In 2019, Iran supported terrorist organizations across the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite groups in Iraq and Palestinian groups in Gaza, the State Department said in the annual report on terrorism released on June 24, 2020. The report also accused Tehran of helping the Assad regime crush the opposition in Syria, plotting to assassinate Iranian dissidents in Europe, and harboring al Qaeda operatives in Iran. “If Iran wants to rejoin the community of responsible nations, here is a start: Crack down on the terrorists that caused 9/11. Crack down on the terrorist proxies that foment violence around the world,” Ambassador Nathan Sales, the head of the Counterterrorism Bureau, said.
In response, the Trump administration has increased attempts to contain Iran. “We designated the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), including its Qods Force, as a terrorist organization, the first time the authority has ever been used on a foreign government,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters. The report highlighted how the Qods Force supplies proxies, extremist groups and militias that create instability in the region. “We kept pressure on Iranian proxies like Hizballah by encouraging our partners to designate or ban them, as Paraguay, Argentina, and now the United Kingdom did just last year,” Pompeo added. The following is an excerpt from the report on Iran, its proxies and remarks by Ambassador Sales.
Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984, Iran continued its terrorist-related activity in 2019, including support for Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and various terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, and throughout the Middle East. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods 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 Qods 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.
In 2019, Iran supported various Iraqi Shia terrorist groups, including Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), Harakat al-Nujaba, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. During the same period, KH was responsible for a series of rocket attacks against American interests in Iraq, which culminated in the death of an American citizen following a 30 plus rocket barrage in December 2019. On December 31, Iran‑backed Shia militia groups, including KH, participated in an attack on U.S. Embassy Baghdad, which resulted in significant damage to embassy property. There were no embassy casualties and security personnel used less-than-lethal countermeasures to repulse intruders. It also bolstered the Assad regime in Syria and Shia terrorist groups operating there, including Hizballah. Iran views the Assad regime in Syria as a crucial ally and Syria and Iraq as vital routes through which to supply weapons to Hizballah, Iran’s primary terrorist proxy group. Through financial or residency enticements, Iran has facilitated and coerced primarily Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to participate in the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown in Syria. Iran-supported Shia militias in Iraq have also committed serious human rights abuses against primarily Sunni civilians. Iranian forces have directly backed militia operations in Syria with armored vehicles, artillery, and drones.
Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah conflict, Iran has supplied Hizballah 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 Hizballah 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 Hizballah and trained thousands of its fighters at camps in Iran. Hizballah 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.
In 2019, Iran provided support to 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 Netherlands, Belgium, 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 United States also continued to spearhead high-level diplomatic engagement on Hizballah — an Iran-backed terrorist group that is based in Lebanon but that has a truly global reach. Throughout the year, the United States ratcheted up efforts to degrade and disrupt Hizballah’s finances, with numerous designations of financial entities, facilitators, and money launderers tied to the group. In July, the United States and Argentina co-hosted the second Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial, which commemorated the 25th anniversary of Hizballah’s attack on a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. This engagement yielded concrete results. In 2019, Argentina, Kosovo, Paraguay, and the United Kingdom all joined the United States in designating the entirety of Hizballah as a terrorist organization, rejecting the false distinction between its “military wing” and a purportedly “political wing.”
Hizballah remained Iran’s most powerful terrorist partner and the most capable terrorist organization in Lebanon, controlling areas across the country. Iran’s annual financial backing to Hizballah – which in recent years has been estimated at $700 million – accounts for the overwhelming majority of the group’s annual budget. Hizballah’s presence in Lebanon and Syria continued to pose a threat to Israel. Israel published information in August about Hizballah’s efforts to produce precision-guided missiles (PGMs) within Lebanon. While Hizballah said it possessed enough PGMs for a confrontation with Israel, it denied missiles were being developed in Lebanon. Israel also uncovered and destroyed multiple tunnels dug by Hizballah under the border into Israel that could have been used for terrorist attacks between December 2018 and January 2019.
Ambassador Nathan Sales, Coordinator for Counterterrorism
QUESTION: The Islamic Republic of Iran has been mentioned 109 times in your report. Is it fair to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran poses the biggest threat when it comes to terrorist activities around the world to United States? And in part of that report, it talks about the connection between Iran and al-Qaida operatives. What evidence do you have to show that Iran is helping or harboring al-Qaida operatives?
SALES: It’s difficult to rank order the terrorist threats that we face. We have to take them all seriously and we do take them all seriously, whether it’s ISIS or al-Qaida or whether it’s Iran. Of particular concern when it comes to Iran is the fact that it is a state; it has the capabilities and it has the resources of a state. And when you introduce the concept of state sponsorship, the additional resources, the additional capabilities that an SST like Iran can bring is a reason for severe concern, and we’re seeing the results of that all around the world. Last year, we saw – or the year before, we saw a series of Iranian plots to commit assassinations in the heart of Western Europe. We see Iran bankrolling terrorists in the Middle East to include Hizballah, Shia militia groups in Iraq that are responsible for attacks on American personnel there, diplomats and soldiers alike, and that are also involved last year in ruthlessly suppressing peaceful political protests in Iraq.
A hundred and nine times? I’m surprised it wasn’t 110 given the scope of Iranian terrorist malignancy around the world.
When you see Iranian fingerprints on so many different terrorist groups around the world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Iran would also have connections to al-Qaida. I can’t comment on intelligence matters, but what we have said publicly in the past is that after 9/11, Iran failed to comply with its obligations to take into custody and extradite for prosecution al-Qaida operatives who were linked to the attacks.
More recently, we have said publicly that Iran has allowed al-Qaida operatives freedom of movement within Iran to enable the movement of fighters and money into conflict zones in neighboring countries.
If Iran wants to rejoin the community of responsible nations, here is a start: Crack down on the terrorists that caused 9/11. Crack down on the terrorist proxies that foment violence around the world.