One of the men aboard a plane grounded near Buenos Aires is a member of Iran’s Quds Force, Paraguay’s intelligence chief said Friday, despite claims by Argentina that no evidence links the case to the elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Intelligence chief Esteban Aquino told AFP that Captain Gholamreza Ghasemi did not merely share a name with a member of the Force — an expeditionary arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that carries out kidnappings and assassinations outside of Iran — but is in fact the same man.
Argentine Minister of Security Anibal Fernandez responded Friday that while the Paraguayan official “has his right to say whatever he wants… I’m not going to talk about conjecture.”
“We abide by due process. And according to the official documentation, there is no specific relationship with terrorist organizations, according to all the databases,” Fernandez told AM750 radio.
The Boeing 747 cargo plane, reportedly carrying car parts loaded in Mexico, has been held at an Argentine airport since Wednesday last week, its 14 Venezuelan and five Iranian crew prevented from leaving the country pending investigations.
Argentine authorities seized the passports of crew members on the plane, which is operated by Venezuela’s state-owned Emtrasur line, a subsidiary of Conviasa, which is under US sanctions.
Iran has said the plane was sold by Iran’s Mahan Air to a Venezuelan company last year. Mahan Air is accused by the United States of links with the Revolutionary Guards.
On Monday, Argentine officials raised suspicions of a link between the flight and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its elite Quds Force.
Law enforcement officers on Tuesday searched the hotel where the crew members were staying under orders of Federal Judge Federico Villena, who is investigating the crew. Argentine authorities say they have not found any irregularities in the crew.
On Wednesday, Israel’s Channel 13 said in an unsourced report that the detained Iranians were planning to carry out attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets in Argentina and had traveled to the South American nation to scout targets. The report said they were Quds Force members.
Iran has vowed to avenge the killing of an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officer last month, blaming Israel for the assassination.
Jerusalem in recent days has called on citizens to leave Turkey immediately, saying it had gotten wind of intelligence that points to Iranian attempts to attack and kidnap Israeli tourists there.
The Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires said Thursday it was “concerned” over the activities in Latin America of two Iranian airlines and hailed Argentina’s grounding of the plane.
“The State of Israel is particularly concerned about the activities of the Iranian airlines Mahan Air and Qeshm Fars Air in Latin America,” the embassy said in a statement.
It added the companies were “engaged in arms trafficking and the transfer of persons and equipment operating for the Quds Force, under sanctions from the United States for being involved in terrorist activities.”
The Israeli embassy statement expressed “recognition for the rapid, effective and firm action of the Argentine security forces that identified in real-time the potential threat” posed by the aircraft.
The top US diplomat in Argentina also commented on the case.
“We are following with great interest the judicial and law enforcement investigations into the crew and the plane and thank the investigative efforts of Argentine authorities to clear up the situation,” US Ambassador Marc Stanley said in a statement shared with local media.
Expanding the international reverberations in the case, Venezuela on Thursday evening harshly criticized Uruguay for failing to allow the plane to land in Montevideo to refuel.
Uruguay’s Interior Minister Luis Alberto Heber has said the country had been responding to a “formal warning from Paraguayan intelligence.”
The plane’s crew sought to fly to Montevideo on June 8 but had to return to Buenos Aires after Uruguayan authorities refused entry into its airspace, according to a report by Argentina’s Transportation Ministry. It was then that the plane was grounded by Argentine authorities.
Uruguay’s “regrettable action” could have “caused a tragedy, human lives and damage to both nations,” Venezuela said in a statement, adding that it “demands explanations about this terrible event from the Uruguayan government.”
Interpol has arrest warrants out for former Iranian leaders suspected of involvement in the suicide bombing of the main Jewish community office building in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85 people and injured hundreds.
Two years earlier, a bomb attack on Israel’s embassy in Argentina killed 29 and wounded 200.