Iranian Sponsorship of Terrorism?

by Peter Jenkins

“Iran—the foremost state sponsor of terrorism—continues to exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its terrorist partner Lebanese Hizballah, and proxy groups,” intoned Director of National Intelligence James Clapper before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9 of this year. “Iran and Hizballah remain a continuing terrorist threat to US interests and partners worldwide.”.

Can it really be the case that the Islamic Republic of Iran was the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism in 2015?

For those of us who are outside government, without access to intelligence material or police reports, that question is hard to answer. But thanks to something called the Global Terrorism Index an informed view is possible. The Global Terrorism Index uses data compiled by START, a Department of Homeland Security Centre of Excellence led by the University of Maryland. The most recent Index appeared in November 2015 and covers 2014.

The Index does not account for all 13,370 terrorist incidents that occurred in 2014. It does account, however, for the 20 most murderous incidents of that year. 18 of these were perpetrated by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Boko Haram; the other two by the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. Of Hezbollah, the terrorist organization with which Clapper associates Iran, there is no mention.

The location of terrorist incidents in 2014 is equally suggestive. Fifty-seven percent of all incidents took place in just five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. In 2014, Hezbollah was active in only one of these states, Syria, and there it was fighting alongside government forces against an opposition that includes such terrorist organizations as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra (affiliated to al-Qaeda).

The START data relate to 2014, whereas Clapper bases his finding on 2015 data, presumably. This need not deter us. In 2015, IS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda still dominated the news of terrorist incidents, not Hezbollah. Yet, Clapper still asserts that Iran is the foremost state sponsor of terrorism?

“Foremost” but “Minor”?

The key to Clapper’s assertion possibly lies in the term “state sponsor.” The US intelligence community may be taking the view that IS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda are without state sponsors. It may be that, when staffers work down the list of recognized terrorist organisations, the first which they assess to have a state sponsor is Hezbollah. That would make Iran the foremost “state sponsor” even if the number of terrorist acts committed by Hezbollah in 2014/15 was very small.

But if the Taliban were responsible for more terrorist acts in 2014-15 than Hezbollah—based on news reports and 2014 Index references to Afghanistan—ought not Pakistan be deemed the “foremost” state sponsor, since operational links between Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban are well-documented? (I’m leaving aside the possibility of Saudi state sponsorship of IS and al-Qaeda, and Israeli sponsorship of the MEK, since I am unaware of definitive proof of either.)

Alternatively, if the United States finds it embarrassing to accuse a client state, Pakistan, of state sponsorship of terrorism, ought not Clapper to have made clear that in this context “foremost” is a highly relative term? For instance he could have said that Iran is foremost in a field of one, if that is the case, or that the number of incidents sponsored by Iran in 2015 was far smaller than the use of “foremost” might lead distinguished senators to assume.

A Confusion of Terms?

Another explanation for Clapper’s finding could be that the US intelligence community considers any action undertaken by Hezbollah to be “terrorist” in nature. In that case Hezbollah’s involvement in fighting in Syria must weigh heavily in the scales.

I am reluctant, however, to entertain that possibility. I like to think that the US intelligence community is more than capable of distinguishing militia or paramilitary activity from terrorist acts. Hezbollah has grown over the last three decades into a movement that has a political wing and a paramilitary wing (reminiscent of the Irish Republican Army between 1919 and 1921). It is the paramilitary wing that has been active in Syria.

Of course defining terrorism has proved to be controversial. A definition has long eluded a committee established by the UN General Assembly. One man’s terrorist is often another man’s freedom-fighting militia member. (Remember the American War of Independence.) Some US clients have an interest in perpetuating the characterization of Hezbollah that the movement earned in its early years, when undoubtedly it was primarily a terrorist organization.

But surely the US intelligence community can recognize that an evolution away from those terrorist roots has taken place, that Hezbollah forces in Syria constitute a militia, and that their actions there should not be debited to Iran’s “state sponsorship of terrorism” account.

Does Any of This Matter?

There is an issue of principle. George Orwell, the author of 1984, drew attention in one of his essays to the dangers inherent in the misuse of language for political ends. ”Terrorist” has become a term that many politicians employ to demonize their adversaries or opponents, without scrupling to consider whether there are legitimate grounds for using it. This poses a threat to democracy, as Orwell understood. He was aghast at the misuse of language by European fascists and Soviet communists.

Then there is an issue of justice. If, as may well be the case, President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has been trying to conform to international norms of behavior that exclude sponsorship of terrorism—as it has been urged to do, self-righteously, by the American and British governments—then that effort to conform deserves recognition. It does not deserve the continued trotting out of a formula that probably has become misleading.

Finally, there is an issue of political competence. If President Barack Obama regards the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran as one of his “foremost” presidential achievements—as he rightly appears to do—then it is in his interest to ensure the survival of that agreement for as long as Iran is compliant. In that case, was it wise or smart of his director of national intelligence to make an assertion that is a gift for all those senators and congressmen who are looking for ways of justifying proposals designed to undermine the July 2015 nuclear agreement?

In any event, clarity should be sought. The appropriate authority should be asked for the facts behind the assertion that in 2015 Iran was still the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.

Cartoon by Barry Hunau via Cartoons by Barry

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Thank you Mr. Jenkins.
    These official statements made by the US intelligence community are formulated and fabricated in advance by the cooperation of the US senate, MIC and CIA behind closed doors! The statements are fabricated to justify ever increasing DOD budget based on creating fear amongst the general population by focusing on false enemies of the state. Furthermore these statements are made to leave the appearance of the CIA being an independent agency and appearance of a democracy at work in a public senate forum!
    Sorry but I don’t believe a word of what’s being said in these open committee sessions!

  2. Denouncing Hezbollah is virtually a knee-jerk exercise on the part of US officials.

  3. Or maybe, one should just look back at previous Clapper testimony and its falsehoods to know that this man can NEVER be trusted to tell the truth. He tells senators exactly what they want to hear. Then when he is busted for his false stories he claims ignorance. See his earlier assertions that later became “least dishonest” statements when he was confronted by facts.

  4. I appreciate that Peter Jenkins wants to be scrupulously fair, but the Clap is hardly known for the accuracy or truthfulness of his utterances.

    Besides, it’s high time the US took Hezballah off the terrorist list — or would that upset Bibi?

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