Buenos Aires, 1994

March 12, 2003

WHEN PRESIDENT Bush identified the "axis of evil" a year ago, it was an infelicitous bit of rhetoric that is sure to provoke plenty of headaches in years to come - but it wasn't something he made up out of whole cloth. Iraq most likely does have chemical and biological weapons. North Korea does have a frightening nuclear weapons program. And Iran, as the Bush administration is now trumpeting, does have a reactor program that could produce enough enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs in the next few years.

In one way, though, Iran stands out in marked contrast to the other two - and that's when it comes to state-sponsored terrorism. Iraq subsidizes Palestinian suicide bombers, and North Korea has kidnapped Japanese civilians, but only in Iran has the government itself pursued terrorism abroad as a state policy.

For years, Iran's support of the Hezbollah organization has been clear. But now comes an even more damning indictment. A judge in Argentina has issued arrest warrants for four Iranian officials - a former intelligence minister and a former education minister among them - on charges that they organized the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

The judge, Juan Jose Galeano, is neither a hothead nor a hero. For years, relatives of the victims have complained that the investigation was moving too slowly, and when he finally issued the indictment on Saturday he turned down a prosecution request to include more than a dozen other Iranian officials - up to and including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's spiritual leader.

But his caution makes the judge's findings all the more devastating: that top government officials of Iran planned and carried out a murderous attack in the center of Buenos Aires, with the express purpose of killing Jews.

In Tehran, the government reacted with outrage to the arrest warrants. A foreign ministry spokesman warned that Iran may take "appropriate measures" if Argentina does not retreat. That's not heartening.

There's no question that Iranian society is in considerable flux these days. Support for the ayatollahs is waning, and reformers are battling it out with theocrats - but so far they're losing. The clerical extremists are not going to fade away if they can help it, and they're clearly not above resorting to a little bloodshed if they think it will be useful.

Having watched with interest the American fixation on possible Iraqi nuclear components - and on North Korea's hurry-up-and-get-a-bomb-before-it's too-late policy - the Iranian leadership is unsurprisingly now pursuing its own nuclear program. So far the country has stayed, barely, on the right side of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but its effort is extraordinarily worrisome.

Why? Because, as Judge Galeano has so potently reminded the world, Iran is a nation where powerful interests, to this day, view terror as a legitimate tool of foreign policy.

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