Why Does Iran Fund International Terrorism?

Photo courtesy of yeowatzup via Flickr.

Almost from the moment of its birth following the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been one of the foremost sponsors of international terrorism.  

And despite recent efforts at reconciling its nuclear program with the West, Iranian-sponsored terrorist and paramilitary organizations remain major players in a number of Middle Eastern conflicts.

Iran itself acknowledges supplying weapons to “liberation armies” throughout the Middle East. Additionally, the Iranian government has been proactive in providing training, funding, and political guidance to a variety of militant Islamic groups, both Shia and Sunni.

Exporting Terror

Following the Iranian Revolution, hardliners within the Islamic Republic established the Revolutionary Guard as a kind of people’s army.  This was ostensibly to mobilize the people of Iran to defend the country against foreign attacks, but it also served the purpose of counterbalancing the regular army, which was seen as nominally loyal to the Shah.

With the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, the Revolutionary Guard created a foreign operations contingent known as the Quds Force.  Members of the Quds Force were deployed in Iraq in order to establish relationships with Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis who could then be used as insurgents against the Iraqi government.

In addition to the work of the Quds Force, Iran has been a primary sponsor of Hezbollah, a Shia militant group operating in Lebanon, which has targeted Lebanese opponents as well as foreign armed forces and diplomats deployed in Lebanon. Most notably, Hezbollah is responsible for killing 241 US marines, sailors and soldiers and 58 French servicemen in simultaneous suicide attacks on barracks in Beirut in 1983.

There is also substantial evidence that Iran has more recently abetted Shia militant groups operating in Iraq and fighters in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, despite denials by the Iranian government.

Methods to the Madness

After the revolution in 1979, Iran established a very close relationship with Syria. Both countries had little support elsewhere in the Middle East, as Iran was feuding with Iraq over territorial claims and Syria no longer trusted Jordan and Egypt following their improved relations and peace treaties with Israel.

Through Syria, Iran supports groups like Hezbollah with weapons, namely rockets and small arms, and other material goods via cargo planes flown from Tehran to Damascus.  These goods are then smuggled into Lebanon through the Bekaa Valley.

Additionally, Iran has funneled money to terrorist organizations through private charities tied to the political elite within Iran’s government.  Iran also regularly provides logistical support and training in asymmetric warfare for Hezbollah and various groups in Iraq.

As of 2010, Iran’s annual support to Hezbollah was estimated to be in the range of $100 million to $200 million.

Iran has also employed its formal diplomatic corps to aid and abet terrorist and paramilitary groups operating in foreign countries. A number of Iran’s to Iraq over the last decade have been members of the Quds Force and the Revolutionary Guard.

Generating Returns

With very few allies in the region other than Syria, Iran’s best bet for maintaining influence and strengthening its own geopolitical position is by destabilizing its neighbors. By funding groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran is able to destabilize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby weakening Israel and exacerbating an already volatile conflict for the entire region.

By supporting Shia groups and politicians in Iraq, Iran has been able to neutralize what was once the single biggest check on its regional geopolitical power.  After the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, Iran’s influence helped ensure Nuri al-Maliki a second premiership and form a government.  This influence is also thought to have played a major role in the Iraqi refusal to come to a status of forces agreement with the US, prompting the withdrawal of all US troops in 2011.

Iran’s influence over Hezbollah has also been used to draw attention away from itself.  While Iran is not likely to have directly instigated the 2006 Hezbollah attack on Israel, it is speculated that Iran encouraged the distraction as scrutiny over Iran’s nuclear weapons program was increasing.

Brendan Meighan