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The Growing Obsession With Linking Iran to Terrorism

Iran has not posed a serious terror threat to the United States since the 1980s. Sunni terrorism, on the other hand, has.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, President Trump designated the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of Iran’s armed forces, as a “terrorist organization.” CIA and Pentagon officials told The New York Times the decision would threaten U.S. military personnel in the region. Iraqi observers told Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen the designation might alienate Iraq, where Iran has many allies in an unstable government. And the move was an obvious escalation of the Trump administration’s ongoing pressure on Iran.

But this coverage oddly avoided a central question: What exactly is the Iranian terrorist threat? What danger does Iranian terrorism pose to American civilians and U.S. interests? Misrepresenting the complexity of Islamic terrorism has long seemed key to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton’s mad dream of provoking another war in the Middle East. With a long-passive U.S. Congress and public finally tiring of the post-9/11 endless wars, is the Iran terror pivot propaganda, or fact-based?

The complex truth is that the threat of Iranian terrorism is real. It is also small.

For the past twenty years or so, the annual reports of the National Counterterrorism Center have attributed the vast majority of the Islamic terrorist attacks around the world since 2001 to “Sunni extremists”—jihadists inspired by the anti-imperialist Salafist theology of Saudi Arabia. ISIS and other fundamentalist militias fall under this category of Sunni extremism, often funded by wealthy Persian Gulf Arabs. They hate the heretical—as they see them—Shia Muslims of Iran almost as much as they hate the “Crusaders and Jews” of Washington and Tel Aviv. The fanatics behind the attacks of 9/11, Madrid, London, Paris, and San Bernardino were all Sunni extremists. None of the terrorists involved in those bloody attacks was Iranian.

This is an uncomfortable fact for the Zionist-Saudi intersection of interests in Washington right now—a group including Mike Pompeo, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Israeli allies as well. All have reason to want to confront and destroy Iranian power, which represents a threat to Israel and a rival to Saudi Arabia. So the party of war in Washington (and Tel Aviv and Riyadh) needs to change the subject. They need to divert U.S. news media coverage from Saudi-funded Sunni terrorism (as well as the state-backed assassination of Jamal Khashoggi) to Shiite terrorism.

In denouncing the IRGC, Pompeo declared that Iranian terrorism is a threat to Americans, without providing any specifics.

“We’re doing [it] because the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in remarks announcing the decision. “This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”

Pompeo didn’t mention any American deaths but the State Department fact sheet released Monday did, asserting “The IRGC has been directly involved in terrorist plotting; its support for terrorism is foundational and institutional, and it has killed U.S. citizens.”

The idea that Tehran was Terror Central originated in 1979 when Iranians held 52 American diplomats hostage for some 400 days. When Iran then used covert operatives and proxy forces to wage war on Western targets after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Reagan administration depicted Iran as the biggest state sponsor of terrorism. The charge stuck, even as Iran’s revolutionary fervor cooled and factions within the government pursued better relations with Washington.

Since 9/11, however, Iran’s attacks on Western targets have dwindled while the violence of non-state anti-Iranian terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS has gone global. Read the NCTC reports of the last 20 years, and you will see Iranian/Shiite terrorism is not even a category in U.S. counterterrorism reporting. By any objective measure, it is a much smaller threat to Americans and the world than either Sunni terrorism or white nationalist terrorism.

Looking for specifics, I emailed a couple of experts and asked for their take on the State Department claim. Which Americans were killed by Iran? When?

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA station chief, replied by email, “The best case is in Iraq after 2003 when IRGC supported Iraqis [who] killed US troops.” Bruce Hoffman, counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, told me via email that the State Department was probably referring “to the intense fighting in Sadr City in Baghdad in 2008 between IRGC and U.S. military forces.”

If so, however, that wouldn’t exactly qualify as terrorism. In Sadr City, the IRGC forces attacked uniformed U.S. military forces that had invaded Iraq on a false pretense—hardly the same as blowing up a civilian airliner or shooting up a rock concert.

Hoffman also emphasized that the IRGC was involved in terror attacks against Americans in the 20th century, which is both indisputably true and a long time ago.

“The IRGC had a role in training Hezbollah and providing logistical assistance for the US embassy bombings in Beirut in 1983 and 1984 and the US Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport also in 1983,” Hoffman wrote. “They were also likely involved in the kidnappings, torture and deaths of CIA Station Chief William Buckley in 1985, of USMC Col William Higgins in 1989.”

Bombing an embassy—even one that housed a hostile CIA station—is clearly an act of terrorism. But the 241 U.S. Marines killed by a car bomber were sent to Lebanon in support of the brutal 1982 Israeli invasion. After the Marine barracks bombing, President Ronald Reagan quickly withdrew the U.S. forces, knowing full well he had not sent American boys on a peacekeeping mission. He had sent them into a war zone on the side of the Israeli invaders. The Marines were victims of war, not terrorism.

The last terror attack on Americans, plausibly linked to Iran or its proxies, was the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel. That happened 22 years ago.

In 2001, Iran cooperated fully with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that sought to rout Al Qaeda from their mountain redoubt. The Iranians wanted to take down Osama bin Laden (and his anti-Shiite ideology) too. When Al Qaeda leader Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed fled to Iran late that year, according to reporting later published by The Atlantic, Iranian officials reached out to the U.S., proposing that Iran collect Al Qaeda operatives crossing its borders and transfer them to U.S. custody “in exchange for normalizing relations.”

The Bush White House declined, instead denouncing Iran as part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union. So Iran later let the suspected terrorists leave the country. If the Great Satan didn’t want them, why should the Iranians care?

The Iranian actions that could arguably fit a broad definition of terrorism are the taking of hostages, like Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. These legalized kidnappings and ensuing torture are a gross violation of human rights. They have also, however, taken place on Iranian soil—making them not all that different from actions undertaken by repressive regimes in Turkey, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea, with whom President Trump seems intent on pursuing détente.

None of this is to excuse various actions of the Iranian government. In its treatment of some of its own people—environmentalists, women who throw off the hijab, independent bloggers—the Iranian government has a terrible record, and the IRGC is part of its repressive apparatus.

But what history tells us about Iranian terrorism is this:

Iranian forces and the IRGC will engage in violent attacks on American uniformed personnel when the U.S. (or Israeli) troops invade its neighbors. When threatened with American or Zionist attacks, the Iranians are likely to target U.S. military and intelligence personnel and not to care about the inevitable civilian casualties.

If Iran is not provoked by invasion of neighboring lands, the IRGC does not attack Americans. At least, that is the record of the last twenty years. And that is likely part of the reason why CIA and Pentagon officials reportedly opposed Trump’s decision on Monday: The U.S. has nothing to gain by antagonizing a state that in recent history has only attacked American targets when antagonized.

Research for this story was contributed by Daniel Ortiz.