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Iran: U.S. Accuses Tehran Of Extending Its Support For Mideast Terrorist Groups (Part 2)

To back up its charges that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, the United States cites evidence it says proves that Tehran provides financial and possibly some weaponry to militant groups in the Mideast opposed to Israel. These militant groups -- including Lebanon's Hizballah and radical Palestinian Islamic groups like Hamas -- have previously carried out or continue to carry out attacks that kill civilians as part of their conflict with the Jewish state. Iran does not hide its close relations with Hizballah, which include meetings in Damascus or Tehran with leaders of the group. But it calls the Shi'ite Hizballah -- which forced Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in 2000 -- a liberation movement, not a terrorist group. The Islamic Republic extends the same terminology to Sunni Palestinian groups like Hamas because they also are fighting to evict Israel from what Tehran says is Muslim land. Tehran does not recognize Israel as a state. In Part 2 of RFE/RL's four-part series on Iran and terrorism, we look at the evidence cited to substantiate accusations that Iran supports militant groups in the Middle East. We also look at more recent U.S. charges that Iran is extending this same pattern of support to radical groups opposing the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Both sets of accusations are a central cause of the tensions that continue to prevent Washington and Tehran from reestablishing relations 26 years after Iran's Islamic Revolution. This series is based on material prepared by Radio Farda's Mehdi Khalaji and Ardavan Niknam, with additional reporting by Parichehr Farzam.

Prague, 10 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Immediately after taking power in Iran, the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called for exporting the Islamic Revolution to other countries.

In one of his messages, Khomeini said, "We will not rest until the slogan, 'There is but one God and Muhammad is his prophet,' echoes through the whole world."

He considered Israel -- which had good ties with the deposed shah and is a close ally of Washington -- an enemy in his global struggle, second only to the United States. The reason was what he considered Israel's illegitimate occupation of Muslim land.

The feelings about Israel were expressed in propaganda campaigns aimed at both domestic and foreign audiences. In Iran, the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan was proclaimed as Qods Day. Qods is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. Qods Day was to remember that the city -- Islam's third holiest after Mecca and Medina -- is under the control of a non-Muslim power.

Ayatollah Khomeini described Qods Day as marking a Muslim struggle not only against Israel but all "arrogant" powers. "Qods Day is a day to warn all superpowers that Islam is no more under their domination through their evil mercenaries," he said.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the conflict with the Palestinians spread to include a country with a sizable Shi'ite community. Shi'ite Iran responded by supporting the Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah as a guerrilla force battling Israel's establishment of an occupied "buffer zone" across much of southern Lebanon.

Hajir Teymourian, a Middle East expert in London, described Tehran's activity. "The most important terrorist organization that Iran helped form was Hizballah, which was set up in 1982 by Iran's ambassador in Lebanon, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour. According to journalists, it still receives tens of millions of dollars of economic and military aid from Iran annually. For 12 years, Hizballah was the major kidnapper of Western citizens in Lebanon, and caused Iran's government to be internationally isolated as a terrorist state -- an isolation that still continues -- and inflicted billions of dollars of damages on Iran's economy. I think no one doubts that [the militant Islamic groups] Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are also supported by Iran," Teymourian said.

On the world stage, Tehran always denied that it gave military support to Hizballah, a group that not only became notorious for kidnapping Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s, but also for killing more than 240 U.S. soldiers in a 1983 suicide bombing of their Beirut barracks. It also hijacked a U.S. commercial airliner in 1985.

But inside Iran, figures such as Hassan Abbasi, a high-ranking commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and head of the Islamic Republic's Doctrinal Strategic Center, openly spoke of the country's close ties with Hizballah. He described the group's activities as "sacred."

"If something can be done to terrorize and scare the camp of infidelity and the enemies of God and the people, such terror is sacred. This terrorism is sacred. Lebanon's Hizballah was trained by these very hands. Pay attention! Do you see these hands? Hizballah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad were trained by these very hands," Abbasi said.

Gary Sick was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Islamic Revolution and is a prominent U.S. expert on the Islamic Republic. He said factional struggles within the Iranian establishment have made it hard to know whether the support of Hizballah comes directly from Iran's elected government or, instead, from hard-line organizations like the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, which enjoy considerable independence.

"Obviously, Iran claims absolutely that it does not support terrorism. But it does, however, make no apologies that it supports Hizballah, which from the Iranian point of view and from Hizballah's point of view is fighting a war of liberation against Israel," Sick said. "They consider that a legitimate activity. They deny that they, in fact, train and support terrorist activities. Iran has a particular problem, and that is that Iran is comprised of two or three different governments, different groups of people, different factions, each of which has a certain amount of control over things that happen. It is possibly very true that people such as President [Mohammad] Khatami may not, in fact, even know what people in some parts of the Revolutionary Guards, for instance, are doing with Hizballah. But, in any case, the government is held responsible. So Iran has created a problem for itself to some degree by its rhetoric, very strong rhetoric, which some people say is more 'Palestinian' than the [rhetoric of the] Palestinians themselves."

Tallal Salman, editor of Lebanon's "Al-Safir" daily, believes Iran not only supports Hizballah but also tries to extend support to Palestinian militant groups -- though it is logistically more difficult to do so.

"Any resistance [movement] has its own conditions," Salman said. "Lebanon is geographically tied to Syria, and in terms of military support and training, Iran does have the means to help Hizballah. But it is much more difficult in Palestine. Iran obviously gives political support to Palestinian groups, and also other forms of support that we may not be able to detect. But I believe that even today, there is an organic connection between Iran, Hizballah, and Palestinian groups."

In one sign of support for Palestinian militant groups, Iran hosted former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as one of its first foreign visitors immediately after the Islamic Revolution. At the time, many Iranians reportedly named their newborn sons Yasser in enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause. More recently, in January 2002, Israel stopped a ship loaded with arms, which Arafat eventually acknowledged was destined for the Palestinian Authority. Both Israel and the United States said the arms originated in Iran, which Tehran denied.

But as Arafat pursued on-and-off peace talks with Israel, Iran's relations with him cooled. Tehran saw his attempts to negotiate as falling short of its own policy of fully opposing the Jewish state.

In recent months, Washington's concerns over Iran as a sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East have shifted from the Arab-Israeli conflict, further east to Iraq.

Kenneth Katzman, a regional expert with the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C., said the concern for many in Washington now is that Iran is supporting groups in southern Iraq who might want to form a nondemocratic, strict Islamic government modeled after Iran.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have accused Iran -- as well as Syria -- of interfering in Iraq by permitting groups in their countries to supply Iraqi insurgents with money and other resources.

U.S. President George W. Bush repeated the charges against both countries recently. "We will continue to make it clear, to both Syria and Iran, that -- as will other nations in our coalition, including our friends the Italians -- that meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interest," Bush said.

Iran and Syria reject charges of interfering in Iraq. On 16 February, the two countries declared that they had formed a mutual self-defense pact to confront "threats" -- an apparent reference to the United States.

Outside of the Middle East, Iran also appears to have sought to use its aid to Bosnia's Muslims during the conflict there to secretly train fundamentalist groups.

Analyst Nima Rashedan said much of the evidence of such activities comes from documents seized by NATO forces in Bosnia.

"This is a case that happened in a place in Bosnia. Before the Dayton Accords and the presence of the United States and NATO in Bosnia, the Islamic Republic had sent groups to Bosnia, including the Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force, led by Mohammad Reza Shams Naqdi, and his deputy, Hossein Allahkaram, based near Sarajevo -- another group from the Intelligence Ministry -- who had set up a camp, training fundamentalists close to [Alija] Izetbegovic's Democratic Action Party, to establish the intelligence apparatus of Bosnia. Later, NATO attacked the camp and arrested a number of people, including Iranian intelligence officials. The most interesting point was the discovery of documents that were part of the curriculum for the training of Bosnian intelligence recruits by Iranians. Among the instructions in the texts were methods for killing opposition figures and silencing journalists. That is, the Intelligence Ministry instructed a foreign organization's members how to intimidate, hunt, kidnap, eliminate, and threaten the families and the financial sources of journalists," Rashedan said.

(Part 3 looks at charges that hard-line elements of the Iranian regime have used terrorism to silence dissidents at home.)

See also:

Iran: Difficult Relations With U.S. Marked By Mutual Distrust (Part 1)

Iran: Rushdie Affair Continues To Cloud Tehran's Claims Of Rejecting Violence (Part 4)