Were it not for the weather spoiling its flight plans, a Venezuelan plane with suspected ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards would have traveled through Argentina undisturbed.
BUENOS AIRES - Let's not forget: Argentina may not have a reliable intelligence agency, but does at times have an impenetrable fog. Thanks to that fog, weeks ago (in early June), a Venezuelan-Iranian flight had to change course and land in Córdoba, a city in the north of the country, waiting for visibility to return at the capital's airport.
This unforeseen fuel use led it two days later to try and head for Montevideo, Uruguay, instead of La Paz, Bolivia, its original destination, as it no longer had enough fuel to reach Bolivia.
But Uruguay wouldn't let the plane in, suspecting links with terrorist activities, forcing it to return to Buenos Aires (on June 8) — with the dregs of its fuel. It was only at this stage that the judiciary was moved to act. So thanks to our thick fog, Argentina has been hosting a plane-load of suspicious people for over a month.
Grounded in Buenos Aires
The Argentine government hastily insisted the crew were to be presumed innocent, uttering one piece of nonsense and two false assertions. It said crew members could enter and leave the country unhindered as there was no Interpol red notice out on them, that this was a training flight with Iranians teaching the Venezuelans to run a Boeing plane and that the name of the Iranian pilot initially linked to an airline (Mahan) used by Hezbollah terrorists was a pseudonym.
None of it stood. Firstly, for obvious reasons, intelligence or espionage missions will not send people with a Red Notice over them — in case they are stopped at the first airport they land in!
The alarms were raised, and Argentina switched them off.
Ten days after the plane and its crew were grounded in Buenos Aires, Turkish security forces held five Iranians suspected of planning to kidnap an Israeli diplomat in Istanbul. Four were detained and charged with espionage activities, and one was released under guard. None of them was the subject of a Red Notice, but no Turkish official came out to excuse their conduct in any case.
A month before, the same Turkish intelligence had conveyed its suspicions about the plane to Brazil, which duly informed Argentine intelligence of this. The United States, Israel and Paraguay did the same. A month after its arrival, the evidence seems overwhelming: the alarms were raised, and Argentina switched them off.
Secondly: Neither Iran nor Venezuela sustained the flight training hypothesis intelligence chief Agustín Rossi proposed without any basis in evidence, but rather as a matter of "personal assessment." Rossi was perhaps not so much stating information as providing an argument for the crew's lawyers, who have close ties with leftist currents of the ruling party loyal to the vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
The detained flight crew are being represented by a partner of Javier Raidan, a friend of the former minister of justice Julián Álvarez (who was in the Cámpora or youth movement of Kirchner loyalists) and lawyer of the owner of the flat in Puerto Madero where Alberto Fernández lived before he became president.
Thirdly: The pilot's name was no pseudonym, and he is precisely the man the U.S. suspects of flying terrorists between Tehran and Damascus.
Pilot Ghasemi Gholamreza and co-pilot Mohammad Khosraviragh.
Close ties between Iran and Venezuela
The mystery: Who told (the Security Minister) Aníbal Fernández about a pseudonym, and why did he announce this so fast? A lot of the contrary evidence has come out of Paraguay, which opened its own investigations into the "ghost plane."
Paraguay's president said on Friday (July 1) that one Venezuelan crew member had undergone face surgery in Cuba to change his appearance. Now, why would you do that when you are taking flight classes from Iranians under international surveillance? Again, strangely, this was a civilian cargo flight, but half the Venezuelans on board had military training.
Sources following this case believe the presence of Iranians and Venezuelans on the plane is not fortuitous, given the increasingly close ties between the two countries. Just on July 5, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro put on display Iranian combat drones assembled in Venezuela.
Half the Venezuelans on board had military training.
Crew members are being kept in the Canning Hotel, where they've had to buy winter clothing (clearly they weren't planning on staying during Argentina's cold months), with a chance first-hand to check how much clothes cost now. They are also receiving visits from their respective embassy people.
What the fog could not conceal
The Iranians apparently barely leave their rooms, though the Venezuelans have been strolling in the Canning shopping mall where the hotel is. The delay seems to have affected them more. One of them is a woman who receives daily calls from her younger daughter asking her when she'll be coming home to Venezuela.
It is hard to say whether or not the judiciary will be able to pin a specific offense on the crew, as happened with the Iranians in Turkey. Their hotel reservations are renewed every three days, suggesting they half-expect to leave soon.
Will they leave before July 18, the anniversary of the 1994 bomb attack on the AMIA, a Jewish community center when 85 people were killed? Or after this landmark date in the history of terrorism in Argentina? Their departure would do nothing to dispel deep-set suspicions on why they came here, regardless of any evidence. Nor can it assuage an unnerving sense that instead of backing investigations into a delicate affair possibly relating to international terrorism, the government has sought to cover up what the fog could not conceal.