(This article first appeared in the December edition of the Near East Report, which can be found here.)
The frequency of Iranian-backed terrorist attacks in Western countries is increasing. Even as the United States has reimposed sanctions, and as Tehran’s financial situation becomes direr, the regime’s commitment to using terrorism abroad—and particularly, to financing terrorist activity in the U.S. and Europe—is accelerating. Since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, its regime “has made it a policy of state to actively direct, facilitate and carry out terrorist activity globally,” as a September U.S. State Department report noted.
More and more nations are recognizing Tehran’s direct sponsorship of international terrorism. The United States designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984, and views Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. The European Union (EU) designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force as a terrorist group in 2010. In Oct. 2016, the U.N. ambassadors of eight Arab states sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General urging action against Iran’s state-sponsored promotion of terrorism.
Recently, Tehran has doubled down on its terrorist activities targeting Europe and the United States. While effective cooperation between U.S., European and Israeli intelligence agencies has often disrupted these plots, the increase in the incidence of Iranian-sponsored terrorism should be a cause for international concern and condemnation. The abovementioned State Department report also found that: “The pace of these [terrorist] activities indicates that Iran remains committed to using terrorism to achieve its objectives and is confident in its ability to operate anywhere in the world.”
How Iran Conducts International Terrorism
Iran uses two main bodies to carry out terrorist activity abroad. Officially, Tehran conducts attacks using its Quds Force—the international and special operations arm of the IRGC—and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). Both these governmental institutions report directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose office, according to a 2012 U.S. government report, selects which group will be responsible for each terrorist initiative. When Tehran wants to disguise its role in specific acts, it uses its terrorist proxies—particularly Lebanon-based Hezbollah—to conduct acts of terrorism on its behalf.
The Quds Force and Iran’s intelligence agencies frequently use official diplomatic cover in Western countries in order to plan and execute terrorist acts with impunity. Tehran recently appointed several IRGC and MOIS officials to key diplomatic posts, including the current Iranian Ambassadors to Albania and Iraq.
A Wide Range of Targets
The Islamic Republic’s use of terrorism abroad can be broken down into three main types. Tehran has long targeted Iranian opposition leaders living abroad, especially in Europe. Iran also targets Jewish and Israeli sites around the world, particularly in South America. At the same time, Tehran has directly threatened U.S. interests in Europe, the Middle East and at home.
Since the regime’s founding, Iran has engaged in terrorist activity abroad involving assassinations of opposition or dissident leaders living in Europe. The CIA has estimated that Iran mounted roughly 60 such attacks between 1979 and 1994, many of which were carried out or authorized by the MOIS. These assaults occurred in Austria, France and Germany, among other countries. The most prominent targets included the Iranian Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Qassemlu, who was killed by Iranian agents along with two colleagues in Vienna in 1989, and Shapour Bakhtiar, Iran’s last pre-revolutionary prime minister who led an opposition group after his time in office, who was assassinated in France in 1991.
The Iranian regime also engages in terrorist attacks on Israeli and Jewish facilities worldwide. The Quds Force masterminded most of these plots and used Hezbollah to carry out the attacks. The deadliest examples are the bombings at the Israeli Embassy to Argentina in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed a combined total of 114 Israelis and Argentinians. More recently, Hezbollah conducted an attack in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and a local bus driver in 2012. Iran targeted Israeli diplomatic facilities in Azerbaijan and Thailand in 2012, but Israeli intelligence foiled these plots.
Lastly, Tehran has directed terrorism at Americans and U.S. interests. Iran, through Hezbollah, has targeted U.S. service members and diplomats, most notably in the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing and the 1983 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon. The 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia was perpetrated by another IRGC-controlled terrorist group, Saudi Hezbollah. Combined, these attacks killed 277 U.S. citizens. In 2011, the IRGC recruited an Iranian-American dual citizen to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.—an act that would have almost certainly killed Americans in the restaurant had the FBI not thwarted the plot. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice arrested two Iranians for surveilling Jewish sites in Chicago and collecting information about Iranian opposition supporters in the United States.
While the U.S. recently has experienced relatively few Iranian-backed terrorist attacks compared to Europe, the trajectory of Tehran’s behavior indicates that America must remain vigilant. Recently, Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani posted a photo on Instagram of himself in front of the White House alight in flames with the tagline: “We will crush the USA under our feet.”
Recent Iranian Plots Disrupted in Europe
Iran has been engaged in espionage and terrorism within Europe for decades. A German government report recently noted that between 2007 and 2017 federal and state authorities investigated 22 cases of alleged Iranian espionage in Germany. Recent Iranian-backed terrorist plots have been uncovered in Germany, Turkey, Albania, Cyprus, Azerbaijan and Kenya, among other countries.
In the past several months, several high-profile actions against Iranian terrorist plots in Europe have shed light on Tehran’s methodology and ambitions.
In June, four Iranians, including an Iranian diplomat, plotted to bomb a conference in Paris. The meeting of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) included prominent American speakers such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, as well as several former European and Arab ministers. Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat based in Austria, approached two Iranian nationals living in Europe for information about the NCRI in 2014. In the years since, the couple worked with Assadi in exchange for money. Belgian authorities arrested the couple in June in possession of 500 grams of the high explosive TATP that they planned to detonate at the conference. Assadi personally provided the couple with the explosives. According to a French diplomat, Iranian Deputy Intelligence Minister Saeid Hashemi Moghadam ordered the plot.
In another incident, the Dutch government expelled two Iranian diplomats in July without public explanation. The decision was apparently based on these individuals’ involvement in the assassination of at least one Iranian dissident in the Netherlands, which was coordinated by the MOIS. Press reports suggest that the diplomats were involved in the November 2017 murder of Ahmad Nissi, the founder of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), a prominent Iranian opposition group.
Lastly, in September, Danish law enforcement staged a nationwide operation to stop an Iranian-backed plan to kill a member of ASMLA. “We are dealing with an Iranian intelligence agency planning an attack on Danish soil. Obviously, we can’t and won’t accept that,” Danish Intelligence Chief Finn Borch Andersen said in October.
The United States has repeatedly condemned Tehran’s terrorist activity. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained in July 2018: “This [the Iranian terrorist plot in Paris] tells you everything you need to know about the regime: At the same time they’re trying to convince Europe to stay in the nuclear deal, they’re covertly plotting terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe.”
Tackling Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is a major part of the administration’s strategy of maximizing economic pressure on Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo outlined twelve demands of Iran in May, which included the requirement that “Iran, too, must end the IRGC Quds Force’s support for terrorists and militant partners around the world.”
Moreover, several European countries are demanding consequences for Iran’s terrorism. For instance, Denmark is urging the EU to institute sanctions against Iran following the attempted terrorist attack the country experienced in September, an initiative supported by at least eight other EU countries.
While European leaders have condemned the attacks and some countries have called for increased sanctions on Iran, little action has actually been taken. Europe should impose sanctions on Tehran and those responsible for these attacks, in addition to recognizing and sanctioning the entirety of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In addition, the EU must cease business with Iranian airlines that facilitate terrorism and prevent these planes from flying into Europe.
It is essential that maximum pressure be put on Iran to compel the regime to end its support for terrorism. While most of the recent Iranian-backed attacks were thwarted before ending in tragedy, it is clear that unless Iran is forced to pay a higher price for its actions, Tehran’s efforts to conduct terrorism abroad will not soon abate.
Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report