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State sponsor of terror: The global threat of Iran

Daniel L. Byman

Iran’s leaders have used terrorism since they took power in 1979. Over 35 years later, Iran continues to use terrorism and to work with an array of violent substate groups that use terrorism among other tactics. 

Iran’s strategic goals for supporting terrorists and other violent substate groups include:

  • Undermining and bleeding rivals. Iran uses insurgent and terrorist groups to weaken governments it opposes. In the 1980s, this included bitter enemies like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and also lesser foes like the rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
  • Power projection. Tehran’s military and economy are weak—and with oil prices plunging and sanctions in place, this weakness is becoming more pronounced. Nor is its ideological appeal strong. Nevertheless, Iran’s regime sees itself as a regional and even a world power, and working with terrorists is a way for Iran to influence events far from its borders. Iran’s support for the Lebanese Hizballah, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Hamas make Iran a player in the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab disputes, and Iran’s backing of Houthis in Yemen give it influence on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
  • Intimidation. Working with violent substate groups gives Iran a subversive threat, enabling Iran to press its neighbors to distance themselves from the United States or to refrain from joining economic or military efforts to press Iran. Such efforts, however, often backfire: because these states see Iran as meddling in their domestic affairs and supporting violence there, they often become more, not less, willing to support economic or even military pressure directed at Tehran.
  • Deterrence. Iran’s ties to terrorist groups, particularly the Lebanese Hizballah with its global infrastructure, enable it to threaten its enemies with terrorist retaliation. This gives Iran a way to respond to military or other pressure should it choose to do so.
  • Preserving options. As a weak state in a hostile region, Tehran seeks flexibility and prepares for contingencies. Iran’s neighbors have often proved hostile, and rapprochements short-lived. Iran seeks ties to a range of violent groups that give it leverage that could be employed should suspicion turn to open hostility.

Iran, often working with Hizballah, has repeatedly tried to use terrorism against an array of Israeli and Western targets and interests, and this pattern has continued in recent years. Recent plots reportedly range from plots against an Israeli shipping company and USAID offices in Nigeria in 2013 to reconnoitering the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, for a possible attack. Hizballah operatives planned an attack in 2014 against Israeli tourists in Bangkok, and in October 2014 Hizballah operatives were arrested in Peru for planning attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets there.

The last successful Iranian terrorist attack against the United States outside a theater of war was the 1996 strike on Khobar Towers, which killed 19 Americans. In 2011, the United States disrupted an Iranian plot early in the planning stages to bomb a restaurant in Washington frequented by the Saudi ambassador. Although the target was the Saudi ambassador, the Iranian effort would also probably have killed many U.S. citizens eating at the restaurant.

Iran’s nuclear program complicates the counterterrorism dilemma. It is too recent to draw firm conclusions, but Iran’s use of extra-regional terrorism directly against the United States appears to have declined since negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program began in earnest. Iran has not repeated any plot similar to the 2011 attack on the Saudi ambassador to the United States; the 2013 Nigeria arrest is worrisome, but that occurred before negotiations became serious, and publicly available information is incomplete in any event.

An Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a more dangerous force in the region, and preventing this should be a priority for any U.S. administration. A nuclear weapon probably would embolden Iran. Iran could become more like Pakistan: after Islamabad acquired nuclear weapons, it gained a shield from India’s conventional superiority and became more aggressive in backing anti-India substate groups.

Iran, however, would probably not transfer a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group unless the circumstances were extreme. Too much could go wrong if Iran passed such a sensitive capability to a group, and Tehran’s policies in the post-revolutionary period have not been that risky. Iran knows that the United States and Israel would see such a move as exceptionally provocative and would dramatically escalate efforts against Iran—and that they would likely gain the support of all major powers, as even Beijing and Moscow fear such transfers given their own considerable terrorism problems. Deniability would go out the window, as even the possibility of such a move would be alarming.

U.S. policy can and does reduce Iran’s use of terrorism, but there are limits. The United States should continue to work with its allies to fight Iranian-backed terrorism. This is particularly problematic when it comes to Hizballah, as U.S. allies often look the other way at Hizballah activities in their countries because the group also engages in “legitimate” political and social welfare activity. A strongly enforced ban on any support for Hizballah in any form would create an incentive for the Lebanese organization to reduce its use of violence. Allies should also be encouraged to reduce the size of Iranian diplomatic missions and otherwise make it harder for Iranian intelligence operatives to act freely.

Pressing Iran to reduce or stop its support for terrorism is difficult, however, in part because of the efforts over the nuclear program. The U.S. sanctions campaign—to include sanctions currently in place and those measures that have been suspended while negotiations go on—is already focused on Iran’s nuclear program. There is a limited amount that could be added, and any new sanctions would inevitably be seen (in both Iran and the United States) as linked to Iran’s nuclear program, even if done in the name of counterterrorism. U.S. allies in Europe would perceive such a move as undermining negotiation efforts on Iran’s nuclear program.

In the end, Iran’s lack of strategic options and desire to respond to what it sees as a hostile world will lead Tehran to continue to work with a range of terrorist groups and selectively use violence. Successful U.S. policy can reduce the scope and scale of Iranian violence, but it is not likely to end it altogether.


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