Interpol Raises The Stakes

With little fanfare, tension between Iran and the Bush administration escalated earlier this month when Interpol, the world police organization, voted to issue "red notices" for the arrest of three Iranian government officials, including Deputy Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi. The three men have been charged in Argentina with conspiring alongside notorious Hizbullah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh to blow up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in July 1994— an attack that killed 85 people. Iranian delegates challenged the vote by Interpol's General Assembly, labeling it a "Zionist plot." Nevertheless, it was a key victory for the United States and Argentina. As a result, customs and border officials around the world will be notified that the Iranians are wanted on terrorism charges. "These people know that if they leave Iran, they run the risk of being arrested," said Interpol secretary-general Ronald Noble, who called the action "probably the most contested red-notice dispute in Interpol's history."

The Argentina probe has suffered many setbacks over the years. Earlier charges were thrown out amid allegations that the original prosecutor had bribed a witness. But the current chief prosecutor, Albert Nisman, told NEWSWEEK that the new case is based on "very solid" evidence, including testimony from at least nine former Iranian officials, including a mysterious "Witness C," who had allegedly served as the Iranian regime's liaison with terrorists in Europe. According to the 2006 indictment, the plot was hatched at a 1993 meeting that included the then Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Nisman says the attack was meant as a retaliation for the then Argentine President Carlos Menem's decision to block a sale of nuclear equipment to Iran. The red notice is especially sensitive because Vahidi is now believed to play a procurement role in Iran's nuclear program.

While the action gives the U.S. new ammunition against Iran, Bush administration officials are still having trouble nailing down their nuclear case against the regime. A classified new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's progress is due next week, and intelligence officials familiar with current assessments who asked for anonymity discussing sensitive matters say U.S. agencies continue to believe that Iran is at least two, and as many as seven, years from having a bomb. The reason: technical problems with uranium enrichment.