Iran: The Leading State Sponsor of Terrorism

The United States government classifies the Islamic Republic of Iran as the “leading state sponsor of terrorism,” alleging that Iran and its terrorist proxies pose a significant threat and demonstrate global reach. The U.S. has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984.

What is state-sponsored terrorism?

State-sponsored terrorism is a state’s deliberate use of terrorism or assistance to terrorist organizations as a foreign policy tool against other countries or groups. It can refer to either direct attacks by the state or support of terrorist organizations through the provision of weapons, funds, training, and sanctuary.

Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism by Iran:

Since the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, the Iranian regime has been defined by its habitual use of terrorism against the U.S. and its allies throughout the world and its ties to terrorist organizations. In addition to carrying out direct attacks, Iran has engaged in terrorism by proxy through Hezbollah; Hamas; the Taliban; militias in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and the Gulf; and numerous other terrorist groups.  

The U.S. State Department noted in its most recent Country Reports on Terrorism that “Iran and Hizballah are emerging from the Syria conflict emboldened and with valuable battlefield experience that they seek to leverage across the globe.” The 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. intelligence community also highlighted Iran as an emerging cyber threat, assessing that “Iran will continue working to penetrate U.S. and Allied networks for espionage and to position itself for potential future cyber-attacks, although its intelligence services primarily focus on Middle Eastern adversaries—especially Saudi Arabia and Israel.” 

As the timeline below illustrates, Iran has accelerated its support for terrorism in recent years, particularly since July 2015, when it agreed to a nuclear deal with the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia. Rather than moderating the regime, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has emboldened Tehran to escalate its destabilizing activities and enhanced its ability to bankroll terrorism and proxy wars.

New Timeline Entries:

1.

March 22, 2018: Iranian operatives caught surveilling MEK in Albania

 

March 22, 2018: Iranian operatives caught surveilling MEK in Albania

Albanian authorities arrested two suspected Iranian operatives who were caught in the act of surveilling a site where exiled Iranian opposition figures from the Mujahideen-e Khalq group were set to hold a Persian Nowruz celebration. In December 2018, Albania expelled Iran’s ambassador and another Iranian diplomat, reportedly in connection to the aborted terrorist plot

2. October 21, 2018: Iran-linked suspect arrested for foiled Danish assassination plot
 

October 21, 2018: Iran-linked suspect arrested for foiled Danish assassination plot

Denmark’s primary intelligence agency announced the arrest of a Norwegian man of Iranian descent for allegedly taking part in an Iranian intelligence service’s plot to assassinate an Iranian Arab separatist activist on Danish soil. On September 28, Danish police thwarted Iran’s plans through a major security operation carried out with Sweden. Authorities shut off access to and from the island that Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, is situated on for several hours to launch a manhunt for the suspect, who had been seen photographing the homes of members of an Iranian Arab separatist movement residing in Denmark. Denmark recalled its ambassador to Iran in response to the incident.

3. May 2019: Iran greenlights attacks on U.S. personnel, interests in the Middle East by its proxies
 

May 2019: Iran greenlights attacks on U.S. personnel, interests in the Middle East by its proxies

Intelligence indicates that Iran has given its proxies the go-ahead to target U.S. military personnel and assets in the Middle East in response to the U.S. designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization and the revocation of waivers for buyers of Iranian petroleum exports. It is later reported that IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani summoned Iran-backed militias in Iraq and told them to “prepare for proxy war.” The reports precede an uptick in Iranian terror activities and regional destabilization over a span of several months.

4. May 12, 2019: Four tankers allegedly sabotaged by Iran
 

May 12, 2019: Four tankers allegedly sabotaged by Iran

Following reports that Iran and its proxies could target maritime traffic, four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates suffer damage in apparent sabotage attacks. The tankers—two Saudi, one Emirati, and one Norwegian— were apparently struck by explosive charges. The U.S. claims to have forensic evidence tying Iran or its proxies to the attacks.

5. June 13, 2019: Twin attacks on Japanese, Norwegian oil tankers in Gulf of Oman
 

June 13, 2019: Twin attacks on Japanese, Norwegian oil tankers in Gulf of Oman

A Japanese and Norwegian oil tanker were attacked in the Gulf of Oman within 45 minutes of each other. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iran was the likely culprit based on “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.”

6. July 22, 2019: Iran’s Supreme Leader hosts Hamas delegation
 

July 22, 2019: Iran’s Supreme Leader hosts Hamas delegation

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hosted a delegation of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in Tehran and reaffirmed Iran’s support for the group. Khamenei called upon the group to use its “precision missiles” to resist the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan. Several weeks after the meeting, Israeli media reported that Iran had upped its annual support for Hamas from $100 million to $360 million.

7. July-August, 2019: Iranian hackers infiltrate Bahraini infrastructure, security agency
 

July-August, 2019: Iranian hackers infiltrate Bahraini infrastructure, security agency

Over a span of several weeks, Bahraini authorities identified hacker intrusions into the country’s Electricity and Water Authority, Aluminum Bahrain, National Security Agency, Ministry of Interior, and first deputy prime minister’s office computers. Bahraini authorities suspect Iranian involvement in the cyber attacks, which briefly granted the hackers command and control access over critical infrastructure.

8. July 25, 2019, Israel breaks up Iranian effort to recruit spies from Palestinian territories
 

July 25, 2019, Israel breaks up Iranian effort to recruit spies from Palestinian territories

Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service announced it had broken up an Iranian espionage network’s effort to use social media to recruit West Bank and Gaza Palestinian operatives “for the benefit of Iranian intelligence.” The spy network was based in Syria under Iranian guidance and used fictitious profiles to establish contacts in the Palestinian territories. Iran reportedly sought intelligence on sensitive Israeli military and security sites for use in potential future terrorist attacks.