Iran Policy and Misusing the Fear of Terrorism

September 26, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: Donald TrumpTerrorismIranPoliticsStrategy

Iran Policy and Misusing the Fear of Terrorism

The Trump administration is manipulating the terrorism issue to stir up as much hatred as possible against Iran.

The history of U.S. administrations manipulating the issue of terrorism for purposes unrelated to terrorism predates Donald Trump’s presidency. One reflection of this history is the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which has never tracked very closely with the reality of specific states being complicit or not complicit in international terrorism. Some complicit states have never appeared on the list because they were considered U.S. friends or allies—such as Saudi Arabia with its nurturing of Sunni radicalism, Pakistan with its support to extremist groups in Afghanistan, or left-wing governments in Greece that condoned radical leftist terrorism. Other states have been taken off or put on the list to send messages on topics other than terrorism. Iraq, for example, was taken off when the United States was tilting toward Iraq during the Iran -Iraq War, then returned to the list when Iraq invaded Kuwait. North Korea was belatedly taken off the list ten years ago and put back on last year, again not because of any change in terrorist behavior but for other reasons—in this case having to do with the objective of denuclearization.

The most flagrant and damaging manipulation of the issue of terrorism was the George W. Bush administration’s exploiting of American outrage over 9/11 to muster support for the Iraq War by conjuring up an “alliance,” which in fact never existed, between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda. The promoters of that war went so far as to establish a staff effort inside the Pentagon to discredit relevant work of the U.S. intelligence community, which had correctly concluded that there was no such alliance.

Now the Trump administration is similarly manipulating the terrorism issue. The administration wants to stir up as much hatred as possible against Iran rather than to convey an accurate picture of international terrorism today and where and how Americans are most likely to fall victim to it. This was evident in the rollout last week of the latest edition of the congressionally mandated annual report on international terrorism.

Past Involvement

Iran certainly has done terrorism and has given good reasons to be placed on the list of state sponsors, although one must reach back into an ever-receding past to find those reasons. (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq also had done some real terrorism, but not with Al Qaeda.) The first big encounter between the United States and the new Islamic Republic of Iran was a major act of terrorism: the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Also early in the Islamic Republic’s history, Iranian assassins periodically killed dissident Iranian expatriates in Europe and elsewhere, but those murders ceased years ago. The last time Americans became victims of an incident that meets the State Department’s legally codified definition of terrorism (which involves violence against noncombatants) and in which Iran probably played a role was more than two decades ago: the bombing of the U.S. military installation at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia in 1996. (The U.S. servicemen who were the targets of that attack were deemed noncombatants because they were resting in their barracks at the time—although some observers skeptical of this coding note that the servicemen were part of a larger military mission.)


The phrase “leading state sponsor of terrorism” has become a label that rolls easily and automatically off the lips of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. politicians. The label has become an almost di rigueur attachment to any American mention of Iran. As with other such labels that are automatically invoked, this one has become a substitute for, rather than an accompaniment to, careful attention to facts and evidence.

The administration’s attempt to paint Iran as a major problem in international terrorism is badly misleading. This is readily apparent in looking at any picture of terrorism that includes the groups that have to be in the center of that picture—Al Qaeda and the Islamic State or ISIS—and that necessarily are mentioned up front in the up-front part of the State Department report. Iran is on the opposite side from these groups on almost any political, ideological, and sectarian divide that matters. Iran also is on the opposite side from those groups on multiple Middle Eastern battlefields. This is true in Iraq, where Iran has provided more help than any other outsider in freeing western Iraq from the grip of ISIS. It is true in Syria, where Iran aids a Syrian regime that is now looking at the rebel redoubt in Idlib province in which the most powerful group and de facto local government is the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda. It is true in Yemen, where the Houthi movement that has received Iranian aid is one of the fiercest opponents of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that has come closest to accomplishing a post–9/11 mass-casualty attack in the United States.