Iran, Terrorism, and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

March 19, 2008


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.

This article begins by reviewing how Iran has used terrorism in the past and how this has changed over the years. The article then assesses U.S. attempts to press Iran with regard to terrorism and why they have met with little success. With this assessment in mind, the article argues that, while the author believes Iranian terrorism remains a threat, Tehran is not likely to pass chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons to terrorists. The article concludes with recommendations for decreasing Iran’s use of terrorism in general and the chances of it transferring chemical or other unconventional weapons to terrorists in particular.