Don’t downplay Iran’s sponsorship of terror

For years, Iran has occupied a special position at the top of the pro-Israel movement’s agenda. In one of my recent blog posts, I discussed the Iranian nuclear threat in vague terms, including a short section on Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. I see the role that Iran plays in promoting terrorism, however, as more than a minor talking point, and I wanted to provide my audience with a more detailed account of some of Iran’s most dangerous projects. This is an issue about which many are not well informed, but it is a large part of the reason that a nuclear Iran is so dangerous.

Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has had a stunning influence over the Middle East, leading to the rise of many of the problems that Israel and the region face today. For example, the enormous Palestinian suffering that Hamas has brought about for its own political gain in Gaza (as recently as this week) can be traced back to the Iranian maneuvering that radicalized Hamas in the first place.

The role that Iran has played in inspiring and funding terrorism against Israel and many others cannot be stressed enough, and I hope that my fellow Zionists will prioritize spreading that message when they discuss the Iranian nuclear threat. Iran has a history of being an extremely dangerous presence in the region, but it should be lost on no one that said history is only a shadow of the destructive potential that the same fundamentalist leaders would gain with the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.


In 1979, Islamist fundamentalists in Iran under the leadership of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the US-backed government of Shah Mohammad Pahlavi, some of their number seizing the American embassy in Tehran and triggering a diplomatic crisis that has yet to be resolved. Since then, in the words of esteemed Israeli historian Benny Morris, Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, have been “exporting their fiery brand of Islam around the Middle East.” The Iranian Revolution and the regimes to which it gave rise have created and empowered extremist groups all over the world, and in particular Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. Tellingly, all three of those organizations were founded within a few years of the Revolution. The fundamentalist rulers in Iran over the past few decades have played a hugely significant role in the formation and radicalization of anti-Israel extremist groups.

Hezbollah, from its emergence to its most recent activities, has served as a prime example of Iran’s exportation of terrorism following the Islamic Revolution. The Lebanon-based, Shi’a “Party of G-d” originally split off of the comparatively less radical Amal militia under the leadership of religious figures trained in Tehran during the Lebanese Civil War, and those leaders used the newly Islamist Iran as the model for the religiously oppressive society that they sought (and seek) to create in Lebanon. In fact, Hezbollah’s first militants were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the branch of the Iranian military founded immediately after the Revolution to carry out the supreme leader’s fundamentalist aims (and an organization that has become an entrenched fixture in Iranian society, with significant political, military, and financial power). Iran set up two training camps near Baalbek, which together turned out more than five thousand trained terrorists in only a few years, under the command of Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, Iran’s ambassador in Damascus. After the war, Hezbollah continued to utilize the flow of money, weapons, and military expertise from Iran to target Israeli soldiers and civilians throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Iranian arms still routinely make their way across Syria with the tacit approval of the country’s embattled President, Bashar al-Assad, up to today, as Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah prepares his forces for the future wars against Israel that he has so often promised to wage. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, in which combatants from both Hezbollah and the IRGC are participating in support of al-Assad (whom they view as an important regional ally due to his sour relations with Israel and the United States and the favoritism he exhibits for members of his own Alawite sect of Islam and other Shi’a Muslims), Israel has frequently intervened to stop further smuggling of weapons from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah depots in Lebanon. From the Lebanese Civil War to the present day, Iran has played an important role in forming and maintaining Hezbollah.

Its activities far from limited to Lebanon, Iran has also played a critical role in the empowerment of other anti-Israel terrorist groups, such as Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza. The Gaza-based Islamic Jihad Movement (not to be confused with Hezbollah’s 1980s-90s cover organization in Lebanon by the same name) was formed by leaders inspired by the Iranian Revolution and, in fact, the uniting feature of the radical groups that came together under Islamic Jihad’s umbrella (the organization is a coalition of several smaller Palestinian terrorist organizations) was their close relationships with the new Iranian regime. Since then, Iran has remained Islamic Jihad’s top source of funding and weapons. For example, the Iranian government encouraged and funded Islamic Jihad (along with Hamas) to mount a terrorist campaign in the mid-1990s, and, more recently, Islamic Jihad Leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah credited Iran for its significant support of the major terrorist organizations involved in last summer’s Gaza war, as he was quoted in the Times of Israel as saying, “Without Iran’s strategic and efficient help, resistance and victory in Gaza would have been impossible.” Since its founding, Islamic Jihad has been dependent on the Iranian government for everything from the political bonds that hold its sub-factions together to financial and military backing.

Hamas, of course, is another important beneficiary of Iran’s post-Revolution fundamentalism. While the organization originally emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood, its radicalism was ignited in large part by Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, each of which was, in turn, formed under Iranian tutelage (as described above). Regarding the former, many leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood felt pressure to take on increasingly radical stances and tactics in order to keep up with Islamic Jihad, which soon became a dangerous rival in the battle for Palestinian popular support. In the words of Katerina Dalacoura of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Islamic Jihad’s presence, “was a key factor in spearheading Hamas’s creation,” and “the spiraling competition between the two movements also contributed to the escalation of terrorism.”

In contrast with the competitive relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, ties between Hamas and Hezbollah have historically been very strong. Hamas has sought to model its media strategies after Hezbollah’s, and Hezbollah has provided training and financial (as well as political) support for Hamas. In particular, Hezbollah redoubled its efforts to support Hamas with both propaganda and operational backing during the Second Intifada. Thus Iran’s support for other terror organizations has indirectly played a significant role in the development of Hamas as a radical terror organization itself.

Aside from the tremendous effects that Iran’s proxies have had on Hamas, the Iranian government has provided more direct support for the organization’s activities in a variety of ways. In 2009, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was quoted as saying, “Other Arab and Islamic states also support us . . . but the Iranian backing is in the lead, and therefore we highly appreciate and thank Iran for this.” Indeed, Meshaal has good reason to demonstrate his gratitude to the Iranian regime, as the ayatollahs have supported Hamas in countless ways over the years. Iran’s government has provided Hamas with huge amounts of arms, funding (funneling some $20-30 million a year into the Hamas budget), and training (Hamas militants have been known to escape Gaza to be trained on Iranian soil). Iranian funding helped enable Hamas to begin serving the quasi-governmental function that it does in Gaza today, allowing it to anchor itself deeply in Palestinian society. That same funding also allows Hamas to rebuild and rearm itself after each escalation with Israel, empowering it to initiate such escalations whenever it is politically expedient to do so. Although there was something of a crisis in relations between Hamas and Iran after the former refused to stand by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian Civil War (the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, to which Hamas is still very strongly connected, is a major player in the rebellion against the Syrian regime, leading to a difficult conflict of interest for Hamas’ leaders to navigate), ties between the two are warming up once again, and Iran served a crucial role in aiding Hamas during last summer’s war with Israel. In these ways, Iran’s post-Revolution government has supported Hamas in very direct ways for decades.

It should be noted that Iran’s extremist tentacles are by no means limited to attacks on Israel, but have reached all over the Middle East and beyond. Since the Islamic Revolution, the country has sought to destabilize governments in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Soldiers from the IRGC were likely involved in deadly attacks on American and French peacekeeping forces in Lebanon in 1983, and Iran was certainly heavily involved in the bombings of Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994. In both 1981 and 1996, Iran and its proxies attempted to orchestrate coups in Bahrain, and the Bahraini government accused Iran throughout the Arab Spring of aiding the violent Shi’a rebels against whom both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent combatants to the small island nation. Iran has also been convincingly implicated in terror attacks on officials of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf Nations.

Bizarrely, Iran has even been found to support certain Sunni extremist groups that it generally regards as enemies in order to advance its own anti-Western aims. For example, Iran has cautiously supported the Taliban in Afghanistan in an effort to keep American troops busy to its east. It has also provided asylum for al-Qaeda leaders over the past few years (although many of those leaders are under a relaxed house arrest) after the IRGC actively facilitated the movement of Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda personnel onto Iranian soil following the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invasion in 2001. Today, in addition to its continued support for Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, Iran is backing the Houthi Zaidi Shi’a rebels of northern Yemen as they bloodily push the impoverished and ever-unstable Gulf nation to the brink of total collapse. Indeed, the effects of Iranian-sponsored terrorism are felt well beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has sponsored and inspired terrorism in a range of significant ways, giving rise to Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and other terror organizations. Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad were born out of Iranian efforts, and Hamas arose indirectly due to the activities of those two organizations. Over the past few decades, Iran has continued to provide all manner of direct and indirect support to those three organizations and others all over the Middle East and the world. These policies are part of the reason that Israel is so afraid of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, and thus they have greatly influenced the tense political situation that exists today between Iran and Israel’s Western allies and the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 world powers (Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany). If outside pressure is ever able to cause a serious change in Iranian policy, the terrorist networks that Iran supports across the Middle East will be undermined and some of the ongoing conflicts in the region will inch closer to the point at which they can be resolved.


I hope that my readers will not only read this post and absorb the information for themselves, but will also use it as further evidence for the need to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Leaders and policy makers, whether they are members of campus political organizations or of the United States Congress, should understand the extent to which some of the most intractable problems of the Middle East have been generated by the Iranian government in recent decades. They should take action by supporting sanctions against Iran in the event that negotiations fail (so that Iran’s leaders have a genuine interest in reaching a legitimate agreement), by staying true to the line, “no deal is better than a bad deal” (so that the P5+1 powers do not make the mistake of allowing Iran to remain on the brink of becoming a nuclear state), by keeping all options on the table (including a credible military threat), and by committing to never letting Iran go nuclear.


This is an adapted version of a paper that I wrote for my class on Israel’s wars. I hope that it will serve as a useful tool to those who are working hard to fight against the Iranian regime’s quest for nuclear weapons, regional dominance, and the destruction of the State of Israel.

About the Author
Benjamin Gladstone is a junior at Brown University, where he is pursuing degrees in Middle East Studies and Judaic Studies and where he serves as president of Brown Students for Israel, the Brown University Coalition for Syria, and Students for Responsible Policies in Yemen. In addition to blogging with the Times of Israel, Benjamin is a Scribe Contributor at The Forward, and his work has been published in the Tower Magazine, the Jewish Advocate, the Brand Of Milk And Honey, the Hill, the Brown Daily Herald, the Brown Political Review, and the New York Times. He is a founder and editor of ProgressME, a student publication that highlights underrepresented voices on Southwest Asian issues.