Iran actively supports terrorist groups
Iran has used terrorism over the years as a means of projecting power, mostly against Israel but also against internal dissidents and other adversaries in Europe.Iran’s links are strongest to Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian rejectionist groups, both of which have been designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations. Tehran is reported to have links to al-Qaeda, though U.S. intelligence information is insufficient to make a conclusive judgment on this relationship.
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The Islamic Republic’s lack of nuclear capability has provided a significant check on its power-projection capabilities. Even with these constraints, however, Tehran supported an aggressive campaign of terrorism and proxy warfare against the United States and its regional allies. From 1983 to 1999, Hezbollah engaged in and supported an extensive suicide bombing campaign in Lebanon, most notably the 1983 Beirut U.S. embassy and barracks bombings. During this same period Hezbollah also kidnapped and murdered U.S. officials, hijacked a commercial airliner and provided training to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Lebanon.
Between 1992 and 2005, Iran provided military training to Hezbollah and supplied the group with thousands of surface-to-surface, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles and rockets. Much of this arsenal was fired indiscriminately against Israeli civilians in the 2006 Lebanon War, during which the Qods Force assisted Hezbollah’s military operations against the Israel Defense Forces. Iran and Syria have intensified security ties and integrated military planning and training with Hezbollah since the war – in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 – primarily by ramping up funding and providing increased numbers of longer-range rockets and missiles: in April 2010 Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “We are at a point now [where] Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world.”48
There are, of course, certain realities that should not be in dispute: Yes, Iran is a regional adversary to a number of its Gulf neighbors and Israel. And it does aim to provoke Sunni-led Gulf states and generally to sow seeds of sectarian Islam abroad.
In addition, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp's Quds force is alleged to have provided training and weapons to a range of militants -- Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, disenfranchised Shia Muslims in Bahrain, and even to militant groups in West Africa.
Most recently, Iran has been directing military operations by U.S.-equipped Iraqi forces against ISIS militants in Iraq, forces that have been aided by U.S. airstrikes.
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For over thirty years Iran has supported international and regional terrorism and is today, by U.S. Government accounts, “the most active state sponsor of terrorism.”6 Iran has sponsored a variety of nonstate militant groups, ranging from Lebanon’s Shia militia, Hezbollah, to various Sunni Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and from radical secular groups, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP–GC) to regional secessionist groups like the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Following Wikileaks’ 2010 global dump of U.S. diplomatic and military exchanges, Iran has also been publicly linked to militias fighting coalition forces in Iraq, including the Mahdi Army, and to Sunni groups active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including those associated with the Taliban. And in February 2011, Senegal officially severed ties with Iran after accusing it of arming rebels in West Africa.7
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Nurturing Islamic revolutions by supporting insurgent and terrorist groups has been part and parcel of revolutionary Iran’s political and ideological identity. “The goals of Iran’s terrorism,” writes Gregory Giles, “are to advance Tehran’s influence... in the hopes of creating like-minded theocracies in the region.”26 Consider that Iran not only supports Hezbollah militarily but actively influences its ideology as well by sending clerics to Lebanon, actively engaging in indoctrination, and championing “a revolutionary spirit” among Shia communities.27 Importantly, challenging the regional political status quo also serves Iran’s strategic goals. By bolstering Shia militias and by working toward the construction of like-minded regimes, Iran has sought to end its regional isolation by strengthening allies.
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Third, Iran has used terrorism to spoil the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Facilitating terrorism against Israel is Tehran’s way of exerting influence on an issue that dominates Arab politics. Furthermore, the continued existence of the state of Israel is inimical to current Iranian interests and terrorism is a way for the regime to punish, target, and hopefully remove what Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called a “cancerous tumor” in the Middle East.28 That Israel and Iran, under the Shah, had relatively warm relations suggests that Iran’s venomous hostility is ideologically driven. As Amir Taheri writes, for “the Khomeinists . . . Israel is a foe, which cannot be placated or accommodated, let alone turned into a friend.”29 But as a military dwarf vis-a`-vis Israel, Iran’s only recourse has been to support anti-Israel movements, by coordinating the al Aqsa Intifada and paving the way for the rocket wars of 2006 and 2008/9, for instance. Doing so has given Iran an avenue to conduct a protracted, low-intensity war with Israel. By picking up the anti-Israel mantel, Tehran has also found a way to resonate with Arab and Sunni audiences; hating Israel has helped Iran—the Middle East’s only Persian and Shia state—shed regional suspicion.
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Consider that Iran is currently fashioning a rudimentary deterrent based on the threat of terrorism. Relying on the logic of deterrence by punishment, Iran is threatening terrorism to deter a preemptive military strike against it. Byman, for instance, notes that Iran has “cased” U.S. diplomatic offices “to ensure that it can strike back should the United States attack.”32 Given Iran’s history, the threat seems credible. Tehran has also signaled that its proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan could be used to punish the West. Speaking, in 2004, of Western forces then stationed in Iraq, an Iranian official warned that “we have 140,000 potential hostages.”33 In 2006, Iran threatened the West directly with an army of 40,000 suicide bombers ready to die overseas. “We are ready to attack American and British sensitive points,” an official explained “if they attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.”34 And Hezbollah, with Iranian assistance, is thought to have stocked its missile cache with as many as 50,000 projectiles (roughly 35,000 more than it had during the 2006 conflict with Israel).35 The threat is that Iran will use Hezbollah to open a front against Israel. Taken together, it appears Iran continues to recognize the strategic utility of sponsoring terrorism, offering lessons for how best to manage a future, nuclear-capable Iran. What follows is an exploration of how Iran’s historical support for terrorism, insurgency, and subversion might be affected by its development of nuclear weapons.
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Terrorism analyst Daniel Byman says that Iranian attacks against the U.S. homeland are 'less likely' than attacks against U.S. interests overseas, but warns that they are 'far from impossible.' Former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Bob Graham stated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that Hizbullah was the terrorist group with the largest presence inside the United States. Serving as deputy secretary of state in 2003, Richard Armitage wondered whether 'Hezbollah may be the 'A-Team of Terrorists' and maybe al- Qaeda is actually the 'B' team.' Former U.S. counterterrorism officials Richard Clarke and Steven Simon worry that the forces Hizbullah could deploy against the United States are 'far superior to anything Al Qaeda was ever able to field.' Provoking a full-scale conflict with Hizbullah could have significant consequences if Armitage's and Clarke and Simon's thinking is accurate.
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Iran also has a history of supporting terrorist activity in Saudi Arabia. Although only roughly 10 percent of the country's population is Shia, this sect constitutes an overwhelming majority of the population of Saudi Arabia's key northern oil-producing region. Any terrorist action anywhere in Saudi Arabia, though, tends to raise questions about the general viability of the Saudi regime and the security of the world's largest oil reserves. Historically, after a major terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, markets worry, the price of oil increases, and Iran's own oil revenues surge upward. The reason is simple: Saudi Arabia has the world's largest reserve oil production capacity (roughly 7 million barrels a day). Damage Saudi Arabia's ability to ramp up production or to export what it can produce (or merely raise doubts about the current Saudi government's continued ability to protect these capabilities) and you effectively cripple the world's capacity to meet increased demand for oil. Terrorism in Saudi Arabia, in short, provides Iran with a quick, effective way to manipulate international oil prices. This cannot help but garner Iran greater leverage in getting opec support for its long-ignored calls to increase oil prices. It will also help Iran gain increased European and Asian backing when it calls for more financial support, investment, and high technology. It also will help keep the current regime in power longer (since it thrives on corruption and central planning, both of which require ever larger amounts of cash), will further reduce U.S. influence in the region, and will make action in the un Security Council against Tehran far less likely.
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Some observers argue that the revolutionary steam has run out of Iran's regime and that Iranian sponsorship of terrorist operations against US interests has diminished. Iran's complicity and support for the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, the American military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American servicemen, belies arguments that Iran's government has tempered its opposition to the United States, however. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has publicly and directly linked Iran to the Khobar Towers attack: "Over the course of our investigation the evidence became clear that while the attack was staged by Saudi Hezbollah members, the entire operation was planned, funded and coordinated by Iran's security services, the IRGC and MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence and Security], acting on orders from the highest levels of the regime in Tehran." More recently, Iran has shown an interest in maintaining links to al Qaeda by harboring its operatives, some of whom had fled neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan in the midst of the October 2001 American military campaign in Afghanistan.
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Iran is currently the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, providing Hezbollah and various Palestinian terrorist groups including Hamas with "extensive funding, training and weapons." Iran's support for these groups violates several legally binding provisions of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 of September 28, 2001, including its requirement that states "refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts." Iran's continued harboring of senior al-Qaeda officials violates Resolution 1373's requirement that all states "deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts." Professor Maggs' article for this symposium makes the point that Iran has regularly engaged in or assisted with armed attacks against Iraq and Israel, both of which are allies of the United States, and he lists several incidents reported during just the first nine months of 2006. Yet what has been the international community's response to these various Iranian violations of international law? Not a single Security Council condemnation or sanction.