Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism, striking Israel, U.S. Arab allies, and at times Americans. The twin blasts on Tuesday that destroyed the Iranian embassy in Lebanon and killed at least twenty people, however, should remind us that Iran faces a serious terrorism problem of its own. It is tempting to enjoy Iran getting a taste of its own medicine, but the growing violence risks further destabilizing the Middle East and harming U.S. interests there.
A History of Violence
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has backed an array of terrorist groups. These groups have fostered unrest in Iraq and the oil-rich Gulf Kingdoms, killed Iran’s enemies in Europe, and struck at enemies like Israel and the United States. Most infamously for Americans, Iran has backed the Lebanese Hizballah, providing it with hundreds of millions of dollars, sophisticated arms, and advanced training. Among its many operations, Hizballah in 1983 bombed the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks hosting U.S. peacekeepers in Beirut, killing 17 embassy officials and 241 Marines. Iran has also backed Hizballah in its numerous operations against Israel, including a 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and the bus driver, and has given money and weapons to Hamas, which has used these to attack Israel in repeated clashes. Tehran has also quietly maintained links to Al Qaeda itself, hosting several important figures though also restricting their activities.
For Iran, ties to terrorists served multiple purposes. Ideologically, Tehran often believed that the terrorists’ goals – to spread an Iranian-style Islamic state, to overthrow an apostate regime, to battle Israel, and so on – were the right ones, and thus it was supporting the “good guys.” But strategic considerations also proved vital. Ties to terrorist groups enabled Iran to extend its influence around the world, something its weak military and struggle economy could not accomplish. With ties to groups like Hamas, Iran was also able to establish itself as an important actor against Israel – always a popular cause in the Middle East – and, in so doing, live up to its self-image of being an Islamic revolutionary power, not a champion of the Shi’a community, which is a minority in most Arab countries.
A Two-Edged Sword
Yet Iran has long suffered from terrorism as well. Since the revolution, the Mujahedin-e Khalq has used violence against the regime, assassinating senior officials and waging a guerrilla war from nearby Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. (The United States listed the MEK as a terrorist organization in 1997 but delisted it in 2012). In response, Iran has engaged in a vendetta against MEK members, trying to kill its leaders around the world.
Iran has also suffered violence at home from other groups. Jundullah, which champions Iran’s Baluch community, which is also Sunni, has caused dozens of casualties in the last decade. Tehran also considers the assassination of its nuclear scientists and attacks on senior security officials, which it blames on Israel and the United States, as part of a terrorist campaign against the state.
The Syrian conflict, however, has shattered Iran’s careful plans and raised the risk from Sunni jihadist terrorist groups. In the eyes of Al Qaeda and local Sunni jihadist groups, Iran is very much on the wrong side of this war. They tie Iran, correctly, to Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria and the Nuri al-Maliki regime next door in Iraq. Iran is blamed for the Syrian regime’s atrocities in particular, and as the conflict has morphed from largely peaceful protest to sectarian civil war, Tehran, a Shi’a power, is lumped in with Asad’s regime, which is dominated by the Alawite community, which has similarities to Shiism. As such, Iran and Hizballah have become high on the list, at times at the very top, of the broader Sunni jihadist movement, with funders, suicide bombers, recruiters, and ideologues all decrying the apostates. Throughout the Arab world, Iran’s malevolent role is decried – a painful reversal for a regime that has long tried to lead this region. Israel, and even the United States, are still hated but are seen as less immediate threats. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which has links to Al Qaeda, claimed credit for the bombing of the embassy in Lebanon.
Indeed, that the bombing occurred in Lebanon is a symbol of Iran’s dangerous position. Lebanon is often portrayed as Iran’s playground, where its minion Hizballah holds sway. But Lebanon is also home to Sunni jihadists and an array of more secular and anti-Iran Lebanese groups. As Syria dominates the regional consciousness, Iran’s status in Lebanon has fallen.
The blows to Iran’s regional stature are good for U.S. influence, but anti-Iranian terrorism is not. In addition to the loss of innocent life, growing terrorism exacerbates Iran’s sense of isolation and grievance, leading it to double down on groups like Hizballah and Hamas. In addition, the skyrocketing sectarianism in the region also poses risks for U.S. interests, threatening to destabilize already precarious countries like Iraq and drag U.S. allies into proxy confrontations and self-defeating interventions, including support for jihadists who hate both Iran and the United States. Especially as talks over Iran’s nuclear program appear close to bearing fruit, the United States should make clear it condemns terrorism of all stripes, regardless of who the victim is.
Unfortunately, I don’t see a real opportunity for public opinion in Iran to change the regime’s regional activity. The Iranians supported terror organizations in the region even when they were under worse economic pressure than now. They will continue to do that.