Tehran and Terror: Unraveling the Mystery

This week's events make it irrefutable. It's time to face up to Iran's long-standing ties to international terrorism.

The “mailman” was Dawud Salahuddin, born David Belfield in North Carolina thirty years before. Raised in a Baptist family on Long Island, Belfield converted to Islam as a student, motivated partly by black nationalism, and soon fell in with a violent clique. Belfield adored the Iranian revolution as much as he hated America, and hevolunteered his services to Tehran’s intelligence service, which tasked him with killing the troublesome Tabatabai. Belfield had hoped to murder a more prominent target—he preferred Henry Kissinger or Kermit Roosevelt, the former CIA official who had helped orchestrate the 1953 Iranian coup against Mohammad Mossadeq—but he followed Tehran’s orders, receiving $5,000 for the hit.

After the killing, Belfield fled to Iran, where he remains more than three decades later. He has worked various jobs, reportedly fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s, and seems homesick. More than once he has contacted American officials about returning home, without success. Strangely, Belfield/Salahuddin appeared in the 2001 film Kandahar, a successful production set in Afghanistan that premiered at Cannes.

For decades the U.S. government has been reluctant to address Iran’s robust state terrorism program in any detail, even when it targets Americans and close U.S. allies. While Iran often uses cutouts for its terrorism, above all Hezbollah, Tehran’s footprint has frequently been detected by U.S. intelligence. Although the Reagan administration knew of Iranian intelligence’s key role behind the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen, it did nothing against Tehran, setting a pattern which has held to the present day.

The Quds Force’s tight relationship with Hezbollah has been officially minimized by most Western governments, although it is an open secret that has been well understood by U.S. intelligence for decades. Hezbollah’s operations wing since its creation almost thirty years ago has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pasdaran, while its founder and head until his death in 2008, Imad Mughniyeh, arguably the most prolific terrorist of modern times, was exceptionally close to Tehran and loyally followed the orders of the regime.

The Quds Force has had dealings with many terrorist groups over the years, including Hamas, and most intriguingly with al-Qaeda. Although U.S. intelligence has been aware of some sort of Iranian relationship with al-Qaeda since 1996, mainly through Hezbollah intermediaries, this question has been considered too hot to touch by many U.S. officials, despite its obvious importance. Even the 9/11 Commission largely punted on this knotty issue, viewing only a limited amount of information during its investigation, despite the fact that the National Security Agency possessed considerable detailed reporting indicating an operational relationship between the 9/11 plotters, Hezbollah, and Iranian intelligence. As one of the 9/11 Commission staff members noted in 2010, “It’s always been frightening to me to consider what is still at the NSA, whatever we never had time to see,” not least because the NSA, the SIGINT arm of the intelligence community, is responsible for the lion’s share of actionable intelligence in the U.S. government. Although the commission report recommended further investigation of Iran’s ties to al-Qaeda, since the commission closed down in 2004 there has been no reexamination of the NSA files in question.

The mysterious Arbabsiar case offers an opportunity for the Obama administration to ask, and possibly answer, tough questions about Iran and terrorism which the Bush administration showed little ardor to pursue. To be fair to U.S. officials and investigators, their unwillingness to think hard about the Quds Force and its dirty work abroad mirrors the unfortunate habits of most terrorism scholars, who prefer to ignore the major issue of state sponsorship and involvement in international terrorism. Few outside experts acknowledge, much less explore, the fact—well understood by counterintelligence officers—that many intelligence services conduct terrorism through proxies, and most terrorist groups have discreet ties to one or more secret services.

Elements in the Bush administration in the eighteen months after 9/11 brought discredit on this issue with their ham-handed efforts to tie Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to al-Qaeda—though it has now been firmly established from captured documents that Saddam’s intelligence services had strong ties to many terrorist groups, just not Bin Laden’s. Nevertheless, this week’s revelations ought to force an overdue investigation of Iran’s long-standing ties to international terrorism as well as to the broader issue of state linkages to terrorism. Better late than never.

John R. Schindler is professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI, and a former National Security Agency expert in counterespionage and counterterrorism. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own.