The Heritage Foundation

Committee Brief #24

March 29, 1996

March 29, 1996 | Committee Brief on

The Challenge of Revolutionary Iran

(Archived document, may contain errors)

A Special Report to the House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights

No. 24 3/29/96


By James Phillips Senior Policy Analyst The recent Middle Eastein travels of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan have sparked consider- able controversy. Several Congressmen have called for a government investigation of the trip, including Representative Peter King, who gave a persuasive speech on this subject at The Heritage Foundation on March 6. Today, I would like to focus on the foreign activities of Iran, which I believe poses the greatest threat to America and to American interests of all the countries that Minister Farrakhan visited. The U.S. and Iran have clashed repeatedly over a wide variety of issues since Iran's 1979 revolution, which brought to power radical Islamic fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Bilateral tensions initially flared due to the November 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants and the subsequent holding of American hostages for 444 days. Iran-U.S. tensions continue to simmer due to Iran's persistent efforts to export its revolution, Iranian support for international terror- ism, Iran's ideological hostility to the U.S., and Iran's military buildup, which includes clandestine ef- forts to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction. Iran today looms as the chief threat to American interests in the Middle East. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the military defeat and diplomatic isolation of Iraq, Iran's traditional archrival, has given Iran the opportunity to expand its influence. Although Tehran has toned down its revolutionary rhetoric since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran remains a volatile revolutionary state. Te- hran continues to denounce the U.S. as "the Global Arrogance," calls for the expulsion of American in- fluence from the Middle East, seeks to discredit and overthrow moderate Arab governments friendly to the U.S., advocates the destruction of Israel, and adamantly opposes the U.S.-sponsored Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

I Substantial portions of this were given in testimony before the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, on March 19, 1996.

Iran also has increased its financial, political, and military support for radical Islamic fundamentalist movements throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia. It has developed close ties with Sudan, which it uses as a training ground for Islamic militants from throughout the region. In the short run, Iran poses more of an ideological, subversive, and terrorist threat than a military threat to America and its Middle Eastern allies. In the long run, however, Iran's military buildup, particularly its development programs for nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile weaponry, will pose an increasingly grave chal- lenge to the security of American forces and U.S. allies in the region.

IRAN'S HOSTILE FOREIGN POLICY Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Tehran has seen itself as the leader of the Muslim world. It has sought to export its revolutionary brand of Islam and to radicalize Muslims everywhere. The U.S., which Khomeini referred to as the 'Great Satan," is hated for its support of the Iranian regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi; for its support of Israel, which Iranian radicals seek to destroy; and for its support of mod- erate Arab regimes such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But regardless of its policies, the U.S. is hated for its values and the powerful influence of its culture, which Iranian revolutionaries believe seduces Muslims and undermines Islam. This ideological motiva- tion explains why Iranian-supported terrorists in Lebanon in the 1980s attacked targets affiliated with the American University of Beirut and Christian churches, in addition to the U.S. Marines serving in the multinational peacekeeping force. Since 1979, Iran has been more of an ideological, subversive, and terrorist threat to its neighbors than a military threat. Tehran has enjoyed only limited success in fomenting revolution, in part because Iran's Shiite brand of Islam is shared by only about 15 percent of all Muslims. The Sunni (orthodox) Muslims who make up more than 80 percent of the Islamic world tend to be more respectful of state authority and distrustful of Shiite radicals. Iran's greatest success has come in war-torn Lebanon, where it helped to create, finance, arm, and train the radical Shiite Hezbollah (Party of God) movement. Several hundred Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the militant shock troops of the Iranian revolution, work closely in support of Hezbollah in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. Tehran also supports less powerful Shiite fundamentalist groups in Iraq, Bah- rain, and Afghanistan. But Shiite revolutionaries have seized power nowhere outside Iran. In fact, Shi- ite rebellions have been crushed in Iraq (1991) and Saudi Arabia (1979), and an Iranian-backed coup at- tempt was quashed in Bahrain in 198 1. Iranian-supported Islamic revolutions, however, now have better prospects for success. The dissolu- tion of the Soviet Union not only has opened up Central Asia to Iranian influence, but also has deprived secular Arab nationalist regimes in Algeria, Iraq, Libya, and Syria of a source of political, military, and economic support. The failure of Arab socialism in such countries as Algeria and Egypt has left them with feeble economies unable to absorb the huge number of youths who are entering the labor market. Faced with a bleak economic future, young Arabs are turning to radical fundamentalist movements to find hope and meaning in their lives. Some Arab fundamentalists, radicalized by the Islamic holy war Oihad) against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, have returned home to spearhead anti-government vio- lence in their own countries. Iranian-supported Muslim fundamentalists are well-positioned to exploit the collapse of Soviet communism and Arab socialism. Iran has established good working relations with several Sunni fundamentalist groups since 1990, in- cluding Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement); Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Pal- estine; the Islamic Group of Egypt; and similar groups in Algeria, Jordan, and Tunisia. The opening of Arab-Israeli peace talks at the Madrid Conference in October 1991 gave Iran and Palestinian fundamen- talists a common interest in disrupting the U.S.-sponsored negotiations by escalating terrorist attacks against Israel. Iran invited a Hamas delegation to attend an October 1992 international conference held in Tehran to coordinate opposition to the peace process. Tehran subsequently agreed to help train 2 Hamas terrorists, give Hamas $30 million over two years, and permit Hamas to open an "embassy" in Tehran. Israeli intelligence officials estimate that Iran now provides 10 to 20 percent of the roughly $70 million in donations that Hamas receives annually from its supporters around the world. Tehran has welcomed the terrorist offensive which Hamas launched against Israel in the last month, killing 62 people in four suicide bombings. The state-run Iranian news service called the bombings "God's retribution." Despite the worldwide revulsion triggered by the bombings, Iran remains one of Hamas' foremost foreign backers. Iran's efforts to reach out to Sunni fundamentalists have been facilitated by Iran's closest ally, Sudan, which is ruled by the only radical fundamentalist regime in the Arab world. Arab officials maintain that Sudan has helped Iran establish ties with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, the Renaissance fundamentalist movement in Tunisia, and the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria.

IRAN'S LINKS TO SUDAN Iran has become the chief supporter and ally of Sudan's National Islamic Front, a Sunni fundamental- ist movement that came to power following Lt. General Omar Hassan Bashir's 1989 coup. Sudan, Af- rica's largest state, offers Iran a strategic foothold to outflank Saudi Arabia and extend its revolutionary influence throughout North Africa and the Hom of Africa. Iranian-Sudanese cooperation escalated fol- lowing President Ali Akbar Hasherni Rafsanjani's December 1991 visit to Sudan. Hundreds of Iranian military advisers and Revolutionary Guards were dispatched to Sudan to help train the Sudanese Army and internal security forces. Iranians also are believed to be assisting Sudan's radical regime in its long- running war against Christian and animist rebels in southern Sudan. Although Iran claims that most of these personnel in Sudan are engaged in construction projects, per- sistent reports indicate that the Revolutionary Guards are training Islamic fundamentalist revolutionar- ies and terrorists, primarily from Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia. U.S. officials maintain that Iranians train terrorists in five camps around Khartoum that are equipped and financed by Iran. The Egyptian govern- ment contends that several thousand Egyptian fundamentalists have received training from Iranians in Sudanese camps. Egyptian intelligence officials claim to have evidence that Iran was responsible for training and organizing terrorists who have attacked foreign tourists in Egypt. Algeria expelled Iranian diplomats in November 1992 and broke diplomatic relations with Iran in March 1993 after accusing Te- hran of supporting Islamic radicals who have waged a bloody guerrilla war against Algeria's military re- gime that has resulted in the deaths of over 30,000 Algerians since 1991. Sudan has become in effect a "new Lebanon" where Iranian revolutionaries arm, train, and equip Arab fundamentalists for political violence while denying responsibility for their actions. Significantly, Iran's former ambassador to Sudan, Majid Kamal, helped create Hezbollah when he was the Iranian charg6 d'affaires in Beirut in the early 1980s. But unlike Lebanon, where Iran's freedom of action is constrained by Syria's military domination, the fundamentalist Sudanese government fully shares Iran's revolutionary goals. Sudan also is a valuable ally for Iran because of its key role in helping Iran to expand its contacts with Sunni fundamentalists, especially Egyptian and Palestinian groups opposed to peace negotiations with Israel. Iranian-supported Egyptian fundamentalists easily can infiltrate the porous Sudanese-Egyp- tian border, seeking to overthrow the Egyptian government. The Islamic Group, which considers Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman to be its spiritual leader, has launched terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds of Egyptians since early 1992. Egypt is one of Iran's most important targets for subversion because of its historic role as the preemi- nent Arab power. An Islamic revolution in Egypt would send shock waves throughout the Arab world and incite Islamic revolution elsewhere. Moreover, a radical fundamentalist Egypt would break its peace treaty with Israel and render moot the U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which Iran has 3 denounced as "treason." As the leading Muslim power unequivocally opposed to Israel's existence, Iran stands to gain much from prolonging the Arab-Israeli conflict.

IRAN'S SUPPORT OF TERRORISM Iran is the world's "most active state sponsor of international terrorism and continues to be directly in- volved in planning and executing terrorist acts," according to the State Department's most recent report on terrorism, Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1994, which was published in April 1995. Iranian intelli- gence agencies support terrorism, either directly or through extremist groups, primarily aimed against Iranian opposition movements, Israel, or moderate Arab regimes. Tehran has established over 20 ideo- logical and military training camps in Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan staffed by Arabic-speaking Revolution- ary Guards. Hezbollah, Iran's most important surrogate, has become the "world's principal international terrorist organization," according to former CIA Director James Woolsey, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 28, 1993. The Ubanon-based organization has established groups of sup- porters as far away as Australia, Canada, India, Indonesia, and South America. Hezbollah's long list of terrorist atrocities includes the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut Airport, and the kidnapping of most of the 15 American hostages held in Lebanon between 1984 and 1991.

The last American hostages held in Lebanon were released by Hezbollah at Iran's direction in late 1991 after Tehran concluded that it could gain nothing from holding the hostages any longer. Iran's use of terrorism as an instrument of policy remains undiminished, however. In recent years, Tehran has stepped up its terrorist attacks against Iranian exile leaders and Israel. More than a dozen Iranian dissi- dents have been assassinated in European cities since 1987, including the August 1991 murder of for- mer Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar in Paris and the September 1992 murders of four Kurd- ish opposition leaders in Berlin. Iran's terrorist campaign against exiled opposition activists appears to be growing in intensity in re- cent months. On February 20, 1996, two Iranian exiles were assassinated in Turkey. On March 2, two Sunni Iranian clerics were assassinated in Pakistan. And on March 7, another Iranian opposition activist was assassinated in Baghdad, the sixth killed inside Iraq since May 1995. Iran's assassins also have struck inside the United States. Iranian political activist Ali A. Tabatabai, the founder of the Iran Freedom Foundation, was murdered at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, on July 22,1980. Although Iranians recently have not been caught launching terrorist attacks on American targets, Iran furnishes substantial financial, logistical, and training support to terrorist groups that continue to target Americans. Tehran provided financial support, at a minimum, for some of the Islamic militants arrested for the February 1993 bombing that killed six people at the World Trade Center in New York. Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the radical Egyptian cleric who inspired and guided the bombers, long has been funded by Iran's intelligence service, according to Vincent Cannistraro, former head of CIA counterter- rorism operations. Sheik Omar reportedly was regularly given large sums of money by Iran's delega- tion to the United Nations. Although no direct Iranian participation has been established in the World Trade Center bombing, senior U.S. officials warned in March 1993 that Iranian-backed terrorist groups appeared to be becom- ing more aggressive. Iran also reportedly has begun cooperating with non-fundamentalist terrorist groups such as the Abu Nidal Organization, a renegade Palestinian terrorist group that has launched some of the bloodiest and most indiscriminate terrorist attacks, such as the December 1985 massacres at the Rome and Vienna airports. Iran also financially supports the Popular Front for the Liberation of Pal- estine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a pro-Syrian group which it reportedly asked in 1988 to bomb a 4 U.S. airliner in retaliation for the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian airliner by the U.S.S. Vin- cennes. The plot was disrupted by the arrest of a terrorist cell in Germany in October 1989. Libyan agents reportedly then bombed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. Iranian-supported terrorists have been particularly active against targets in Turkey. The Turkish Is- lamic Rhad claimed responsibility in 1992 for the murder of an Israeli diplomat and the bombing of an Istanbul synagogue. It also is believed to be responsible for a series of murders of Turkish journalists. Iran also supports the Marxist Kurdish Workers' Party, which has waged a long-running terrorist war against the government in eastern Turkey. But in recent years it has been Israel that has been the prime foreign target of Iran's terror campaign. Iran was involved in the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people. In March 1994, three Iranian agents were arrested in Thailand after an abortive attempt to deto- nate a truck bomb at the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok. Iranian involvement is also suspected in the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 96 people. Iran continues to support Hezbollah's terrorist offensive against Israeli forces along the Lebanese-Israeli border, as well as the terrorist operations of Hamas inside Israel. Under Iranian tutelage, Sudan has emerged as a leading sponsor of international terrorism. Sudan has given sanctuary to a wide spectrum of terrorist groups, including many Arab militants who participated in the fundamentalist jihad in Afghanistan. Sudan gave Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman sanctuary before he moved to New York. Two Sudanese diplomats were implicated in the aborted plot by eight of the Sheik's followers to bomb the United Nations headquarters in New York. Moreover, five of the eight suspected terrorists arrested for the plot in June 1993 were Sudanese. Sudan's escalating involvement in international terrorism led Washington in August 1993 to add Sudan to the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism, which also has included Iran since 1984. This prohibits the transfer of U.S. military equipment, militarily useful civilian technology, and foreign aid to the terrorist state, strips it of favorable trade privileges, and requires the U.S. to block loans by international financial institutions.

IRAN'S MILITARY BUILDUP Iran currently poses only a limited conventional military threat to its neighbors. Since the 1979 revo- lution, its armed forces have been weakened by political purges, huge losses of up to 60 percent of their major weapons systems in the eight-year war with Iraq, and shortages of spare parts for U.S. and West- em arms supplied before 1979. But President Rafsanjani has accorded a high priority to building Iran's military strength. Shortly after coming to power in July 1989, Rafsanjani traveled to Moscow to sign a $1.9 billion arms deal that included 48 modem MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters and 100 T-72 tanks. His gov- emment, in January 1990, allocated $2 billion per year for five years to buy advanced arms. Iran's ambitious military plans have sparked considerable concern that Tehran seeks to establish re- gional hegemony by building its military capabilities far beyond its legitimate defense needs. Iran's long-term objective reportedly is to acquire a modem air force of roughly 300 advanced combat air- craft; a modem army with 5,000 to 6,000 tanks, 2,000 self-propelled artillery pieces, and thousands of armored personnel carriers; and a navy upgraded with three advanced Russian Kilo-class submarines and scores of fast patrol boats armed with missiles. Iran also has purchased hundreds of ballistic missiles and the technology to produce them from North Korea and China. Tehran has acquired at least 300 SCUD-B surface-to-surface missiles with a range of approximately 185 miles, and an unknown number of improved SCUD-Cs, which have a range of ap- proximately 370 miles. These missiles enable Iran to attack states across the Persian Gulf. Iran also re- portedly has agreed to buy 150 North Korean Nodong I missiles with an estimated range of over 600 miles. These surface-to-surface missiles are capable of delivering conventional, chemical, or nuclear warheads on targets as far away as Israel. 5 Iran's missile buildup is especially worrisome given Tehran's determined efforts to build weapons of mass destruction. Iran has "the most active chemical warfare program" in the Third World, according to an anonymous U.S. government official quoted in the Washington Post on March 8, 1996. The CIA esti- mates that Iran has produced and stockpiled up to 2,000 tons of chemical warfare agents, which it used at least once during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran also has an active biological warfare program and is trying to buy biological agents from Europe that could be useful in developing such weapons, according to U.S. intelligence sources. Some U.S. experts believe that Iran already may have produced biological weapons in the form of toxins or anthrax. But the West's chief worry is Iran's effort to develop nuclear weapons, which has been making steady progress under the cover of Iran's civilian nuclear power program. CIA Director John Deutch stated in November 1995 that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in as little as four years if it re- ceived extensive foreign assistance. American intelligence analysts have reported that Iranian acquisi- tion teams have shopped for weapons-related nuclear equipment and nuclear scientists in the former So- viet Union, concentrating on Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine. In conclusion, although Iran now poses primarily an ideological, subversive, and terrorist threat to American interests in the Middle East and the Muslim world, in the long run Iran will pose an increas- ingly grave military threat to the security of the U.S., American military forces in the Middle East, and American allies in the region.


About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy