x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

New minister on Interpol list

Man set to become Iran's new defence chief allegedly masterminded 1994 car-bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires.

Ahmad Vahidi delivers a speech in parliament on Tuesday.
Ahmad Vahidi delivers a speech in parliament on Tuesday.

The man set last night to become Iran's new defence minister is wanted by Interpol for allegedly masterminding the worst terrorist attack on a Jewish target outside Israel since the Second World War. Ahmad Vahidi is one of five Iranians accused of involvement in the 1994 car-bombing of a Jewish community centre in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, that killed 85 people. At the time, he was head of the Quds Force, a clandestine extension of the elite Revolutionary Guards that carries out overseas operations. For the West, his nomination by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to head the important defence ministry is viewed as a provocation - and a sign that the Iranian president intends to continue or even bolster support for groups such as Hizbollah. As such, Mr Vahidi's appointment will rattle Europe and the United States, which are hoping for renewed talks on Iran's controversial nuclear programme. Also, by upsetting Argentina, Iran could complicate its important relations with Latin America. Israel, meanwhile, said Mr Vahidi's promotion to the cabinet proved the impossibility of dealing with Mr Ahmadinejad. Mr Vahidi declared on Tuesday that Iran must become more powerful to counter the threat from Israel, which he branded the "world's ugliest regime". During tumultuous parliamentary debates this week, many of Mr Ahmadinejad's 21 cabinet appointees faced strong criticism on the grounds of their lacklustre experience. The president was also accused of putting loyalty before merit when choosing his cabinet, whose members must be approved by parliament. But Mr Vahidi, 51, is a shoo-in. The assembly gave him a rapturous reception on Tuesday. Iran often responds to international criticism with testy displays of stubbornness, and Israeli and Argentine outrage over Mr Vahidi's appointment served only to galvanise support for him: no deputies opposed his appointment. His speech to parliament was interrupted theatrically by one deputy who was expected to object to Mr Vahidi's nomination. Hadi Gavami declared he had changed his mind in the light of the "Zionists' allegations". The assembly resounded with loud cheering and chants of "Death to Israel" while Mr Vahidi, balding, bearded and sporting a military uniform, beamed with pleasure. Yet support for him is based on more than a defiant rallying against the terrorism allegations that he faces, analysts say. Compared to many of Mr Ahmadinejad's cabinet appointees, Mr Vahidi is regarded as competent and experienced. He served as deputy defence minister in Mr Ahmadinejad's first term and is head of the Intelligence Department of the Revolutionary Guards. Rejecting Argentina's allegations, Mr Ahmadinejad's press adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, said: "How come they didn't bring it up in the past? Mr Vahidi was a deputy defence minister and this is a very senior political position. Therefore it seems that this is a new trick being planned and is basically a Zionist plot." Iranian reports say that Mr Vahidi, who was born in the southern city of Shiraz, has university degrees in electronics and industrial engineering and is studying for a doctorate in strategic management. Farideh Farhi, a renowned Iranian scholar at the University of Hawaii, said: "He is actually considered to be the most qualified of Ahmadinejad nominees". As deputy defence minister Mr Vahidi was, by all accounts, "the key person running the defence department, particularly in terms of planning and budgetary affairs as well as the development of the domestic defence industry", she said. Furthermore, Ms Farhi told The National in an interview: "Iranian public opinion has never been convinced that Iran was involved in the Argentinian bombings and sees the Interpol decision as caused by international pressures by Israel and the United States." Israel and Argentina condemned Mr Vahidi's nomination, with Buenos Aires calling it an "affront to Argentine justice and the victims of the terrorist attack". Alberto Nisman, an Argentine prosecutor, said the nomination was not surprising. "Iran has always protected terrorists, giving them government posts, but I think never one as high as this one," he said. Mr Vahidi was accused of "being a key participant of the planning and of having made the decision to go ahead with the attack" that reduced the seven-storey Jewish community centre to rubble, Mr Nisman added. Interpol says Mr Vahidi has been subject to a "red notice", or international wanted persons alert, since November 2007. Iran has always denied any involvement in the 1994 terrorist attack and insists the case against it is politically motivated. Mr Vahidi is one of six people - five Iranians and one Lebanese - wanted by Interpol in connection with the bombing. Among them is Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who was one of Mr Ahmadinejad's three challengers in June's presidential elections. His candidacy ruffled few feathers abroad because he was seen as a no-hoper. Mr Vahidi, by contrast, will occupy a prominent position in the Iranian regime. Outlining his four-year plan to parliamentary deputies, Mr Vahidi promised to "build innovative defence products and expand regional and international co-operation with an active defence diplomacy". He may be reluctant, however, to venture abroad to head any such diplomacy personally, given demands by Buenos Aires for his arrest. But he spelled out his message to neighbouring countries in his address to parliament: "In the Middle East, we are facing plots, the main perpetrator of which is global Zionism - the ugliest development in the past decades and even now - that has chosen plotting against the world of Islam and the Islamic Republic as its main strategy." Mr Vahidi also portrayed himself as an expert conversant with the challenges of modern warfare. Space, he proclaimed, would be the battlefield for future wars. Speed, precision, flexibility and the swift deployment of missiles would be essential, he said, along with "instantaneous surprise moves". mtheodoulou@thenational.ae