Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlia, Israel, also lectures at the University of Haifa.
In recent years, several states with a history of sponsoring terrorism-Cuba, Syria, and Libya-have reduced their activities somewhat . But not so the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has maintained and even intensified its use of political violence against civilians.
Iran's brutal policy, which has led to an American economic embargo and diplomatic isolation, causing much strain on Iran's economy and its internal stability, appears to contradict Tehran's interests. Given the high price, why do Iran's leaders continue to sponsor terrorism? What considerations favor the use of terrorism and what are the constraints on it? Can American and European policies influence Tehran's decision-making on this issue?
Historically, terrorism began as an instrument of outlawed organizations or aggressive intelligence services;1 no longer. It is now a considered policy promoted at the highest governmental echelons, sometimes even with religious sanction. In contrast to Palestinian terrorism, which since its origins in the 1960s has mostly resulted from operational necessities and strategic constraints, Iranian terrorism has a strong ideological basis and receives its legitimacy from revolutionary Islamic dogma itself. Indeed, the Islamic regime that has ruled Iran since 1979 sees terror as a legitimate tool for both internal and foreign purposes.
The Khomeinist doctrine that reigns in Iran views Islam and the Iranian revolution as one; fidelity to the regime is tantamount to duty to Islam. The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi, speaking against the reformers in the camp of President Muhammad Khatami, says that those not respecting the regime's Islamic values are "either uninformed or hostile" to it; and that "the country's senior officials ... are prepared to give their lives and assets to safeguard these values." As for the people of Iran, "everyone wants Islam; and everyone's Islam is the Islamic Republic." Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson Hasan Khomeini, defended his grandfather's legacy by demanding recognition of the principle of velayat-i faqih (rule of the religious leader); for him, it is fundamental to obey the faqih, and anyone who opposes him "will be taken care of by the Revolution."2 An offense against the regime is an offense to Islam and must be punished, whether the offender lives in Iran or abroad. This is one of the central motives behind the regime's indoctrination effort to maintain the unity of the revolutionary camp and fight its enemies.3
Defending what they understand to be the interests of Islam, Iranian leaders consider legitimate the liquidation of opposition leaders and militants. In other words, attacking enemies of the regime, Muslim or non-Muslim, is a sacred task, even if it implies a conflict with the local authorities. All these themes became explicit with Khomeini's 1989 fatwa (edict) calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, a British subject living in Great Britain, for writing a book deemed anti-Islamic (as opposed to anti-Iranian).
This Iranian outlook has deep implications. For one, it leads to a need to struggle against alien ideological and cultural influences, especially those coming from the West. This in turn has led Tehran to adopt jihad (sacred war) against what it calls the "imperialist onslaught" of the United States, the "Great Satan," and its allies. For another, it requires the destruction of Israel, closest ally of the United States in the region, "the Lesser Satan," an unnatural creature of Britain and the United States, implanted on sacred Arab and Muslim soil, and "the state of the infidel Jews that humiliates Islam, the Qur'an, the government of Islam, and the nation of Islam."4
State-sponsored terrorism, both at home and abroad, has therefore been an integral element of the Islamic regime's political arsenal from the outset. Internally, when the Iranian regime faces problems in establishing a model Muslim society, it does not hesitate to use all forms of violence and terror in order to crush its perceived opponents. For instance, in September 1988, after the war with Iraq ended, it appears to have executed thousands of political prisoners.5 In recent years, numerous cases of extrajudicial executions of Iranians have continued, mostly of intellectuals or members of religious minorities.6
Externally, virtually all governmental factions agree that the main goal of Iranian foreign policy is to spread its Islamic message to Muslims everywhere in the hopes they will carry out their own revolution.7 In this spirit, Ayatollah Khamene'i once declared that "exporting the revolution is like glitter of the sun whose rays ... brighten the entire world."8 Tehran sees in the spread of its model a confirmation of its own ideology and ideals.
PATTERNS Of IRANIAN TERRORISM: OVER TIME
A survey of the period 1979-969 reveals some noteworthy patterns of Iranian terrorism that help explain why it flourishes at certain times and not at others.
In its first years, the use of terrorism against Westerners achieved important goals for the Iranian revolutionary regime. Suicide bombings and other acts of violence in Lebanon led to the expulsion of American and French troops from the country and the entrenchment of Israeli troops in the South Lebanese buffer zone, permitting Iran to obtain an important stronghold on Israel's northern border. Then, as the Iran/contra affair of 1986 revealed, the liberation of American hostages also brought benefits, including badly needed missile hardware to use in the war against Iraq. In France, terrorist attacks by Iranian agents in 1985-86 reduced French military assistance to Iraq and helped resolve in Iran's favor a dispute concerning Iranian financial assets frozen in French banks.
In 1989, after Khomeini's death and the end of the war with Iraq, the election of 'Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani to the presidency raised hopes in the West that he would pursue a more moderate foreign policy. Although Rafsanjani did solve most of Iran's outstanding issues with the Western powers (the hostages in Lebanon, Iranian agents involved in acts of terror in Europe), Tehran early in his presidency intensified its terrorist activities.10
Again, terrorism worked. It greatly enhanced Iran's standing in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and throughout the Muslim world, making it a model and a patron for many Islamist groups. Radical movements across the Middle East (and practically wherever there are Islamist elements) had accepted and emulated the Iranian leaders' religious ideology and methods. After 1989, Iranian involvement with Islamist movements expanded to include the Islamic Group in Egypt, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Israel. The Islamic-oriented military coup in Sudan enhanced Tehran's influence in Egypt and North Africa.
Other than a few attacks in Turkey, no Iranian terrorist activity took place soon after the Kuwait crisis began (that is, from October 1990). Iran's leaders avoided taking provocative steps during the Kuwait crisis, waiting to see the results of a campaign that would greatly influence Iraq's strategic standing.
America's standing after the Kuwait war as the only superpower, plus its determination to lay the foundations of democratic and liberal order did pose a problem. But the complete Iraqi defeat followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union gave Tehran confidence in its strategic position. Soon after the end of the war, beginning in May 1991, a series of assassinations of opposition militants took place, the most conspicuous being the August 1991 murder of the ex-prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar in Paris. It soon resumed the campaign to eliminate the Iranian opposition living abroad-notably those living in Western countries whose governments had shown weakness in the face of Iranian resolve.
More dramatic, when Washington sponsored the Madrid Conference of October 1991, beginning an Arab-Israeli negotiation process that Tehran perceived as a threat to itself, it responded by convening a parallel conference in Tehran to unite radical organizations hostile to negotiations with Israel.11 At the closing of the Tehran conference, the regime decided to support the "Palestinian resistance" and establish a high-level committee to unite radical organizations hostile to negotiations with Israel and prepared to continue the struggle in an Islamic front under Iranian leadership. Iran provided weapons to Hizbullah and training for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Support of the rejectionist and radical Palestinians is one of the few issues where Iran's ideological-revolutionary and national-pragmatic interests coincide.
During the period 1992-94, about eight terrorist attacks, five of them against opposition militants, were perpetrated each year, in addition to attacks on opposition forces in Iraq. Only one major assassination attack took place in 1995, an astonishing decline compared to previous and subsequent years.
Then, in 1996, a sharp resurgence in Iranian activity took place, in effect a return to the pattern of the 1980s-indiscriminate terrorist attacks against civil targets. In March a huge mortar was discovered on an Iranian ship in Antwerp (Belgium) especially designed by the Iranian military industry for the bombing of a civilian target in Germany or France. In May, a similar mortar was discovered in Baghdad, pointed towards the headquarters of Mujahidin-e Khalq (the People's Mujahedeen), an Iranian opposition group. Iran appears also to have been involved in the suicide bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, killing nineteen American military personnel.12 In addition, seven Iranian dissidents were murdered in France, Turkey, and Iraq.
The culmination of this Iranian subversive activity occurred during February-March 1996, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide attacks practically stopped the Arab-Israeli negotiations and contributed to the fall of the Peres government in Israel. At about the same period, direct evidence first appeared of Iranian involvement in the training and preparation of Palestinian terrorists sent to Israel by the Islamic organizations. The arrested terrorists, Khalil 'Ayta (Islamic Jihad, Shiqaqi faction) and Hasan Salama (Hamas), provided evidence of Iranian involvement in the supply of logistic and financial assistance and training to their organizations. Hizbullah's first terrorist operation within Israel proper took place in April 1996 when Muhammad Husayn Miqdad, a Lebanese Shi'i and accountant for Hizbullah's social welfare services in Lebanon, arrived by plane from Zurich to Tel Aviv with bomb parts hidden in a carry-on bag, then entered Israel on a forged British passport under the name Andrew Newman. A maverick terrorist, Miqdad was trained at the Iranian embassy in Beirut. He checked into a hotel in East Jerusalem on April 9, where he assembled a bomb to explode in a public place. Miqdad was badly wounded on April 12 when the bomb accidentally detonated.
In 1997, Iran was behind at least thirteen assassinations of opposition militants abroad, mainly in Iraq. At the end of the year a German citizen, recruited by Hizbullah, tried to enter Israel in order to perpetrate a terrorist attack, similar to the penetration operation of 1996 undertaken by a Lebanese Hizbullah activist. It seems that no serious Iranian-sponsored attacks occurred at all in 1998.
In September 1997, Iran's new leadership affirmed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie that has been in effect since 1989, stating once again that its revocation is impossible since the author of the fatwa, Ayatollah Khomeini, is deceased. The 15 Khordad Foundation is still offering a $2.5 million reward for executing Rushdie. 'Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the speaker of the Iranian parliament declared in early 1998 that he hoped Muslims would kill Salman Rushdie, the British author of The Satanic Verses.13
PATTERNS OF IRANIAN TERRORISM: VICTIMS
As the above survey indicates, the targets of Tehran's wrath are threefold: Iranian activists in exile, American and Western individuals and installations, Israelis and later Jews.
Attacks on Iranian exiles. Terrorists assassinated some seventy Iranian opposition leaders and activists outside Iran during the period 1979-96: thirty of these murders took place in the first eleven years (1979-90) and forty took place in the last six (1991-96). The rate of killings, in other words, picked up substantially after Rafsanjani became president, quite contrary to the optimistic evaluations in the West that he would diminish the radical terrorist policy of the regime.
Attacks on Westerners. Iran brutally attacked American and Western targets in the 1980s, mainly through proxies: major incidents included the bombings in Beirut of the American embassy and of American and French troops in 1983. Then, apart from attacks against individuals connected with The Satanic Verses, Iran avoided strikes against Westerners during the 1990s. Two exceptions seem to have occurred in 1996, however, when it sought to deploy a "supermortar" in a European country and it seems to have been involved in the attack on U.S. soldiers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Attacks on Israelis. Until late 1991, Tehran let Hizbullah, its Lebanese proxy, strike Israeli military objectives in Lebanon; it did not attack any Israeli or Jewish targets abroad. After the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991, Iran began a spate of deadly attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets.14 It seems that the Arab-Israeli negotiations underway cause Tehran to perceive Israel as a threat not just to its ideological doctrine but also to its strategic interests.
Locales. It bears noting which countries the Iranians chose for carrying out attacks. Of the forty persons killed in 1991-96, thirteen were attacked in Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan, eight in Turkey, and four each in Germany and France. Eleven others were killed around the world, including Japan (the translator of Rushdie's Satanic Verses). By all standards, the countries in which the most killings took place are important ones: Turkey is a regional power with which Iran has conflicting strategic interests but also significant common economic stakes; Germany and France led the "critical dialogue" between the European Union (EU) and Iran and have been among the most sympathetic and helpful Western states to Iran. Despite their importance, Tehran felt strong enough to inflict repeated blows on them without fear of losing financial assistance or imperiling key commercial ties.
What lies behind these patterns of behavior, causing the regime to hit certain nationalities at certain times, and not at others? The policies towards Iran of the leading European countries and the United States appear to be the key determinant in Iranian actions. The record shows that a tough policy leads to reduced terror, while a more accommodating approach leads to more of it. To see this, it helps to look at recent years in terms of Western policies and Iranian responses.
1992-94. At the Group of Seven summit, a meeting of the seven leading industrial states, in Munich in July 1992, the United States proposed a strong condemnation of Iranian policies concerning terrorism, human rights, and nuclear armament. The Europeans, especially the Germans, opposed the American initiative, leading to its withdrawal. In December 1992, at their summit meeting in Edinburgh, the European Union countries, led by France and Germany, opened what they called a "critical dialogue" with Iran, a combination of quiet diplomatic pressures and generous economic advantages. They did this in the conviction it would strengthen Rafsanjani's position in internal struggles against the radicals who they thought forced an aggressive foreign policy on him. In effect, they sought to bribe him to soften the Iranian stand on the key outstanding issues.
Soon after, the Clinton administration in May 1993 responded with the "dual containment" policy, which sought to neutralize Iraq and induce Iran to improve its behavior. Specifically, Washington limited American investments in Iran and banned the sale of advanced technology to it, hoping that this pressure would induce Tehran to reduce its support for terrorism, its opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and its quest for non-conventional weapons. European governments and Japan rebuffed American appeals to join the dual-containment bandwagon. Instead, they continued their "constructive dialogue" and increased economic assistance and investments in Iran while allowing Iran's foreign debt to be extended. By helping Iran from becoming internationally isolated and keeping its finances balanced, they implicitly supported the continuation of Iran's aggressive policies. This approach dominated for two and a half years.
1995. In 1995, for the first time, the Iranian regime sensed European and American resolve, with possible Russian support, and it feared isolation, with all its political, economic and internal consequences. The West's tough approach explains Iran's sudden and dramatic drop in support for terrorism. The Clinton administration then carried out several more stringent steps, under strong congressional pressure, culminating in April 1995 with the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, a total embargo of trade with Iran. A first sign of possible European change in approach came at the Group of Seven summit in Halifax in June 1995, which also included Russia, when for the first time, the final resolution urged Iran to abandon terrorism; in addition, the summit leaders commissioned an experts' group to investigate and report back to them on Iran's behavior.
The Europeans also seemed prepared to put this firm stand into practice. They urged President Rafsanjani to publish a formal statement renouncing the fatwa against Rushdie, which had poisoned relations between Europe and Iran since 1989. But this came to naught; the fatwa having been issued by Ayatollah Khomeini himself, founder of the revolution, no Iranian politician dared contradict it, much less try to annul it. The Europeans also criticized Iran's opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process and called for an end to its support for the terrorist organizations assaulting Israel. Tough negotiations between the two sides over several months seemed to lead to a significant change in the Iranian positions. Also in 1995, a French judge actively and successfully pursued investigations concerning Iranian terrorist attacks on French soil; meanwhile, French police cracked down on Iranian diplomats suspected of involvement in Algerian terrorist activity. In Germany, two Iranian intelligence agents were expelled in connection with a plan to assassinate more Iranian opposition leaders in Germany. The German media published legal findings showing the involvement of 'Ali Fallahian, Iranian minister of intelligence in the September 1992 assassination of four Kurdish opposition leaders in Berlin, at the Mykonos Restaurant.
Since 1995. But this policy of confrontation proved to be short-lived; Europeans still preferred to appease the Iranian regime with what they called "economical incentives." Subsequent Group of Seven summits (December 1995 in Ottawa and June 1996 in Lyon) did not mention Iranian involvement in international terrorism. The Sharm-el-Shekh conference of March 1996, summoned by President Clinton after deadly suicide attacks carried out by Islamic organizations in Israel, did not allude to the Iranian part in devising and glorifying these acts of terror; the EU and Arabs feared that this would reinforce "radical elements" in Tehran.
A weakening of Western policy explains the subsequent upsurge in Iranian-backed terrorism. In March 1996, a German court issued an arrest warrant for 'Ali Fallahian for his role in the Mykonos case. In April 1997, the court publicly asserted that the government of Iran had followed a deliberate policy of liquidating the regime's opponents who lived outside Iran, including the opposition Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). The judge stated that the Mykonos murders had been approved at the most senior levels of the Iranian government by an extralegal committee whose members included the minister of intelligence and security, the foreign minister, the president, and the supreme leader.15 The Mykonos judgment notwithstanding, the Europeans hurriedly sent back to Tehran their ambassadors who had been withdrawn several months earlier.
In the 395-page verdict in the Mykonos murder, the Berlin court stated that Tehran chose Berlin as the venue of the attack because of "good relations" with the Federal Republic of Germany, which gave the mullahs reason to believe that terrorism "would not be followed by any serious reactions by the German state."16 The Iranian leadership, in other words, could well imagine that a more aggressive terrorist policy against Western interests, similar to that at the beginning of the 1980s, would yield a payoff. The open threats against German judicial officials or German citizens and interests in Iran, acts of terror against Israelis and Jews, and even the assassination of an opposition leader in France, clearly carried this message. The isolation of the United States and the renewed interest of French companies to invest in Iran's oil industry seems to have convinced Iranian leaders the time was ripe to strike at vital strategic American interests such as the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia; in any case, they struck two such facilities in 1995-96.
Even the American administration, finding "dual containment" dying and eager to strengthen the new Khatami government, also joined the bandwagon; in May 1998, the Clinton administration waived sanctions against the French, Russian, and Malaysian firms involved in developing Iran's South Pars gas field. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explained the decision as due to, "among other factors, the significant, enhanced cooperation the U.S. has achieved with the European Union and Russia in accomplishing ILSA [Iran and Libya Sanctions Act]'s primary objective of inhibiting Iran's ability to develop weapons of mass destruction and support of terrorism."17
British and Turkish conduct during this period underscores this point. One of the promoters of critical dialogue with Iran in 1992, London became increasingly suspicious of this approach, firmly demanding the revocation of the Rushdie fatwa and taking all measures to prevent any Iranian act of terror. Significantly, no Iranian terrorist activity took place on British soil. Turkey was probably the hottest battleground of the Iranian terrorist machine, with its territory both a place where many acts of terror took place and a base for deadly attacks in other European countries (such as the assassination of Bakhtiar in France). Iranian terrorist activity in Turkey was remarkable not only for its frequency and the large number and diversity of targets attacked, but also for the steady aggression launched against Turkish citizens belonging to the secular intellectual and media elite, as well as the extensive assistance given to radical Turkish organizations. The Turkish authorities replied very cautiously, worried about strategic and economic interests and fearing greater Iranian intervention through Islamic proxies and support for the Workers Party of Kurdistan (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan-PKK), an anti-Turkish terrorist group.
PROSPECTS FOR CHANGE
The revolutionary Islamic regime's strategic aims and political interests have hardly changed over two decades, even if their implementation has been adapted to changing realities. It has tried to improve relations with Europe without giving up its threats against the life of novelist Salman Rushdie for having written The Satanic Verses. It has improved relations with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, after years of terrorist and subversive activities against them, hoping thereby to strengthen its regional position.
President Khatami, whose election in May 1997 resulted not from external constraints but from internal discontent and a desire for change, continues this dual approach. His January 1998 interview on CNN, addressing the American people, cleverly restated long-standing Iranian positions in a friendly way that made them seem very different-though this raised sharp criticism from hard-liners. The new government made some changes in key personnel, removing Minister of Intelligence 'Ali Fallahian, one of the driving forces behind Iran's support for terrorism, and installing 'Abdallah Nuri, a foremost moderate, to the ministry of interior. However, without a far-reaching reshuffle in the key security, military, and administrative positions, no real change is possible.
With regard to support for terrorism, the signs are again contradictory. Official Saudi sources say that Tehran has promised to stop all terrorist activities against Arab countries and end its support for Islamic terrorist organizations.18 The culture and Islamic guidance minister stated that "if Israel withdraws from Lebanon under provisions of secure and final borders there would be no further need for the military activities of the Resistance [a reference to Hizbullah]."19 Moreover, Khatami sent Bill Clinton a message vowing that Iran would no longer support Islamic terrorist groups that oppose Arab-Israeli negotiations and would respect any Palestinian decision concerning a peace agreement with Israel.20
On the other hand, Khatami has declared that Iran opposes Arab-Israeli negotiations and depicts Israel as a racist, expansionist, and terrorist state.21 The flow of weapons to Hizbullah continues apace, as do the funds and military training to Palestinian terrorist groups. Representatives of terror groups meet in Tehran to coordinate activities with Iran. In December 1997, a top Hizbullah cadre trained in Iran sent a German convert to Islam to Israel to carry out acts of terror in Tel Aviv. And while Iran's foreign minister announced in September 1998 that his government would not "threaten the life of the author of The Satanic Verses or anybody associated with his work, nor will it encourage or assist anybody to do so,"22 he himself just days later denied "any change in our position."23 In addition, the hard-liners made it clear that they would not accept this undoing of Khomeini's legacy,24 so it has yet to be seen if Rushdie is indeed safe. Plenty of indicators suggest that little has changed.
In a report released in April 1998, the U.S. Department of State accurately captures the extent of changes in Iran following the election of Muhammad Khatami as president:
notwithstanding some conciliatory statements in the months after President Khatami's inauguration in August 1997, Iran remains the most active state sponsor of terrorism [from a list of seven governments accused of sponsoring international terrorism]. There is no evidence that Iranian policy has changed, and Iran continues both to provide significant support to terrorist organizations and to assassinate dissidents abroad.
The report offers specifics: for example, that Iranian agencies conducted at least thirteen assassinations of opposition militants abroad in 1997, mainly in Iraq.
In all, the observations of Shebonti Ray Dadwal, an Indian political analyst, bear attention: "Westerners only see what they want to see, and, therefore, often end up with inaccurate conclusions. One such conclusion is crediting the election of Khatami with more importance than is warranted."25 Iranian hard-liners will certainly attempt to maintain the ideologically aggressive foreign policy founded by Ayatollah Khomeini. Their recent steps to confront President Khatami and his supporters are but the beginning of a long struggle about the nature of the regime and its policies. Anything goes in the attempt to sabotage Khatami's attempts to open the regime at home and moderate its foreign policy of waging provocative acts of terror. At stake in the months ahead is not only the kind of regime the country will develop but also the fate of the conflict with the West.
In this clash of two antagonistic world-views inside the Iranian establishment, Western policy has a special importance, as the West itself is one of the subjects of discord. Instinctively, it would seem that the United States and its allies should pursue a policy of openness that would vindicate the new president and his government. Along these lines, the proposal of Congressman Lee Hamilton (Democrat of Indiana) for a detailed reassessment of policy toward Iran is very seductive.26 But it must not prevail, for although Hamilton acknowledges that Khatami by himself cannot reverse two decades of strident anti-Americanism, he does not address the problem of how to deter the hard-liners; and he is ingenuous about Khatami's intentions.
Experience suggests that only a firm and resolute stand by Western powers, cooperating among themselves, will help the Khatami government win its battle. Only as in 1995, when all the Western states were able to work in concert can they influence Iranian conduct. Otherwise they go in different directions, with Washington pursuing containment and confrontation and the rest of the world offering political dialogue and economic incentive.
Specifically, the United States and Europe should encourage and support every positive statement and action by Khatami and his aides. They should do this through diplomatic channels and through an intensive information and propaganda effort intended to reach the Iranian people directly to explain that the hard-liners-who largely control the judicial, intelligence, and terrorist apparatuses-are responsible for the continued sanctions.
But Westerners should not repeat their mistakes of 1989, when Rafsanjani came to power. They should carefully monitor every terrorist incident connected to Iran; continue investigations of past acts of terror; and pursue the judicial process (as in the Mykonos affair). Most importantly, the West must convince the hard-line leadership that any future resort to terrorism will be met with determination and that its price for Iran generally and themselves personally will be too high to pay.
1 On which, see Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), chap. 1.
©1994-2014 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes