Iran, Terrorism, and Weapons of Mass Destruction
[ Page 169 ]
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been one of the world's most active sponsors of terrorism. Tehran has armed, trained, financed, inspired, organized, and otherwise supported dozens of violent groups over the years. Iran has backed not only groups in its Persian Gulf neighborhood, but also terrorists and radicals in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Bosnia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. This support remains strong even today: the U.S. government regularly contends that Iran is tied to an array of radical groups in Iraq. Yet despite Iran's very real support for terrorism for more than the last 25 years and its possession of chemical weapons for over 15 years, Tehran has not transferred unconventional systems to terrorists. Iran is likely to continue this restraint and not transfer chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons for several reasons. First, providing terrorists with such unconventional weapons offers Iran few tactical advantages as these groups are able to operate effectively with existing methods and weapons. Second, Iran has become more cautious in its backing of terrorists in recent years. And third, it is highly aware that any major escalation in its support for terrorism would incur U.S. wrath and international condemnation.
[ Page 179 ]
Tehran has also sought at least a degree of deniability in its use of terrorism—a reason it often works through the Lebanese Hizballah to this day when backing terrorists. As Iran expert Kenneth Pollack notes, a chemical or biological attack (to say nothing of a nuclear strike) would lead the victim to respond with full force almost immediately. The use of proxies or cutouts would not shield Iran from retaliation.September 11 has also had a limiting effect. The attacks occurred over a year after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. The tremendous worldwide concern about terrorism, and the active U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda, made Iran's proxies cautious about any attacks that would lead them to be compared to Al Qaeda.Nor do Iran's favored proxies actively seek weapons of mass destruction as does Al Qaeda. They appear to recognize the "red line" drawn by the United States and other powers with regard to terrorist use of these weapons. Moreover, their current tactics and systems enable them to inflict considerable casualties. Indeed, some of the more available types of chemical and biological agents would be difficult for even a skilled terrorist group to use to inflict mass casualties, although the psychological impact would be considerable from even a limited attack with unconventional weapons.Tehran is not likely to change its behavior on this score except in the most extreme circumstances. Traditional terrorist tactics such as assassinations and truck bombs have proven effective for Tehran. Only in the event of a truly grave threat such as an invasion of Iran would many of Tehran's traditional cautions go out the window.
[ Page 178 ]
Iran was able to resist sanctions for several reasons. First, and most importantly, the costs were manageable, allowing Iran to offset much of the potential damage. Although the United States was a major market for Iranian products, Tehran diversified its trade partners and worked through third countries to reach the United States. Second, Iran'smajor export—oil—is in essence a global commodity, and the cutoff of one market to one supplier has no significant impact on a country's ability to gain the maximize price for its exports. Because Iran's regime depended for legitimacy on Islamic radicalism and Persian nationalism, both of which opposed any perceived kowtowing to Washington, the costs of complying with U.S. pressure were considerable. Iranian leaders risked being branded as puppets of the United States if they gave into U.S. pressure, a particularly heavy charge as the regime came to power in part on a wave of anti-Americanism. The consolidation of conservative power in Iran in recent years, symbolized by the election in June of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's new president, will only worsen this problem. The cost to the United States was also considerable. Sanctions, of course, meant that U.S. companies lost trade and investment opportunities. Indirect sanctions proved particularly costly. ILSA led to vociferous protests from European and other governments.
[ Page 178 ]
Although unsuccessful in stopping terrorism, the range of U.S. sanctions did hurt Iran considerably. Financial pressure, in particular Washington's successful efforts to block IMF and World Bank funding to Iran, made Iran's debt crisis more debilitating. Until the 1998 waiver for Total, ILSA also discouraged foreign investment, which along with other sanctions delayed the development of Iran's dilapidated oil infrastructure. Meghan O'Sullivan, however, contends that sanctions are only a small part of the explanation for Iran's economic morass. She notes that the plunge in the price of oil (in the 1980s and 1990s), along with the war with Iraq, and political mismanagement would have led to a crisis in any event.Although the economic impact of sanctions on Iran was damaging, it did not affect the political orientation of the regime, particularly with regard to terrorism. Iran did shift its terrorism away from Europe and the Gulf and toward Israel, but this shift did not advance, and arguably set back, overall U.S. objectives. Moreover, the sanctions increased Iran's hostility toward the United States, enabling the regime to cite sanctions as "proof" that Washington sought to crush the Islamic revolution.