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Iran’s Sponsorship of Terror

By Mitchell Bard

Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984, Iran has continued its terrorist-related activity, including support for HezbollahPalestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and various terrorist groups in SyriaIraq, and throughout the Middle East. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) to provide support to terrorist organizations, provide cover for associated covert operations, and create instability in the region. Iran has acknowledged the involvement of the IRGC-QF in the Iraq and Syria conflicts, and the IRGC-QF is Iran’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad. In April 2019, the Secretary of State designated the IRGC, including the Quds Force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Iran also used regional proxy forces to provide deniability in an attempt to shield it from accountability for its aggressive policies.

Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Iran has supplied Hezbollah with thousands of rockets, missiles, and small arms in direct violation of UNSCR 1701. Israeli security officials and politicians expressed concerns that Iran was supplying Hezbollah with advanced weapons systems and technologies, as well as assisting the group in creating infrastructure that would permit it to indigenously produce rockets and missiles to threaten Israel from Lebanon and Syria. Iran has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Hezbollah and trained thousands of its fighters at camps in Iran. Hezbollah fighters have been used extensively in Syria to support the Assad regime. In Bahrain, Iran has continued to provide weapons, support, and training to local Shia militant groups, including the al-Ashtar Brigades. In Yemen, Iran has provided weapons, support, and training to the Houthi militants, who have engaged in terrorist attacks against regional targets.

Iran also provided financial and material support to Hamas, various militant groups in Bahrain, and Houthi rebels in Yemen. In June 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that, in his opinion, Iranian involvement in Iraq was helping the United States in the fight against ISIS. Kerry stated, using a different name for the terrorist group, that “I can tell you that Iran in Iraq has been in certain ways helpful, and they clearly are focused on ISIL-Daesh.” Kerry added that Iran and the United States seem to have common goals in Iraq of defeating the Islamic State (CNN, June 28, 2016).

The Times of London reported that “hundreds of Taliban fighters are receiving advanced training from special forces at military academies in Iran as part of a significant escalation of support for the insurgents.” The report added, “The scale, quality, and length of the training is unprecedented and marks not only a shift in the proxy conflict between the U.S. and Iran inside Afghanistan but also a potential change in Iran’s ability and will to affect the outcome of the Afghan war (The Times, July 2, 2018).

On August 7, 2018, Nasser Shabani, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, admitted that Iran ordered Houthi rebels to attack two Saudi oil tankers in the Red Sea on July 25, 2018 (Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, August 21, 2018).

On October 30, 2018, the Danish government accused Iran’s intelligence agents of plotting the assassination of an Iranian opposition leader there in September. Earlier, French officials concluded Tehran was behind a plot to attack an Iranian opposition group meeting in Paris in late June (Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2018).

In 2019, Iran continued to support Hamas and other designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. These Palestinian terrorist groups were behind numerous deadly attacks originating in Gaza and the West Bank, including attacks against Israeli civilians in the Sinai Peninsula.

The Iranian government maintains a robust offensive cyber program and has sponsored cyber attacks against foreign government and private sector entities.

Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior Al-Qa’ida (AQ) members residing in the country and has refused to publicly identify members in its custody. Iran has allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.

As in past years, the Iranian government continued supporting terrorist plots to attack Iranian dissidents in several countries in continental Europe. In recent years, the NetherlandsBelgium, and Albania have all either arrested or expelled Iranian government officials implicated in various terrorist plots in their respective territories. Denmark similarly recalled its ambassador from Tehran after learning of an Iran-backed plot to assassinate an Iranian dissident in its country.

The Justice Department announced in January 2021 that the United States has collected $7 million of Iranian funds that will be allocated to provide compensation to American victims of international state-sponsored terrorism.

“The funds subject to today’s stipulation had been destined to benefit criminal actors who engaged in an elaborate scheme to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General David Burns of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

The $7 million will be allocated to the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, which Congress established to provide compensation to certain individuals who were injured in acts of international state-sponsored terrorism, including victims of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage situation in Iran, among others.

On February 4, 2021, Iranian diplomat Assadolah Assadi was convicted of attempted terrorism by a court in Belgium for his role in the 2018 plot to bomb an Iranian opposition group in France. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

A day later, a report said Ethiopia arrested 16 suspects from an Iranian cell who were planning an attack against the United Arab Emirates embassy in Addis Ababa.

In March, Indian intelligence concluded the  Iranian Quds Force was behind the bomb that exploded outside the Israel Embassy in Delhi on January 29, 2021. “That the bomb was not of high intensity, with no human targets in mind was perhaps because the Iranians did not want to run afoul of a friendly nation like India. But the message was clear and the threat is real,” said a counterterror expert.

German police seized documents from a car used as a mobile intelligence station by Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian spy chief who was sentenced in February 2021 to 20 years in prison for masterminding a failed bomb attack in Paris in 2018. Jake Wallis Simons reported the officers found a notebook with bomb-making and fieldwork instructions and records of trips he took to 289 locations across Europe over four years to meet agents. Documents indicated Iran had agents in at least 22 cities and plans for terror attacks using explosives, acid, and toxic pathogenic substances.

Receipts of expenses, reimbursements, records of spy salaries, and details of computers issued to agents were found along with six mobile phones, a laptop, external hard drives, and USB sticks containing intelligence training manuals, two GPS navigation devices, and more than 30,000 Euros in cash.

In April 2022,  Mossad agents in Iran captured and interrogated an Iranian who was plotting to kill a worker at the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, an American general stationed in Germany, and a journalist in France. The Quds Force, the IRGC branch responsible for overseas operations, planned to carry out the assassinations via drug cartels.

In 2023, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies published a report identifying 19 terrorist organizations on Israel’s borders:

Sources: U.S. State Department.
“U.S. Government Collects $7 Million in Iranian Assets for Victims of Terrorism Fund,” U.S. Department of Justice, (January 5, 2021).
“Belgium: Iranian diplomat convicted over 2018 bomb plot in France,” Deutsche Welle, (February 4, 2021).
“Report: Ethiopia arrests 16 in an Iranian cell planning attack on UAE embassy,” Times of Israel, (February 5, 2021).
Shishir Gupta, “Iran guided Israeli embassy blast through local module, upsets India: Officials,” Hindustan Times, (March 8, 2021).
Jake Wallis Simons, “Massive Iranian spy network in Europe revealed,” The JC, (April 8, 2021).
“Mossad operates in Iran, foils IRGC plot to kill Israeli diplomat, US general,” (Jerusalem Post, (April 30, 2022).
Joe Truzman, “Iran And Its Network Of Nineteen Terrorist Organizations On Israel’s Borders,” The Long War Journal, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, (2023)