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Why Iran remains the world’s top terrorist sponsor

Iran is still the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, according to an annual report from the US Department of State. Justin Siberell, the department’s acting coordinator for counterterrorism, emphasized in a recent briefing that “Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism.”

This is nothing new. Iran has been on the list of states sponsoring terrorism since 1984. But three major questions need to be adequately addressed: How has Iran remained the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism? Why does the Iranian regime continue to follow policies that make it the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism? And what policies should governments implement to halt Iran’s growing influence and support for terrorism?

Iran plays a critical role in global terrorism through various platforms. The first strategy is asymmetrical warfare. Through militias and terrorist groups, the Iranian regime indirectly destabilizes other nations, creating chaos, violence and wars.

After inflicting shock on foreign societies and political entities, Iran pushes for its militias to take over or have a significant say in new political establishments. These efforts by Iranian leaders are mostly evident in Sunni Arab nations where Tehran attempts to tip the balance of power in favor of the Shiite, grow its influence, and undermine Sunni communities.

The reasons behind the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism include, but are not limited to, establishing supremacy and realizing its hegemonic ambitions, achieving its foreign policy objectives, and exporting Tehran’s revolutionary principles, established in 1979.

Currently, Iran supports more than 120 militia and designated terrorism groups, located solely in the Middle East and North Africa. The number increases as conflicts escalate. Chaos and instability grant Tehran the perfect environment in which to form powerful militia groups. Examples include Hezbollah, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), the Badr Organization in Iraq, and Shiite militias in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

Having established a group, Iran then creates a complex network in order to facilitate its operation in more than one country. A recent example is the deployment of Iraqi militias and Hezbollah to fight in Syria. The assistance that Iran provides to its militias is multi-faceted, and includes finance, consistently upgraded military hardware, advice, intelligence and training.

The major institutions that facilitate this assistance are Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite Quds Force, and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security under the leadership of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy.

Tehran’s strategy is based on asymmetrical warfare. Through militias and terrorist groups, the Iranian regime indirectly destabilizes other nations, creating chaos, violence and wars.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Iran has also provided assistance to non-Shiite terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda. Tehran continues to shelter members of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, enabling them to continue to plot attacks across the world. Iran allies itself with any militia and terrorist group, regardless of its religious nature, as long as that organization shares Iran’s ideals and foreign policy objectives.

In addition, as Iran’s minister of intelligence previously admitted in a state TV interview, Tehran funds and uses foreign nationals, mainly of Iranian background, to act as agents, spies and lobbyists. This is particularly evident in Washington where major global policies are implemented.

Iran’s use of asymmetrical warfare means Tehran can avoid direct war with the US or its allies. Iran’s leaders know that such a conflict would end in defeat for Tehran.

But Iran has more direct involvement in terrorism, too. Iran sends troops and undercover agents (sometimes by obtaining visas under the cover of academic research or tourism) to arm, fight, gather intelligence for, or otherwise assist militia groups. Several countries including Kuwait have detained many Iranians trying to infiltrate their country.

And Tehran also uses its embassies, cultural centers and diplomats in foreign countries to act as cells to organize and construct terror groups. A recent Supreme Court ruling in Kuwait revealed how Iran’s embassy there has played a role in forming terror cells. Iran’s ambassador and diplomats were expelled.

Finally, Tehran uses cyber-terrorism to conduct attacks on various governmental, non-governmental and private-sector entities.

Although political and economic sanctions help counter Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, sanctions alone are not sufficient, as history has shown over decades. A military force is needed to counter Iran’s activities and militias in various countries. Officially recognizing and supporting Iran’s opposition groups in exile is also a powerful tool. In addition, governments need to decide whether their policy is to change the Iranian regime or simply contain it. But we should remember that, nearly four decades on from the establishment of the Iranian regime, attempts to contain Tehran have been neither effective nor adequate.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.