of Cuba; and Mohsen Rezaei, Iran’s vice president for Economic Development.
Rezaei is a fugitive from terrorism charges and can be legitimately arrested in any country where he arrives. But in Managua, he was celebrated and feted by his natural allies—all of them, like the rulers of Iran, serial abusers of human rights who have immiserated their countries economically and spiritually through decades of one-party rule.
In 2007, Rezaei was one of six Iranian operatives who became the subjects of “Red Notices”—official arrest requests issued by Interpol, the international law-enforcement agency—for their role in the July 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people were killed and more than 300 wounded when a truck rammed with explosives rammed into the AMIA building, in the worst single act of anti-Semitic terrorism since World War II.
The AMIA atrocity in turn generated a saga of frustrated justice for the next quarter-century. Now, nearly 28 years after the bombing, not a single Iranian has been convicted in the wake of four separate and fundamentally flawed judicial trials in Argentina, while Alberto Nisman—the courageous Argentine federal prosecutor who unmasked his own government’s collusion with Tehran in the years after the bombing—was assassinated in January 2015.
Rezaei, however, continues to travel the world as a representative of the Iranian theocracy that he has faithfully served throughout his career. Indeed, the AMIA bombing was one his productions; in the summer of 1993, when he served as commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), he was reported to have attended a meeting of Iranian leaders in the city of Mashhad. It was at that meeting—hosted by the late former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—that the decision to bomb the AMIA building was discussed and approved.
Of the six AMIA terrorists subjected to Interpol “Red Notices”—an achievement that can largely be credited to Nisman—only one is dead: Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah commander who was killed by a car bomb in Syria in 2008. Alongside Rezaei in the Iranian cabinet is another AMIA fugitive and “Red Notice” subject, Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi. And whispering on a daily basis in the ear of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is his senior adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati. At the time of the AMIA bombing, Velayati was Iran’s foreign minister, and it was in that capacity that he also attended the 1993 meeting in Mashhad.
In 2006, an Argentine federal judge issued an arrest warrant for Velayati in connection with the AMIA bombing. When Velayati visited Moscow in 2018 for talks with leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Argentine government implored the Russians—to no avail of course—to arrest and extradite him for trial in Buenos Aires. As with Rezaei in Managua, Velayati’s jaunt to Moscow and his subsequent unimpeded return to Tehran was another demonstration of the Iranian regime’s swaggering conviction that it will never be held to account for the AMIA slaughter.
Yet for as long as the AMIA fugitives are alive, they should be actively hunted down by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Officials in those countries that greet as honored guests Rezaei, Vahidi, Velayati and other Iranians with proven terror links should be subjected to diplomatic and economic sanctions, as should those Nicaraguan and Cuban companies who will be receiving Iranian assistance as part of Rezaei’s “economic development” mission.
The appearance of Rezaei in Nicaragua is also an occasion to again voice concern about the alliance between Iran and the far-left in Latin America. As symbolized by the “bromance” more than a decade ago between the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the late Venezuelan caudillo, Hugo Chávez, the relationship is moored in anti-American and anti-Semitic ideology, but it has real-world consequences. Among them are the presence of Hezbollah terror cells in Latin America and the collaboration between Iran, Venezuela and Cuba in attempting to circumvent Western sanctions.
Above all, the relationship illuminates the malign nature of an anti-democratic bloc of nations, all of whom complain loudly about imagined infringements of their sovereignty while promoting terrorism and instability outside of their borders, and unvarnished repression within them. During the last year, Iran, in addition to Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, has all been the sites of mass protests by disaffected citizens that were brutally crushed by the authorities. That has been the pattern for several years now, and the leaders of these countries understandably feel a degree of satisfaction that regime change—whether by outside intervention, internal revolution or some combination thereof—has remained elusive.
But were Rezaei, Vahidi or any of the other suspects to be detained and extradited next time they travel abroad, that would at least send a timely reminder to the mullahs that they are not untouchable. All it takes is for one of the nations on the flight path of an Iranian government jet to force it to land. Who will summon the courage?
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.