In 2009, at the beginning of his first term in office, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would be seeking to “directly engage” with Iran. Nonetheless, Obama acknowledged that Iran’s “actions over many years now have been unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity both in the region and around the world; that their attacks or their financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the bellicose language that they’ve used towards Israel, their development of a nuclear weapon, or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon — that all those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region.”
Nearly five years later, in a 2013 press release announcing the Joint Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration issued a fact sheet about the deal with Iran, noting that though some sanctions had been relaxed, “[a]ll of our targeted sanctions related to Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, its destabilizing role in the Syrian conflict, and its abysmal human rights record, among other concerns, remain in effect.”
However, despite ongoing negotiations, during the past year Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and destabilization of its neighbors has continued, and in many ways worsened.
Notably, Iran does not work alone, and often assigns its dirty work to Hezbollah, described in the Wall Street Journal as the “tip of an Iranian imperial spear.”
In The Origins of Hezbollah, published last year in The Atlantic, Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Matthew Levitt recounts that in the early 1980s, “Iranian diplomats and agents” created “the unified entity Hezbollah from a motley crew of Shi’a militias and groups.” Hezbollah’s initial goal of driving foreign forces out of Lebanon would, in time, “expand from attacks targeting Western interests in Lebanon to attacks on Western interests abroad.”
Over a nine-month period in 1985, the CIA calculated, Iran’s Lebanese proxy groups were responsible for at least 24 international terrorist incidents. Such targets were popular given Iran’s efforts to dissuade countries from arming and supporting Iraq in its ongoing, costly war against the Islamic Republic. Heeding Iran’s call to carry out attacks beyond Lebanon’s borders, Hezbollah would engage in plots throughout the Middle East. By February 1985, the CIA would warn that “Iranian-sponsored terrorism” presented the greatest threat to U.S. personnel and facilities in the region.
In the 1980s, after its invasion of Lebanon to drive out the PLO, Israel maintained a security zone in southern Lebanon. Israeli soldiers were often the targets of attacks carried out by Hezbollah, and in May 2000, Israel withdrew all of its troops from southern Lebanon. A month later, the United Nations certified that Israel’s withdrawal was complete. Despite no longer having a pretext to attack, Hezbollah launched cross-border attacks into Israel over the next six years.
On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah ambushed two IDF patrol jeeps, killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two others, and launched Katyusha rockets and mortars against northern Israeli communities. Israel retaliated by attacking Hezbollah, which had embedded itself in the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon. In the 34 days of conflict Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into Israel. Over 160 Israelis including civilians were killed and thousands more injured.
The war ended with the passage of Security Council Resolution 1701. In violation of that resolution, Hezbollah spent the subsequent years rebuilding its arsenal. The IDF estimated last year that Hezbollah had a stockpile of over 60,000 rockets.
The organization’s missiles endanger Israel’s entire population. Hezbollah’s upgraded stockpile can strike at any of Israel’s civilian centers, including its southernmost city of Eilat. Thousands of missiles can strike targets within 40 kilometers, placing Israel’s northern region at risk of a devastating attack.
Since the war, Hezbollah has tripled the size of its missile arsenal. In 2010, Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates commented that Hezbollah “has more missiles than most governments in the world.” IDF officials have expressed similar concerns, citing intelligence analysis that points to the rapid growth of Hezbollah’s stockpile.
Hezbollah is a threat not only to Israel, but also to its host country, Lebanon. This year, Hezbollah prevented Lebanon from forming a new government. The terror group’s assistance to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria has led to military attacks inside Lebanon. Members of Hezbollah have also been implicated in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
While Iran has allied itself with the Assad family regime in Syria for years, its support of Syria became crucial last year for regime’s continued existence. After anti-Assad rebels captured the Syrian town of Qusayr on the Lebanese border, it was Iranian and Hezbollah troops that retook the territory in June, leading to reports that Iran was the “big winner” in Syria’s civil war. In his essential profile of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker described Soleimani’s involvement in Syria:
A turning point came in April, after rebels captured the Syrian town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border. To retake the town, Suleimani called on Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, to send in more than two thousand fighters. It wasn’t a difficult sell. Qusayr sits at the entrance to the Bekaa Valley, the main conduit for missiles and other matériel to Hezbollah; if it was closed, Hezbollah would find it difficult to survive. Suleimani and Nasrallah are old friends, having coöperated for years in Lebanon and in the many places around the world where Hezbollah operatives have performed terrorist missions at the Iranians’ behest. According to Will Fulton, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute, Hezbollah fighters encircled Qusayr, cutting off the roads, then moved in. Dozens of them were killed, as were at least eight Iranian officers. On June 5th, the town fell. “The whole operation was orchestrated by Suleimani,” Maguire, who is still active in the region, said. “It was a great victory for him.”
Soleimani’s actions in Syria (and elsewhere) were carried out with the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Iran’s government is intensely fractious, and there are many figures around Khamenei who help shape foreign policy, including Revolutionary Guard commanders, senior clerics, and Foreign Ministry officials. But Suleimani has been given a remarkably free hand in implementing Khamenei’s vision. “He has ties to every corner of the system,” Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, told me. “He is what I call politically clever. He has a relationship with everyone.” Officials describe him as a believer in Islam and in the revolution; while many senior figures in the Revolutionary Guard have grown wealthy through the Guard’s control over key Iranian industries, Suleimani has been endowed with a personal fortune by the Supreme Leader. “He’s well taken care of,” Maguire said.
Filkins summed up Soleimani’s legacy:
To save his Iranian empire in Syria and Lebanon, he has helped fuel a Sunni-Shiite conflict that threatens to engulf the region for years to come—a war that he appears happy to wage. “He has every reason to believe that Iran is the rising power in the region,” [Gen. James] Mattis told me. “We’ve never dealt him a body blow.”
Iran’s continued involvement in Syria’s civil war, which has been raging since 2011, is fueling a conflict with a death toll currently approaching 200,000.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press (AP) reported that Soleimani had taken a direct role in supporting Iraq’s government in its battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and added that “Soleimani and his commanders are on the front lines and would assume a key role in the retaking of major cities.” Soleimani is reported to have gotten Iraq’s Shiite militias “to aid Iraq’s beleaguered military in regaining the initiative against the Islamic State group.” In a followup article, the AP reported that the Iraqi Shiite militia have proven to be “just as brutal as that of their sworn sectarian enemies,” ISIS.
In a special report published earlier this week, Reuters detailed Iran’s support of the three main Shiite militias in Iraq. Reuters observes that Iran’s strategy in Iraq has been used previously:
The main body funding, arming, and training the Shi’ite militias is Iran’s Quds Force. The model it uses is Hezbollah in Lebanon. Created by Tehran in the early 1980s, and operating as both a military outfit and political party, Hezbollah has grown to become the most powerful force in Lebanon.
Writing in September in the The Weekly Standard, Lee Smith and Hussain Abdul Hussain argue that it was the anti-Sunni policies of the Iran-backed Iraqi government that created the environment in which ISIS could flourish:
ISIS’s project was further aided by the Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011. Over the last three and half years, it has evolved into a civil war in which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered Sunnis. The White House and the rest of the international community have done nothing to stop him.
In other words, any policy addressing ISIS also has to address the root problem: What gave ISIS room to take hold and blossom is the Iranian-backed order of the Levant, consisting of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Nuri al-Maliki and his successor, Haidar al Abadi, in Iraq. All these are sustained by the Shiite Islamic revolutionary regime in Tehran.
A month ago, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels took control of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and proceeded to block the formation of a new Yemeni government. A few weeks later, Iran openly boasted of its support for the Houthis, and the Iranian regime is now proclaiming that it controls four Arab capitals (Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa). But control of Sanaa isn’t just about bragging rights; it also marks a significant strategic achievement, as explained by Michael Segall of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Iran also sees Yemen as an important factor in its policy of establishing a physical Iranian presence, both ground and naval, in the countries and ports of the Red Sea littoral, which control the shipping lanes that lead from the Persian Gulf to the heart of the Middle East and onward to Europe. If the Shia rebels gain control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, Iran can attain a foothold in this sensitive region giving access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a cause of concern not only for its sworn rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, but also for Israel and European countries along the Mediterranean.
While relations between Hamas and Iran have suffered some recent strains, the Islamic Republic is a long-time supporter of the Gaza-based terror group. In 2011, according to a report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iran was sending $100 million annually to Hamas, mostly for arms purchases. Even though Iran significantly cut its funding of Hamas because of disagreements over Syria, it has reportedly resumed smuggling arms to Hamas this year. A United Nations report released in July asserted that Iran’s supplying weapons to Hamas shows Iran’s “role in fueling Middle East terror.”
An Iranian effort to smuggle arms to Hamas on the merchant ship Klos-C was broken up by Israel in March. Shortly after the Klos-C incident, the former chief of Israel’s navy said that Iran was “leading the [weapons] smuggling industry in the Middle East.”
6) Attacks targeting Americans
In October 1983, a Hezbollah terrorist drove an explosive-laden truck into the United States Marine Barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen. The blast was said to be the largest non-nuclear bomb blast in history, and caused the greatest loss of life to American Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute identified the attack last year as being the beginning of 30 Years of Terror Sponsored by Iran.
Founded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Hezbollah has always had an intimate relationship with Iran based on a shared ideological foundation. Today, Hezbollah is no longer just a proxy of Iran; it is in a “strategic partnership” with Iran, as National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew Olsen put it. Or, in the words of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Hezbollah and Iran are in “a partnership arrangement…with the Iranians as the senior partner.”
For the past 30 years, this has proven to be a mutually beneficial relationship. From Iran, Hezbollah gets tens of thousands of rockets, hundreds of millions of dollars a year, training and operational logistical support from Iran. From Hezbollah, Iran gets an extended reach — to the Mediterranean and beyond — and a means of targeting its enemies from afar with reasonable deniability.
It isn’t just that Hezbollah, at Iran’s command, killed nearly 250 Marines; more than three decades later, members of Iran’s current leadership have been directly implicated in the attack. The attack was planned on the orders of Tehran by Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh was killed in 2009 in Damascus, but in January of this year, Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, honored Mughniyeh by laying a wreath at his grave, provoking outrage in Washington. Iran’s current defense minister, Hossein Dehghan, was Mughniyeh’s boss during the operation.
An American court has found the government of Iran responsible for the Marine barracks bombing, ordering the country to pay over $2 billion to the families of those injured and killed in the attack.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq targeted American troops.
At least two Iranian terror plots on American soil have been foiled in recent years: A 2007 plot to blow up the fuel tanks at JFK airport in New York, and a 2011 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Even if Iran isn’t openly attacking American targets right now, the IRGC’s naval chief, Admiral Ali Fadavi, has recently boasted that he could sink America’s fleet in 50 seconds, and subsequently warned the United States to leave the Persian Gulf.
7) Hezbollah and Iran in Europe
Last year, the European Union declared Hezbollah’s “military wing” to be a terrorist organization, even though Hezbollah itself acknowledges that there is no distinction between its military and political “wings.” The decision was reached following Hezbollah’s July 2012 bombing of a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, which claimed the lives of six people, including five Israelis. A Hezbollah member was also convicted for an attempted attack in Cyprus.
In Europe Has a Serious Hezbollah Problem, which was published in the May 2013 issue of The Tower Magazine, Benjamin Weinthal wrote:
Once upon a time, Europe’s tacit deal with Hezbollah might have made sense, if only on the most Machiavellian, pragmatic level. But now, it is difficult to see what possible benefit the EU derives from it. It has not stopped Hezbollah from resuming terrorism on the continent. It has undermined Europe’s moral and political standing in the world. It has been of great economic benefit to Hezbollah, to the detriment of European criminal law. And it threatens to undermine the very stability of Lebanon and the greater Middle East that Europe so wants to preserve.
At the same time, the EU’s failure to act strengthens Hezbollah precisely when the organization is unprecedentedly vulnerable. Hezbollah’s primary source of military support is Iran. The current civil war in Syria, where Hezbollah has intervened on the side of Bashar Assad, threatens to block the geographic link between Iran and Lebanon, making it much harder for Hezbollah to arm itself. But as long as the organization continues to receive economic support from its fundraising and criminal activities in the European Union, the organization will be able to reconstitute its military capabilities by other means. As a result, Hezbollah will continue to threaten Israeli and European citizens, defend the murderous Syrian regime, advance Iranian policy in the Middle East, and hold Lebanon hostage to its demands.
In 1992 Iran arranged the assassination of four dissident Iranian Kurds in Germany. After a German court convicted four men and implicating Iran’s leadership for the crime in 1997, the regime orchestrated anti-German protests. The New York Times quoted Hassan Rouhani, before he was labelled a “moderate,” calling for a “‘total revision of ties with Germany,” in reaction to the court’s decision.
8) Hezbollah in South America
Reports this week that Hezbollah was smuggling arms to Brazilian criminal gangs, and that the government of Peru had arrested a member of Hezbollah for plotting terror attacks against Jewish targets, once again focused attention on Iran’s and Hezbollah’s strong ties in South America. Last year, both a State Department report and an indictment handed down by an Argentinian prosecutor documented Hezbollah’s network in South America. Congressional testimony offered in 2011 by former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega stated (.pdf) that “the Hezbollah/Iranian presence in Latin America constitutes a clear threat to the security of the U.S. homeland. They have the motivation, and they have been steadily increasing their capacity to act.”
In 1992 the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was exploded, killing 29 people. Two years later, the AMIA building, a Jewish community center in that same city, was also exploded, with 87 people killed and a hundred injured. Iran was implicated in both attacks.
Despite the attacks on its soil, Argentina has moved to come to terms with Iran, as Eamonn MacDonagh wrote in Has Argentina Turned Against its Jews? in the October 2014 issue of The Tower Magazine. MacDonagh describes an agreement between the two nations that would give Iran a hand in determining culpability in the AMIA case:
The agreement represented an astonishing cession of sovereignty by the government of Argentina. It effectively invited the nation that has refused to extradite men suspected of murdering dozens of Argentine citizens to stand in judgment over the Argentine legal system. The reaction in the Iranian state media indicated that the regime there saw the agreement as Argentina’s abandonment of its extradition request; indeed, as its abandonment of any accusation of Iranian involvement, and a commitment to jointly investigate the murders all over again from the start.
9) Iran in Africa
In Desperate For Allies and Secret Assets, Iran Penetrates Africa, which was published in the August 2013 issue of The Tower Magazine, Armin Rosen documents many of Iran’s efforts to build its terror network in the continent of Africa. One country he focused on was Sudan, where Israel bombed the Yarmouk weapons depot in 2012.
For many Sudanese, the Yarmouk incident only demonstrated the cost of Sudan’s conscription into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by its Iranian allies—a conflict which has nothing to do with Sudan’s own already-shaky internal affairs. “A lot of Sudanese are very upset, but not at the actual Israeli strike,” the analyst said. “They’re upset about the fact that the government is involving themselves in something that’s a lot bigger than what Sudan can handle.” Amongst some of Sudan’s leaders, and a significant part of its populace, Iran is an unwelcome ally. Even a fellow pariah state — truly an ally of last resort—harbors little real enthusiasm for the Islamic Republic and its policies.
But Iran has gotten exactly what it needs out of Sudan, regardless of how facile and opportunistic the ties between the two countries really are. Sudan is a beachhead for the IRGC — a transit point for weaponry that allows Hezbollah to aid in the Assad regime’s survival, and Hamas to rain Fajr 5s on the majority of Israel’s civilian population. It doesn’t matter that Sudanese resent the bombing of their capital city, or that Sudan is under international sanctions, or that Iran’s relationship with such a problematic country is liable to deepen perceptions of the Islamic Republic’s international isolation. All across the continent, Iran’s expansionist foreign policy is in direct conflict with its economic and soft power outreach—and Iran has succeeded is using Africa to advance its interests anyway.
This past summer, Israel reportedly again struck a weapons depot in Sudan. Sudan has often been the way station for arms shipments from Iran to Gaza. The Klos-C was intercepted in the waters near Sudan.
10) Iran in Asia
Earlier this year, police in Thailand disrupted a Hezbollah plot targeting Israeli tourists visiting for Passover, arresting two Lebanese nationals. Both Hezbollah and the IRGC have previously attempted attacks on Israeli civilians and embassy officials in Bangkok in recent years.
In 2011, the United States discovered a plot against its embassy in Azerbaijan, a northern neighbor of Iran. As The Washington Post reported:
U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say the Azerbaijan plot fits a pattern seen in numerous other recent attempts linked to Iran. The foiled assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington involved a similar plan to hire criminal gangs — in this case, members of a Mexican drug cartel — to kill a senior diplomat in a public setting, U.S. intelligence officials note.
The report presented to U.S. officials last month asserts extensive links between attempted assassinations of diplomats in five other countries: India, Turkey, Thailand, Pakistan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Each attempt was carried out by operatives with direct ties to Iran or Hezbollah and directed against diplomats from countries hostile to Iran, the reports states.
Among those attempts was “a car bombing in February that seriously wounded the wife of an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi.”
In southwestern Asia, the Gulf Cooperation Council decided last year to impose sanctions on Hezbollah that were “more comprehensive than the EU’s decision.”
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