RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Argentina and Iran are edging toward breaking off relations, and the diplomatic storm centers on a high-ranking Shiite cleric suspected of plotting a 1994 terrorist bombing that killed 87 people.
This week, Iran announced that it would recall its charge d'affaires in Argentina for consultations, while four Iranian diplomats and their families left for home.
"We'll see you in paradise!" one cheerfully told the press.
If Argentine prosecutors issue an arrest warrant for Shiite cleric Mohsen Rabbani, as they're contemplating, it could complete the breakdown.
Rabbani is a longtime religious leader who was appointed cultural attache in Buenos Aires months before the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in the Argentine capital. Indicting him would mean explicitly blaming Iran's government for supporting the unsolved attack.
A previous unsolved bombing in 1992 destroyed the Israeli Embassy, killing 29 people, but Rabbani is not accused of involvement.
"This investigation has come a very, very long way in a short period of time," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, who has closely followed the probe.
Prosecutor Eamon Mullen, a senior investigator in the case, said authorities had long suspected Rabbani of organizing the attack on the cultural center, but lacked substantial evidence until last month, when they interviewed a high-ranking Iranian defector in protective custody in Germany.
The defector has been identified in the press as Abu al Kassam Misbahi, former third-ranking officer in Iran's intelligence service.
Mullen said Misbahi confirmed suspicions of Rabbani's direct involvement in the cultural center bombing.
Months earlier, Misbahi testified that Iran's government helped plan the 1992 bombing of a Berlin restaurant, which killed four Kurdish opposition leaders.
German prosecutors later issued arrest warrants for three Iranian intelligence agents, and Bonn and other European governments recalled their ambassadors from Tehran.
"In my point of view, we have enough evidence" to ask for Rabbani's arrest, Mullen said yesterday. Yet he stressed that it was up to Judge Juan Jose Galeano, the lead investigator, to make that decision.
Galeano is waiting for official transcripts of Misbahi's testimony to arrive from Germany.
A senior U.S. official watching the case said the judge could also be waiting for a report on the bombings due in the next two weeks from a team of FBI inspectors who have been sifting through Argentine records.
"I don't think the FBI report will add much, but it could give Galeano some moral authority to make his next move," the official said.
Pub Date: 5/21/98