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State Sponsors: Iran

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: October 13, 2011
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The U.S. State Department considers Iran the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism." U.S. officials say Iran provides funding, weapons, training, and sanctuary to numerous terrorist groups--most notably in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon--posing a security concern to the international community. Iran's declarations that it has successfully enriched uranium and developed new missile technology have heightened alarm in the United States and other countries that the Islamic Republic might transfer weapons of mass destruction (PDF) to militants or armed groups. Iran's leaders, who deny allegations they support terrorism (DerSpiegel), assert their rights under an international treaty to pursue nuclear power and insist their efforts are for peaceful purposes. But the international community remains unconvinced, imposing a growing list of sanctions against Tehran. Financial pressure has been applied by the UN Security Council, the European Union, international financial bodies, and a number of individual countries, including the United States.

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Does Iran sponsor terrorism?

The United States has accused Iran of sponsoring terrorist organizations for decades, but in the post-9/11 era, the allegations have taken on added significance. Despite Iran's assistance following the U.S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan, Iran was labeled part of an axis of evil--which also included Iraq and North Korea--by President George W. Bush in 2002. In March 2006, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "Iran has been the country that has been in many ways a kind of central banker for terrorism in important regions like Lebanon through Hezbollah in the Middle East, in the Palestinian Territories, and we have deep concerns about what Iran is doing in the south of Iraq." For these reasons, in October 2007 the United States added Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, and has continued to link economic sanctions to alleged support for militants. In June 2010, the UN Security Council approved a fourth round of sanctions, expanding on its list of targeted Iranian entities--including members of the IRGC.

"Iran has been the country that has been in many ways a kind of central banker for terrorism in important regions . . . and we have deep concerns about what Iran is doing in the south of Iraq." -- Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State

Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told CFR.org in June 2007 there is "overwhelming evidence" that Iran supports terrorists in Iraq and "compelling" evidence that it does the same in Afghanistan. Iran has repeatedly denied involvement in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, though in October 2008, a top Iranian military commander did acknowledge Iran supplies weapons to "liberation armies" (AP) in the Middle East. Western intelligence officials insist Iran's malfeasance is widespread. According to the State Department's 2010 Country Reports on Terrorism, the IRGC, and more specifically the elite Quds Force, remains Iran's "primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad." An unclassified Defense Department report on Iran's military power (PDF) from April 2010 made similar claims. And according to declassified intelligence reports released by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in October 2008, Iranian support to militants in Iraq has included "paramilitary training, weapons, and equipment" (PDF). Similar meddling is believed to be ongoing in Afghanistan. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking with journalists in March 2010 in Kabul, said Iran was supplying weapons to fighters in southern Afghanistan.

The U.S. government first listed Iran as a terrorist sponsor in January 1984. Among Iran's alleged activities have been the following:

- Observers say Iran had prior knowledge of Hezbollah attacks, such as the 1988 kidnapping and murder of Colonel William Higgins, a U.S. Marine involved in a UN observer mission in Lebanon, and the 1992 and 1994 bombings of Jewish cultural institutions in Argentina.

- Iran still has a price on the head of the Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie for what Iranian leaders call blasphemous writings about Islam in his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses.

- U.S. officials say Iran supported the group behind the 1996 truck bombing of Khobar Towers, a U.S. military residence in Saudi Arabia, which killed nineteen U.S. servicemen.

- Military officials say numerous attacks since 2001 on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and coalition forces in Iraq, have been attributed to Iranian-made weapons.

- A set of classified documents leaked by the website WikiLeaks.org in July 2010 reports extensive collaboration between Iran and the Taliban, Afghan warlords, and al-Qaeda, but all the claims have not been corroborated (Guardian).

- Iran has also been blamed for attacks in Balochistan in Pakistan.

- In April 2011, the United States and the European Union accused the Quds Force of providing equipment and support to help the Syrian regime suppress revolts in Syria.

- In October 2011, Washington accused the Quds Force of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador (NYT) to the United States, and plotting to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina.

How is Iran governed?

Since a 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the U.S.-backed regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country has been governed (BBC) by Shiite Muslim clerics committed to a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei serves as commander-in-chief of the armed and police forces; the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the state ministry in control of television and radio; and appoints the head of key state institutions, from the military to the country's judiciary. The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), currently headed by Saeed Jalili, doubles as Iran's top negotiator on nuclear issues; the council enjoys close relations with Ayatollah Khamenei, who has final say over all SNSC decisions. The SNSC is composed mostly of top officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, intelligence, and interior, as well as military leaders from the army and the Revolutionary Guards, Iran's main security apparatus formed in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the popularly elected president, is checked by the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad, who has aroused controversy by calling for Israeli's elimination, has vigorously supported the country's nuclear energy program while denying any military connection.

What is the governmentís stance on al-Qaeda?

Although al-Qaeda and Iran are seemingly on opposite ends of the religious and ideological spectrum (al-Qaeda is a Sunni extremist militant group, while Iran is predominantly Shia), some Western analysts believe Tehran has sought to leverage the militant group against U.S. interests. These ties were most notably described by the 9/11 Commission (PDF), which revealed that senior al-Qaeda figures maintained close ties to Iranian security officials and had frequently traveled across Iran's border. At least eight of the fourteen Saudi "muscle" operatives selected for the 9/11 operations traveled through Iran in the months before the attacks, though it's unclear whether cooperation was informal or officially sanctioned.

Crisis Guide: Iran In recent years, Iran's ties to al-Qaeda have become increasingly murky. In 2010, Iran reportedly began releasing detained al-Qaeda operatives, a move that prompted speculation among U.S. intelligence officials that Iran was seeking to replenish al-Qaeda's ranks (AP). According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, as many as twenty members of Osama bin-Laden's family (PDF) have lived in a compound in Iran since September 11, 2001, while bin Laden's son and high-ranking advisors to his father have been able to easily slip in and out of the country.

What terrorist groups are linked to Iran?

U.S. officials say Iran mostly backs Islamist groups, including the Lebanese Shiite militants of Hezbollah (which Iran helped found in the 1980s) and Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

There has also been speculation that Iran encouraged Hezbollah's July 2006 attack on Israel to deflect international attention from its nuclear weapons program. Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs with the Congressional Research Service, questions this assertion (PDF), but notes that while Iran "likely did not instigate" the 2006 war, Iran has long been Hezbollah's "major arms supplier." The U.S. Department of Defense estimates Iranian support to Hezbollah at roughly $100 million to $200 million annually (PDF). And Iran is suspected of providing training and arms shipments to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, including, according to the U.S. State Department, "small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives."

Does Iran have weapons of mass destruction?

In April 2010, a U.S. Defense Department report on Iran's military power suggested the Islamic Republic may not have made a decision to build a bomb. Instead, Tehran "is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so," the Pentagon said. Yet recent nuclear power-related advances have led some to question Iran's motivations. With help from Russia, Iran is operating a nuclear power plant at Bushehr (TehranTimes), but Western officials believe that Iran is more interested in developing a nuclear weapon than in producing nuclear energy. Since 2003, the United States and international allies have pursued political and economic policies, including sanctions, meant to prevent Iran from adapting its nuclear program to military applications.

"[J]ust as the bomb-making is easier than getting the HEU [highly enriched uranium], the delivery is much easier than making a bomb. -- Daniel Poneman, former senior fellow, Forum for International Policy

These efforts have had a limited impact. In April 2006, Ahmadinejad announced Iran had successfully enriched uranium (SundayTimes). The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in May 2010 that Iran had produced over 5,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium--enough nuclear fuel to, with further enrichment, make two nuclear weapons (NYT). In late 2010, the IAEA also reported Iran has begun enriching uranium at higher levels of efficiency, a process that could speed up (Reuters) its conversion of uranium to weapons-grade purity.

There is also speculation that Iran has advanced in the development of nonnuclear weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. government says Iran "may have already" stockpiled (PDF) chemicals that can induce bleeding, blistering, and choking, as well as the bombs and artillery shells to deliver these agents. U.S. officials say Iran has an active biological weapons program, driven in part by its acquisition of "dual-use" technologies--supplies and machinery that can be put to either harmless or deadly uses. Some weapons experts say the Iranian programs started after the country's forces were struck by Iraqi chemical attacks in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But analyst Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies urges caution (PDF), noting that "any analysis of Iran's biological weapons effort must be even more speculative than an analysis of its chemical and nuclear weapons efforts, and the details of its missile programs."

Does Iran have missiles that can deliver weapons of mass destruction?

Iran has hundreds of Scuds and other short-range ballistic missiles. It has also manufactured and flight-tested the Shahab-3 missile, which has a range of 1,300 kilometers--enough to hit Israel or Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Iran is developing missiles with even greater range, including one that it says will be used to launch satellites but that experts say could also be used as an intercontinental ballistic missile. In March 2006, Iran claimed it had successfully tested a missile capable of evading radar and hitting multiple targets. A month later, Daniel Poneman, then a senior fellow at the Forum for International Policy and former special assistant to the president and senior director for nonproliferation and export controls at the National Security Council, said at a CFR symposium on Iran that "They could use trucks for delivery systems. I think just as the bomb-making is easier than getting the HEU [highly enriched uranium], the delivery is much easier than making a bomb."

Which countries have supplied Iran with missile technology?

Russia, China, and North Korea. Pakistan may also have been a supplier, though Pakistani and Iranian officials deny this.

William Saborio contributed to this report.

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