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Analysis: A Look At Iran's Sponsorship Of Terror Groups

  • Bill Samii --> The Iranian Constitution states that in order to attain its objectives the country's foreign policy must be based on "Islamic criteria, fraternal commitment to all Muslims, and unsparing support to the freedom fighters of the world" (Article 3). Furthermore, "[Iran] supports the rightful struggle of the oppressed people against their oppressors anywhere in the world" (Article 154). These requirements, as well as a desire to export the revolution, are a primary factor behind Iran's support for what the United States identifies as terrorist organizations. Iran's more recent reliance on asymmetric warfare in its military doctrine, furthermore, underscores that such support will continue.

The U.S. State Department first identified Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in January 1984, and it has borne that designation every year since despite Iran's denials of involvement. The State Department currently views Iran as the leading state sponsor of terrorism, according to its annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report ( While Iran does not have an official "Ministry of Terrorism," the State Department report notes the involvement of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Intelligence and Security Ministry (MOIS) in terrorist activities, although it does not single out any individuals for involvement.

Distrust of the officer corps in the regular armed forces led to creation of the IRGC shortly after Iran's 1979 revolution (see Kenneth Katzman, "The Warriors of Islam: Iran's Revolutionary Guard," and Nikola B. Schahgaldian, "The Iranian Military Under the Islamic Republic."). Initially, the IRGC was headed by individuals with similar backgrounds in the opposition, including training in Lebanon. Mohsen Rezai headed the IRGC from 1981-97 and he now serves as secretary of the Expediency Council.
Some may debate the definition of terrorism, but there is no question that organizations openly backed by Iran are responsible for hundreds of deaths. Iran, therefore, is at least partially responsible for those killings.

The current head of the IRGC is General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, who served as deputy to Rezai. The deputy commander is Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr. Some observers believe that Zolqadr heads the IRGC's Qods Force, a special operations unit that is believed to be responsible for terrorist activities. The IRGC worked closely with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and afterward, and it sent personnel to Lebanon in the 1980s to work with Hizballah.

A Revolutionary Guards Ministry headed by Mohsen Rafiqdust existed from 1982 until 1989. Rafiqdust would go on to head the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, which continues to fund IRGC activities. Its overseas enterprises serve as fronts for IRGC operations (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 June 1999). The background of the current head of the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, Mohammad Foruzandeh, can be traced to the IRGC, too. Born in 1953, Foruzandeh studied at Tehran Teachers' Training College until his expulsion for antiregime activities. After the Islamic Revolution, he served as governor-general of Khuzestan Province. In 1986, Foruzandeh served as the IRGC chief of staff, and in 1993 he was appointed as defense minister by then-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

The Iranian parliament passed legislation on creating an intelligence agency in 1983, and the Intelligence and Security Ministry was established the next year in an effort to eliminate competition between numerous institutions and committees. Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri headed the ministry from 1984 until 1989. Reyshahri served as chief judge of the Military Revolutionary Tribunal in the immediate post-revolution period. Reyshahri later served as prosecutor of the Special Court for the Clergy. In 1991, Reyshahri replaced Ahmad Khomeini as leader of the Iranian delegation to the Hajj pilgrimage. Reyshahri founded the Society for the Defense of Values of the Islamic Revolution in 1996 and stood as its candidate in the 1997 presidential election. In April 1997, Reyshahri was appointed to the Council for the Discernment of Expediency by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, and he is now a member of the Assembly of Experts. Reyshahri also heads the Shah Abdolazim shrine foundation.

The second intelligence and security minister was Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani. He was born in Najafabad in 1949, and he studied theology at Qom's Haqqani seminary. After 1979 he served as a revolutionary court judge in Abadan. In 1981, he was appointed to the court in Bakhtaran, Kermanshah Province, and in coordination with the IRGC he participated in the dismantling of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization. Fallahian-Khuzestani was appointed to the leadership of the revolutionary committees in 1982. He began working at the Intelligence and Security Ministry in 1984 as a deputy minister, in 1986 he began work as prosecutor in the Special Court for the Clergy, and in 1988 he was made head of the Armed Forces Inspectorate. Fallahian served as intelligence and security minister from 1989-97. He currently serves on the Assembly of Experts.

The next intelligence and security minister, Hojatoleslam Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi, had served as a legislator and did not have a background in intelligence or security affairs. He was welcomed as a "relatively liberal and pragmatic cleric," London's "The Times" reported in August 1997. A Friday Prayer leader, Dori-Najafabadi also served as a parliamentarian, member of the Assembly of Experts, head of the board of directors and secretary of the World Center for Islamic Science in Qom, and as a member of the Council for the Discernment of Expediency. He was forced to resign from the Intelligence and Security Ministry in 1999 over allegations that rogue elements within the ministry assassinated Iranian dissidents and intellectuals. Dori-Najafabadi currently serves on the Expediency Council.

The current intelligence and security minister is Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi. Born in Hamedan in 1955, Yunesi studied in a Qom seminary. Because of his political activism, he was imprisoned by the monarchy several times, until he left for military training in Palestinian and Lebanese camps. After the revolution, Yunesi held a number of positions in the judicial arena. His background in intelligence work includes service as representative of the Armed Forces deputy commander in chief to the military intelligence department. Yunesi worked with Reyshahri in creating the Intelligence and Security Ministry. He served on the committee investigating the 1998-99 murders of intellectuals and oppositionists in Iran.

Authoritative information on the structure of the Intelligence and Security Ministry or the size of its workforce is not publicly available. It handles domestic and foreign intelligence activities, which includes dealing with neighboring states as well as relations with so-called "liberation movements" (for example, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas). It also addresses ethnic and sectarian issues within the country, and it monitors the clerical community and government officials. The Intelligence and Security Ministry, IRGC intelligence unit, and the IRGC's Qods Force work together (On the MOIS structure, see Wilfried Buchta, "Who Rules Iran? The Structure of Power in the Islamic Republic.").

One Iranian official, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, makes no effort to hide his close association with Hizballah and other groups described by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations. He was ambassador to Damascus from 1981 to 1985, Interior Minister from 1985-89, and a parliamentarian in 1989-93 and again in 2000-04. He was closely involved with the creation of Hizballah and also with the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. After he went to the Interior Ministry there was a bureaucratic tug-of-war over who would control the Liberation Movements Office.

Mohtashami-Pur is secretary-general of the International Conference to Support the Palestinian Uprising (Intifada), which was held in Tehran in April 2001 and June 2002. Representatives from Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Peoples' Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command participate in these events. Mohtashami-Pur has attended smaller events like this in Beirut and Damascus in the last four years.

Tehran consistently rejects accusations of involvement with or support for international terrorism and claims instead that it is a victim of this phenomenon. Some observers may debate the definition of terrorism, but there is no question that organizations openly backed by Iran are responsible for hundreds of deaths. Iran, therefore, is at least partially responsible for those killings.