Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
Vol. 15, No. 19 June 23, 2015
- According to the State Department’s June 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism: “ISIL and Al Qaeda were far from the only serious threat that confronted the United States and its allies. Iran continued to sponsor terrorist groups around the world, principally through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force.”
- “Iran tried to smuggle weapons to Palestinian terror groups in Gaza and that, while still focusing on the Middle East, also stepped up efforts to boost its influence in Africa, Asia, and, to a lesser extent, South America.”
- “Iran assists a number of Palestinian and other terror organizations…. Iran refuses to prosecute senior Al Qaeda figures residing on its soil and allows them to operate there.”
- U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on June 17: “Iranian malign influence in the region is the other major challenge to our strategy in the Middle East besides ISIL; I have the responsibility to make sure the military option is real…. Second, we have the responsibility to have the posture in the region that we do to check Iranian influence, and then last, we’re very committed to the defense of Israel….”
- After an April 2015 letter of complaint from Members of Congress, National Intelligence Director James Clapper admitted before the hearing that the 2015 intelligence threat assessment had not given full information on Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism.
Iran’s continued involvement in terror both within and outside of the Middle East and the harmful impact of its involvement on Middle Eastern stability was again on the U.S. agenda last week. U.S. focus is particularly notable as the declared date (June 30, 2015) for the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers approaches and in light of the U.S. administration’s tendency in recent months to downplay Iran’s terror activity to avoid sabotaging the nuclear talks.
Notably, however, the U.S. State Department’s annual summary, Country Reports on Terrorism 2014, again puts Iran on the list of states that support and encourage terror, emphasizing Iran’s activity in the Middle East. Early this month, a group of senators sent a letter to National Intelligence Director James Clapper pointing out that his worldwide threat assessment for 2015 had made little reference to Iran’s involvement in terror. They remarked that, despite the nuclear negotiations, Iran has continued to export terror and undermine stability in the Middle East. They asked whether references to Iran’s behavior in earlier drafts were intentionally removed, and if so, who ordered their removal.
As expected, Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Marziyeh Afkham, termed the Country Report “baseless, repetitive and politically motivated.” She added that leveling accusations against Iran “for three decades1 is nothing but an attempt to divert attention from the real supporters of terrorism. Iran has been the great victim of terrorism.”
Although the first chapter of the State Department’s report, “Strategic Assessment,” puts ISIL and radical Islam (“violent extremists”) at the top of the list of challenges facing the United States and its allies, it also assigns a central role to Iran’s ongoing involvement in terror and weapons proliferation:
ISIL and AQ [Al Qaeda] were far from the only serious threat that confronted the United States and its allies. Iran continued to sponsor terrorist groups around the world, principally through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). These groups included Lebanese Hizbullah, several Iraqi Shia militant groups, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. Iran, Hizbullah, and other Shia militias continued to provide support to the Assad regime, dramatically bolstering its capabilities, prolonging the civil war in Syria, and worsening the human rights and refugee crisis there. Iran supplied quantities of arms to Syria and continued to send arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions. Finally, Iran used Iraqi Shia militants and high profile appearances by Qods Force officials on the front lines of Iraq to claim credit for military successes against ISIL and to belittle coalition airstrikes and U.S. contributions to the Government of Iraq’s ongoing fight against ISIL.2
Chapter 3 of the report, which deals with “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” again puts Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria on the list of terror-supporting states. The chapter notes that Iran was already “designated” as a terror-supporting state in 1984 and gives an elaborate rundown of the various spheres in which it operates. It says Iran tried to smuggle weapons to Palestinian terror groups in Gaza and that, while still focusing on the Middle East; it also stepped up efforts to boost its influence in Africa, Asia, and, to a lesser extent, South America. The document states further that the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is the operative arm of Iran’s foreign policy and the mechanism for cultivating and sponsoring foreign terror elements, provides cover for intelligence operations and sows instability in the Middle East.3
The report refers extensively to Iran’s harmful role and deep involvement in terror:
- In the Syrian crisis, including active IRGC involvement and aid to Hizbullah:
Iran views Syria as a crucial causeway in its weapons supply route to Lebanese Hizbullah, its primary beneficiary, and as a key pillar in its “resistance” front. In 2014, Iran continued to provide arms, financing, training, and the facilitation of primarily Iraqi Shia and Afghan fighters to support the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of at least 191,000 people in Syria….
- In Iraq:
Iran increased training and funding to Iraqi Shia militia groups in response to ISIL’s advance into Iraq. Many of these groups, such as Kata’ib Hizbullah (KH), have exacerbated sectarian tensions in Iraq and have committed serious human rights abuses against primarily Sunni civilians. The IRGC-QF, in concert with Lebanese Hizbullah, provided training outside of Iraq as well as advisors inside Iraq for Shia militants in the construction and use of sophisticated improvised explosive device (IED) technology and other advanced weaponry. Similar to Hizbullah fighters, many of these trained Shia militants have used these skills to fight for the Assad regime in Syria or against ISIL in Iraq.
- Assistance to Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah:
Iran has historically provided weapons, training, and funding to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ).… Although Hamas’s ties to Tehran have been strained due to the Syrian civil war, in a November 25, 2014 speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei highlighted Iran’s military support to “Palestinian brothers” in Gaza and called for the West Bank to be similarly armed…. Iran has also assisted in rearming Lebanese Hizbullah, in direct violation of UNSCR 1701. Iran has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Lebanese Hizbullah in Lebanon and has trained thousands of its fighters at camps in Iran. These trained fighters have used these skills in direct support of the Assad regime in Syria and, to a lesser extent, in support of operations against ISIL in Iraq….
Chapter 6 on “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” blames Iran as assisting a number of Palestinian and other terror organizations, including: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), different factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (the military wing of Fatah), the Hizbullah Brigades in Iraq, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Gama’a al-Islamiyya (in Egypt).
- Al Qaeda: Iran refuses to prosecute senior Al Qaeda figures residing on its soil and allows them to operate there.
The report further notes that Iran remains a “state of proliferation concern” despite the fact that it has fulfilled, according to the report, its commitments in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA): “Despite multiple UNSCRs requiring Iran to suspend its sensitive nuclear proliferation activities, Iran continued to be in noncompliance with its international obligations regarding its nuclear program….”
On June 17, before the publication of the State Department’s terrorism report, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey testified to the House Armed Services Committee on ISIS and U.S. strategy in the Middle East.4 In the opening remarks for the hearing, Congressman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, said Iran was continuing to fund and equip the Taliban with the aim of fomenting instability and subverting U.S. interests. Thornberry observed that over the past six years the White House has provided no real answer to the negative trends in the Middle East and their ramifications on its allies and on Israel’s security. Defense Secretary Carter, in his opening remarks, referred to Iran’s “malign influence” in the Middle East:
Our core interests, for example, drive our actions to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon…. That’s why we have 35,000 forces postured throughout the region, enabling us to strike ISIL and al-Qaeda terrorists and check Iranian malign influence…. That’s why we’re supporting Saudi Arabia in protecting its territory and people from Houthi attacks, and supporting international efforts to prevent Iranian shipments of lethal equipment from reaching Houthi and Saleh-affiliated forces in Yemen….
During the question-and-answer session, Carter was asked several times about Iran’s deleterious impact on the Middle East beyond the nuclear-talks issue. Asked by the committee chairman about the administration’s strategy vis-à-vis Iran’s growing influence in the region, the defense secretary said:
Iranian malign influence in the region is the other major challenge to our strategy in the Middle East besides ISIL. … I think I would go back to the foundation there, which is [that] checking that malign influence and defending our ally Israel and keeping our security commitments to our Gulf partners…is the reason why there are 35,000 U.S. forces based in the Middle East. To provide that foundation of security for our friends and allies and to check Iranian malign influence…. It’s not just in Iraq. It’s elsewhere around the region. So it is another very significant challenge for us, and it really is the reason why we are postured in the way we are in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary: Military Option Is Real
Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado) referred to nuclear expert Olli Heinonen’s testimony to Congress, in which Heinonen said two conditions had to be met so as to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons: unannounced inspections and visits to any location including military facilities. Without those two elements, Heinonen asserted, a deal simply could not work. Lamborn asked the two administration officials if they agreed. Carter replied that he agreed with President Obama’s statement that “no deal is better than a bad deal, and it has to be verifiable.” Carter repeated the point that Iran and ISIS pose the two main challenges to Middle Eastern stability and to U.S. interests in the region and said that while the U.S. military has no direct role in the nuclear talks, “I have the responsibility to make sure the military option is real, and believe me, we work on that to make that real. Second, we have the responsibility to have the posture in the region that we do to check Iranian influence, and then last, we’re very committed to the defense of Israel….”
Gen. Dempsey added, “If there is a deal I’ve got work to do with [the United States’ regional partners] and if there is not a deal I’ve got work to do with them….”
A Deliberate Omission
Before the hearing it was reported5 that National Intelligence Director James Clapper had admitted that the 2015 intelligence threat assessment had not given full information on Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. In a letter to the Senate dated June 3, 2015 Clapper said that “the…assessment could have been more specific about the Iranian threat to United States’ interests. He emphasized that the omissions from a general report do not mean the intelligence community is ignoring that threat.”
As Clapper stated in the letter:6
A specific reference to the terrorist threat from Iran and Hizbullah – which was not included in any of the drafts of the testimony – would have been appropriate for the 2015 assessment, but the lack of its inclusion is in no way a change in the intelligence community’s assessment.
Clapper admitted that the administration had “wrongly excluded references to the global terrorism threat posed by Iran and its terror affiliate Hizbullah in the 2015 World Threat.”7
Clapper’s letter came in response to the abovementioned letter from several senators asking why the references to Iran had been omitted from the worldwide threat assessment. 8
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