State Department Report 1: Iran’s Support for Terrorism

On September 25, the State Department's Iran Action Group released a report detailing Iran’s support of terrorism, missile program, illicit financial activities, threat to maritime security, threat to cybersecurity, human rights abuses, and exploitation of the environment. “Today, the United States is publishing a full record of the Islamic Republic’s hostile behavior abroad and its repression at home beyond the continued threat of the nuclear program,” wrote Secretary of State Pompeo in the report’s introduction. “It is important for the world to understand the scope of the regime’s recklessness and malfeasance.” The following is the section on terrorism. 


Chapter One: Iranian Support for Terrorism 


Since 1979, Iran’s Islamic Republic has made it a policy of state to actively direct, facilitate, and carry out terrorist activity globally. Unlike almost any other country, the Islamic Republic has supported terrorism within its own military and intelligence apparatuses. Through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), the extra-territorial branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), Iran conducts attacks, assassinations, as well as supports terrorist plotting. The IRGC-QF takes the lead on Iran’s support for proxies and terrorist operations outside Iran. The organization ensures that the “continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad,” as written in the preamble of the Iranian constitution, is fully implemented. Iran uses its MOIS operatives for intelligence collection and clandestine operations outside Iran. As recently as July 2018, an MOIS agent has been implicated in a foiled terror plot on Iranian dissidents in Paris. Where it is unable or unwilling to act directly, the Iranian regime has mastered the use of terrorist proxy groups to conduct attacks on its behalf, often through unconventional means. Unlike non-state terrorist groups such as ISIS, Iran prioritizes deniability and takes pains to obscure its role in terrorist activities. But the evidence is clear: Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. 


Iran uses its IRGC-QF to advance its interests abroad, provide cover for intelligence operations, and create instability in the Middle East. Iran has acknowledged the involvement of the IRGC-QF in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the IRGC-QF is Iran’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorist proxies. Through the IRGC-QF, Iran supports several U.S.-designated terrorist groups, providing funding, training, weapons, and equipment. Among the groups receiving support from Iran are Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Kata’ib Hizballah (KH) in Iraq, and Al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB) in Bahrain. The Iranian regime has also been documented facilitating travel by senior leaders of some of these groups to Iran, often under the guise of religious education.

Beyond these U.S.-designated terrorist groups, Iran has provided weapons and support to Shia militant groups in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which are responsible for attacks against U.S. and allied troops, local government and security forces, and diplomatic missions in these countries. Thousands of primarily Shia Afghan and Pakistani foreign fighters recruited by Iran are currently fighting in Syria to prop up the brutal Assad regime, giving the Islamic Republic a potential expeditionary force it could redeploy to destabilize other regions, including in South Asia. 

Lebanese Hizballah is Iran’s most powerful terrorist partner. In the past several years, it has demonstrated its far-reaching terrorist and military capabilities. Iran’s annual financial backing to Lebanese Hizballah – a staggering $700 million per year – accounts for the overwhelming majority of the group’s annual budget. Since its successful 2012 attack in Bulgaria, Hizballah terrorist plotting has been disrupted in Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Cyprus, Guinea, Kuwait, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others. In the past six years alone, Hizballah has attempted terrorist attacks on five of the world’s seven continents. 

Significant advancements in Hizballah’s military capabilities are thanks primarily to Iran, which is supporting the development of missile production facilities inside Lebanon as well as precision guidance systems for the group’s large missile stockpile. These are dangerous developments that increase the likelihood of conflict between Hizballah and Israel and continue to undermine prospects for peace in the region. Since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah conflict, Iran has supplied Hizballah with thousands of precision rockets, missiles, and small arms. Hizballah now has more than 100,000 rockets or missiles in its stockpile. The world is already witnessing the consequences of Iran providing its proxies with lethal ballistic missile capabilities. Yemen’s Houthi militants have fired numerous ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, including two directed at Riyadh in May 2018. 

Iran also provides up to $100 million annually in combined support to Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, PIJ, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. These terrorist groups have been behind a number of deadly attacks originating from Gaza, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon, including attacks against Israeli civilians, Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula, and American citizens.

Iran’s support for Palestinian terrorist proxies furthers its own strategic interests and threatens our ally Israel, but it comes at a deep cost to the Palestinian people’s security and economic wellbeing. As the regime prioritizes funding for Palestinian terror groups, it falls well short of living up to its self-professed obligation of directly supporting the Palestinian people. In terms of its contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in the last ten years, Iran has provided only $20,000 to the organization. This pales in comparison to the nearly $3 billion provided to UNRWA by the U.S during this period as well as the almost $2 billion provided by the EU and the more than $600 million provided by Saudi Arabia. 

In addition to its support of proxies and terrorist groups abroad, Iran also harbors terrorists within its own borders, thereby facilitating their activities. Iran continues to allow Al Qaeda (AQ) operatives to reside in Iran, where they have been able to move money and fighters to South Asia and Syria. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department identified and sanctioned three senior AQ operatives residing in Iran. According to the Treasury Department, Iran knowingly permitted these AQ members, including several of the 9/11 hijackers, to transit its territory on their way to Afghanistan for training and operational planning. As AQ members have been squeezed out of other areas, all indications suggest that they are continuing to find safe haven in Iran. An August 2018 report released by a group of United Nations experts found, “Al-Qaida leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran have grown more prominent.” The UN report determined that this growing prominence in Iran is allowing AQ leadership to continue projecting influence.


As the Islamic Republic prosecutes its wars in the Middle East, it frequently turns to unconventional tactics to sustain and assist its proxies. This includes the coercion of foreign fighters, use of child soldiers in hostilities, and misuse of civilian and commercial airlines to facilitate malign military activity. 

The IRGC recruits foreign fighters to increase its influence abroad. The IRGC created the Fatemiyoun Division of Afghan Shiites and the Zainabiyoun Brigade of Pakistani Shiites to fight in regional conflicts, most notably in Syria. West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center reports the size of the Fatemiyoun Division is between 10,000 and 12,000 soldiers, while a Fatemiyoun official in Iran stated in January 2018 that over 2,000 militiamen had been killed in Syria. A report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy noted that some Afghan Fatemiyoun also deployed to Yemen to fight alongside the Houthis. Human Rights Watch documented and condemned the IRGC’s practice of recruiting child soldiers for the Fatemiyoun, uncovering evidence that Afghan refugees as young as 14 have died in combat in Syria under this division. Following a full assessment of Iranian activities, in 2018, the U.S. Department of State listed Iran under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act for the first time. 

Multiple organizations continue to document the IRGC’s tactic of coercing Afghan refugees to serve as foreign fighters. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than two dozen Fatemiyoun, reporting that “some said they or their relatives had been coerced to fight in Syria and either had later fled and reached Greece, or had been deported to Afghanistan for refusing. One 17-year-old said he had been forced to fight without being given the opportunity to refuse. Others said they had volunteered to fight in Syria in Iranian-organized militias, either out of religious conviction or to regularize their residence status in Iran.” A New York Times interview with Fatemiyoun stressed that the Afghans were frequently used as the “first wave” of fighters, resulting in higher casualty rates among their brigades, and that the IRGC would send the Fatemiyoun “to fight the most difficult battles.” While less is known about the Pakistani Zainabiyoun Brigade, the Jamestown Foundation reports that the group is also financed and recruited by the IRGC. The Atlantic Council noted that the first reported Zainabiyoun casualties were suffered while imbedded in Iraqi Shiite militia groups, indicating the IRGC probably used the Pakistani fighters in Iraq initially before transferring those forces to Syria. 

The Iranian government also exports its destructive behavior by harnessing the global reach of civil and commercial aviation. Mahan Air, Caspian Air, Meraj Air, and Pouya Air have all been implicated in supporting the IRGC and IRGC-QF as well as the proxy groups that those entities support. The egregious use of Mahan Air to support Iranian proxies threatens regional stability and the integrity of free and open aviation, which is why the entity has been sanctioned by the U.S. Government since 2011. Mahan Air has been implicated in the transport of IRGC-QF operatives, weapons, equipment, and funds in support of the regime’s campaigns abroad. It shuttles IRGC-QF and proxy personnel to the frontlines of conflicts, including in Syria, where they engage in military training and fighting. The airline has also provided private transportation to senior IRGC-QF officials like Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani, allowing them to bypass UN-mandated travel restrictions as well as normal security and manifest procedures that are the international standards of aviation security.


The Middle East bears the brunt of the destruction wrought by Iran’s state support for terrorism but Iranian terrorism is a global problem. Since the Iranian regime came to power in 1979, Iran has conducted terrorist plots, assassinations, and attacks in more than 20 countries worldwide, primarily through the IRGC-QF and MOIS but also via Lebanese Hizballah. 

Iran’s activities are on the rise. After a brief lull in the 1990s and early 2000s, Iran has ramped up its active involvement in worldwide terrorist plotting and attacks, with numerous terrorist operations uncovered or disrupted in Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia since 2009. The pace of these 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.

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