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Alex Alfirraz Scheers

The role of terrorism in Iranian foreign policy

As Iran returns to the polls on July 5 for its presidential run-off elections, the international debate around what a new president will mean for Iran’s foreign policy has been raging. However, what has been lacking from the debate is a thorough examination of the role of terrorism in Iranian foreign policy. History reveals that it matters little who holds executive office in Tehran when it comes to Iranian subversive and terrorist activities in Europe. In this article, I will provide a historical examination of the way Iran has used terrorism to undermine and destabilise Europe. I will supplement this historical examination with recent examples of Iranian asymmetric activities on the continent. Ultimately, whoever wins on July 5, terrorism will continue to be a core component of Iran’s foreign policy modus operandi, just as it has been since 1979.

Iran’s foreign policy is driven by two motivating factors. In the short term, Iran’s foreign policy is oriented toward regime survival. The regime, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, faces what it perceives to be many threats emanating regionally and globally. Since 1979, Iran’s relationship with Western Europe has been tense. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the body responsible for conducting many vital state activities, including its foreign policy, faces vociferous calls to be banned in several European nations, including the United Kingdom.[1] It has been accused of engaging in subversive activities, including conspiring to commit acts of terrorism on European soil. Hence, in the short term, Iran’s foreign policy objective is rooted in pragmatism, and makes recurrent use of asymmetric methods operating below the legal threshold.

In the long term, however, Iran’s foreign policy goal is to ‘perpetuate the Islamic revolution’ and to ‘prepare the ground for the creation of a single world Ommat’[2] or religious community. The export of the revolution, in other words mass proselytization and propagandisation of the Iranian regime’s brand of Shia Islam, is the stated driving force in Iran’s constitution. Here, the foreign policy objective is founded on a strict ideological premise and reflects less a rational pragmatism and resembles more a religious fervour. The role of pragmatism and the proactive dissemination of Iran’s brand of Shia Islam serve the same purpose: to ensure that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s clerical regime survives, and to endow the regime with the legitimacy to wield power and govern Iran. In this article, I will argue that the use of terrorism by the Iranian regime is to serve these two principal objectives.

Background of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Foreign Policy

The regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979, by means of a popular revolution. The founder of the Islamic Republic was a Shia cleric, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His vision for the country centred on an orthodox adherence of Shia Islam. At the heart of this orthodoxy were two fundamental concepts: the first, that a hidden Imam known as the 12th Imam would one day descend upon earth, and that the leader of Iran is simply a guardian until the arrival of the 12th Imam.[3] The Supreme Leader is the guardian of the nation and is often referred to as the faqih. The faqih is the preeminent expert in Islamic law and practices. Hence, the Islamic Republic’s compass as a nation is directed toward a destiny conceptualised by a puritanical version of Shia doctrine. Its constitution endows the Supreme Leader with indomitable authority in the realms of the state, including in shaping and dictating its foreign policy. Indeed, the ideological quality of the constitution indelibly informs Iran’s foreign policy. The direction of Iran’s foreign policy is couched in absolutist, yet equally vague, terms. As Article 152 of the constitution states: ‘the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran shall be based on the defence of rights of all Muslims.’[4] Therefore, the symbolic guardianship of the nation as enshrined in the constitution is one that transcends national borders—reflecting the scope and the ambition of the Islamic Republic.

While Iran seeks to champion a doctrinal cause inherent in its religious provenance, it also seeks to act as the doyen and the defender of Muslims the world over. While this might suggest that normative considerations informed the Islamic Republic’s nascent foreign policy, in fact it reflects a power maximising logic instead, one that endures to this day. By claiming to represent all Muslims, the Islamic Republic seeks to establish a form of religious legitimacy that enhances its authority at home and bolsters its clout abroad. This grants the regime the kind of global reach and influence it could never attain had it claimed to speak solely for Iranians, or indeed uniquely for Shia Muslims. This aligns with realist notions of states seeking power interests and utilising expansionism to enhance regime security and gain status.[5] Thus, the regime’s reasoning goes, the role of religion in Iran’s foreign policy negates the need to set limitations on its national interests abroad, pretexted by its claim to be a voice for all Muslims—a role that is both self-assigned and claimed to be divinely attributed to the Supreme Leader. As the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stated, ‘Iran seeks to enhance its regional and global stature to promote its ideals’.[6]

The Ayatollah Khomeini established two principles to achieve Iran’s foreign policy goals. The first principle was ‘Neither East nor West but the Islamic Republic’, and the second ‘Export the Revolution’. The historical and logical landscape within which these principles were conceived was a deeply precarious one. Iran had been subjected to foreign coups in its past, such as the CIA-executed overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddeq in Operation Ajax in 1953. In 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and initiated a war that would plague both sides for 8 years and cause a million deaths. Hence placing regime survival at the heart of Iranian foreign policy is not only justifiable, but also necessary, from the vantage point of the head of a government that has had powerful enemies from its outset. As Gomari-Luksch states, ‘in a hostile anarchical international setting, a state must relentlessly pursue its own survival and can undertake political manoeuvres in doing so.’[7] The hemispheric poles referenced in the first principle signifies a rejection of Cold War superpowers the United States and the USSR. Independence from great power competition meant that Iran could pursue its foreign policy objectives seemingly without compromise. Neither power in the bipolar world order shared in the Ayatollah’s vision of what Carl Anthony Wege termed Iran’s pursuit of an ‘Islamist imperium.’[8]

Rejecting the superpowers signalled Iran’s intent to chart an entirely different foreign policy course—one shaped by theocratic, as opposed to capitalist or communist, considerations. Under the guise of religious and moral authority, Iran could advance its cause without being beholden to an arbitrary hegemonic force in world politics. It also reflects Iran’s practical, tangible foreign policy objective—the objective through which religious rhetoric would serve as a vessel. Namely, Iran’s aspirations to be religious and political hegemon, both regionally and globally.

Here, Iran’s second foreign policy principle, that of ‘Exporting the Revolution’ is most saliently illustrative of the regime’s hegemonic ambitions. The export of the revolution was a model designed to inspire analogous Islamic revolutions throughout the region. In other words, Iran sought to inspire a hostile takeover of the Muslim world by proxy.  And its foreign policy would provide the strategic blueprint for this aspiration. As Khomeini advocated for in his 1987 ‘manifesto of the Islamic Revolution’, Muslims around the globe were urged to join in the struggle against ‘pagan’ nations such as the superpowers and Israel, as well as their subordinates in the Muslim world, including arch-rivals Saudi Arabia. Thus, the Islamic Republic established a Manichean narrative reflecting what the regime held to be an anarchic international environment, in which only a zero-sum outcome can be achieved.

Its prognosis for this world view was ultimately isolation and militarised rivalries. As Khomeini once stated: ‘we must become isolated in order to become independent.’[9] By calling on the Muslim world to reject the great powers and their ‘servant’ Islamic allies, the regime sought to destabilise its adversaries, so that it might benefit from the internal disorder it hoped to sow within enemy borders. In other words, by weakening their adversaries, Iran believes it can better maintain its vital interests. ‘Terrorism is an important instrument of Iranian policy,’ writes a 1987 CIA report, ‘[which is] used to promote national interests and export the regime’s revolutionary ideals.’[10] This fundamentally realist approach to foreign policy underpins Iran’s use of terrorism and subversion to this day.

 

Intelligence and Diplomacy in Iranian Terrorism Plots in Europe

In the 1980s, Ayatollah Khomeini established two intelligence organisations to oversee Iran’s foreign policy objectives. These organisations are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Intelligence Organisation (IRGC-IO) and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). Both organisations have been involved in the planning and executing of terrorist activities in Europe, and both have also had a considerable role to play in the constructing of networks across several European cities. The IRGC – IO’s foreign policy portfolio includes presiding over Iran’s external intelligence operations, such as espionage, covert operations, and providing material and logistical support for terrorist activities. The MOIS is predominantly a civilian intelligence organisation, and whilst its primary remit is domestic intelligence, it has been involved in spying on Iranians abroad, and provides support to diplomats operating as covert agents advancing the regime’s foreign policy objectives. The heads of these organisations are appointed by and report directly to the Supreme Leader in Tehran.

Since 2018 there have been eleven confirmed terrorist plots linked to Iran in Europe[11]. Iranian intelligence organisations have had direct involvement in each of these operations. While the chain of command in these plots have led back to Iranian officials in Tehran, the character of the operations differs. Indeed, Iran’s intelligence network in Europe spans various domains and sectors, and depending on the target country, its operatives and their handlers employ different methods to achieve their aims. The European theatre of operations can be broken down into three categories, each interconnected operationally and all working toward achieving the same ends: to ensure regime survival and spread the Islamic revolution. These categories are intelligence gathering, political and social subversion, and violent terrorist attacks. Iran’s diplomatic apparatus has also provided the regime’s European operatives with a degree of cover, facilitating assets’ manoeuvrability and mobility on the continent.

The targets have been consistently either Israeli or Jewish interests, and Iranian dissidents. That they are targeted on European soil also reflects the regime’s relationship with the targeted countries. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, the Islamic Republic conducted terrorist attacks against targets in France, in retaliation for the selling of arms to Iraq and for extending sanctuary to Iranian dissidents. In other words, there is a retaliatory component to the regime’s use of terrorism in Europe. These plots do not occur in a vacuum. Their rationale stems from geopolitical developments that compromise the Iranian regime, placing Iran at a disadvantage in the context of a conflict, or in a geopolitical power struggle the regime is engaged in.

According to Ardavan and Arvin Khoshnood, Iran experts based out of the Lund University in Malmo, Sweden, the Islamic Republic instrumentalises intelligence to execute terrorist attacks against Iranian dissidents because the regime ‘considers many Iranians in exile to be a threat to the regime’s security and existence.’[12] The method of violence recurrent in plots targeting dissidents in Western Europe has been assassination attempts. As dissidents are prone to undermine the regime’s narrative both domestically and globally, the regime deems it of paramount importance for Iranian intelligence operatives to nullify them. Particularly those blaspheming against the regime’s foreign policy principle of ‘Exporting the Revolution.’ Since ‘anarchy is a permissive condition,’ as stated by international relations scholar Stephen Walt, the regime is resolved to use or threaten violence, in an international system within which the regime believes it alone can ensure its own security. Extraterritorial killings, therefore, are simply another avenue for the regime to pursue power, influence, and domination.

Iran expert Ruhollah Ramazani captures this notion rather well, when he wrote: ‘the realists [in the Islamic Republic’s regime] who also hope for an Islamic world order, are willing to come to terms with the realities of the existing international system.’[13] In rejecting the domination of other powers over it, Iran signals its intention to exert its own domination. The means through which that is achieved will depend less on the geopolitical circumstances and more on what the regime regards as expedient, reasoning that it must exercise every capability in ensuring that the regime is not undermined by its enemies. As previously alluded to, the regime views the international system in zero-sum terms, after all. Hence the great lengths to which the regime is willing to venture to eliminate its security threats. Including utilising its diplomatic and intelligence organs for unlawful purposes, such as conducting terrorist activities.

In the case studies below, I examine the role of Iranian intelligence organisations and diplomatic officials in two separate terrorist plots. Both the plots involve instructions linked directly to the upper echelons of the regime in Tehran. In the first, the assassination plot targeting Iranian journalists based in Britain, the chain of command leads to senior IRGC officials—one of whom is an appointee of the Supreme Leader. In the second, the mastermind of the plot was a diplomat and head of an intelligence unit within the Ministry of Intelligence, and the target type was also dissidents. Both cases involve the contracting of criminal operatives stationed within Europe. They reveal that Iran has cultivated an extensive intelligence apparatus principally designed to silence critics of the regime through the threat of violence. While the plots failed, the psychological impact of the attempts signals the willingness of the regime to go to extreme measures to terminate threats posed to it.

 

Case Study 1: Assassination Plot on Iranian Dissidents, November 2022, London

The foiled attempt from November 2022 in London provides an elucidating illustration of how the regime exercises its overseas network to terminate Iranian dissidents. The targets were two dissident journalists. Their names are Fardad Farazhad and Sima Sabet, and they were targeted for assassination by the IRGC’s Unit 840—an international intelligence unit headed by Sardar Bagheri, an appointee of the Supreme Leader. The journalists are under the employ of broadcasting company Iran International, which habitually critiques the Islamic Republic. Iran International’s head office was in West London at the time. Intelligence and press reports from the United Kingdom disclose that Unit 840 had been instructed by an IRGC commander, Mohammed Reza Ansari, to conduct an intelligence gathering mission on the targets. The mission included reconnaissance on the site where the targets worked. Once the intelligence mission was completed, the head of Unit 840 identified various ways in which the assassinations could be conducted. That the compound where the targets worked was heavily securitised complicated the Unit’s initial plans to plant a car bomb close to the Iran International studio. Following the abortion of the plan to plant a car bomb, Iranian assets in London consulted IRGC officials in Tehran regarding how to proceed with the plot. According to reports, Muhammed Abd Al-Razek Kanafani, a prominent IRGC official, then advised the hitman contracted to execute the killing to conduct another reconnaissance mission of the targets’ homes, and to assassinate them with a knife attack. Indeed, the order was issued by Kanafani, to the assassin, via a phone call. The plot was foiled by Scotland Yard following a tip off by MI5.[14]

 

Case Study 2: Bomb Plot on Dissidents Summit, June 2018, Paris

The plot to inflict mass casualties by bombing a National Council of Resistance of Iran summit in Paris was presided over by an Iranian diplomat stationed in the Iranian embassy in Austria. The diplomat was Assadollah Assadi. In addition to his role at the Iran embassy in Austria, Assadi was head of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence’s clandestine activities in Europe. He was working in tandem with the Directorate of Internal Security, known as Directorate 312. This directorate was already on the European Union’s list of terrorist organisations at the time of the bomb plot. To illustrate the continent-wide breadth of Iran’s intelligence network in Europe, reports revealed that Assadi had travelled to eleven European countries, where he is alleged to have met with Iranian intelligence assets in 280 different locations.

On his travels, Assadi carried documents which denoted the assets’ locations, and details of the bomb plot. Throughout his travels, Assadi was able to leverage his diplomatic status to attain immunity from being subjected to checks and questioning. It was not until the Belgian authorities had evidence that he was orchestrating a plot to detonate an explosive device in Paris that Assadi and his operatives were then put under close surveillance. Assadi contracted at least three operatives to carry out the attack and met with them in Belgium and Luxembourg. In Luxembourg, he provided the operatives with 500 grams of a highly volatile explosive material known as triacetone tiperoxide, a detonator, and a universal serial bus stick with instructions on how to ignite the explosive once the operatives had infiltrated the summit.

The operatives were to pose as members of a regime opposition group, a tactic regularly employed by Iranian intelligence operatives abroad, to infiltrate dissident circles. The operatives were also given 20,000 Euros in cash to execute the attack. Belgian authorities confirmed that the implements were contained in a diplomatic bag—indicating that Assadi was exploiting his diplomatic status to facilitate a terrorist attack he had planned. The plot was foiled when the operatives were apprehended following the Luxembourg drop off, and Assadi was eventually apprehended in Germany. He was not able to leverage his diplomatic status there, as his diplomatic accreditation was invalid in Germany. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in February 2021.[15]

 

Conclusion

As Carl Anthony Wege states, ‘state-sponsored terrorism is a major asset’[16] of Iran’s operational network in many Western European countries. This operational network spans multiple asymmetric and diplomatic domains and has been cultivated by the regime since the inception of the Islamic Republic. Intelligence organisations play a critical role in harnessing Iran’s network of subversion on European soil. As I have demonstrated in this article, two intelligence organisations with direct links to the Supreme Leader are responsible for orchestrating, facilitating, and attempting to execute terrorist activities abroad. These are the IRGC-IO and the MOIS. The motivation behind Iran’s decision to pursue terrorism as a method is to ensure regime survival. As Khoshnood wrote, ‘the use of terrorism is a significant option for the regime to use against what [it] deems a security threat.’ Furthermore, the regime seeks to garner legitimacy in the Muslim world. Both these pursuits are informed by realist considerations, reflected in Iran’s foreign policy approach. This foreign policy approach is ultimately rooted in a rational pragmatism, seeking to bolster the regime’s security, increase the regime’s regional and global influence, and maximise the regime’s power. Therefore, regardless of how the dust settles on Iran’s upcoming presidential run-off election, terrorism will continue to play a considerable role in Tehran’s foreign policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Notes

[1] Aarabi, K. ‘Making the case for the UK to Proscribe Iran’s IRGC.’ Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, January 17, 2023. https://www.institute.global/insights/geopolitics-and-security/making-case-uk-proscribe-irans-irgc

[2] Khoshnood, A.,“The Role of the Qods Force in the Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 ,2020.

[3] Alam Rizvi, M. Mahtab., “Velayat-E-Faqih (Supreme Leader) and Iranian Foreign Policy: An Historical Analysis,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2012.

[4] Khoshnood, 2020, p.8

[5] Wohlforth, William C. “Realism and foreign policy.” Foreign policy: Theories, actors, cases 3 (2008): 35-53

[6] Khoshnood, 2020. p.9

[7] Gomari-Luksch, Laleh. “Realism, rationalism and revolutionism in Iran’s foreign policy: the West, the State and Islam”, University of St Andrews, 2018.

[8] Wege, C.A., “Iranian Intelligence Organizations,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence, Vol.10, No.3, 1997.

[9] Ramazani, Ruhollah K., “Iran’s Foreign Policy: Contending Orientations,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1989.

[10] Khoshnood, 2020, p.17

[11]  France 24, 2024 https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210204-iran-diplomat-given-20-years-for-paris-bomb-plot;

Deustche Welle, 2018 https://www.dw.com/en/denmark-foils-iranian-intelligence-agency-attack/a-46092945;

Sveriges Radio, 2021, https://sverigesradio.se/artikel/iran-suspected-of-murder-plot-against-swedish-jews;

Williams, D. Reuters, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/bennett-aide-accuses-iran-attempting-attack-israelis-cyprus-2021-10-04/;

The Guardian, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/19/armed-police-guard-iranian-tv-studios-in-london-after-tehran-threats;

Stickings, T. 2024, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/europe/2024/03/21/iran-recruited-fugitive-hells-angel-for-arson-attack-on-german-synagogue/;

Gatopolous et al, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/greece-terrorism-arrests-12946c19a59d61edba970184b547e578;

Times of Israel, 2023, Cyprus thwarts Iranian attack targeting Jews and Israelis — reports | The Times of Israel;

Duncan, G., 2024. https://www.thenationalnews.com/news/europe/2024/05/31/sweden-iran-gangs-israel/;

Mojtahedi, N., 2024: https://www.iranintl.com/en/202405309211;  Orton, D., 2024, https://www.newsweek.com/iran-responsible-attacks-israeli-embassies-sweden-belgium-says-mossad-1906232 ;

[12] Khoshnood, A. M., & Khoshnood, A., ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Use of Diplomats in Its Intelligence and Terrorist Operations against Dissidents: The Case of Assadollah Assadi.’ International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 37(3), 976–992, 2024.

[13] Ramazani, 1989, p.211

[14] Kachroo, R. ’The Wedding: Iranian spy plot to kill two news presenters in London uncovered by double agent’, ITV News, December 21, 2023. https://www.itv.com/news/2023-12-20/iran-spy-plot-to-kill-two-news-presenters-in-london-uncovered-by-double-agent

Hanna, A. & Nada, G. ‘Timeline: Iran’s Foreign Plots and Assassinations’,  The Iran Primer, March 6, 2024. https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/sep/16/timeline-iran-assassinations-and-plot

[15] BBC, 2021. France bomb plot: Iran diplomat Assadollah Assadi sentenced to 20 years – BBC News

[16] Wege, 1997, p.290

About the Author
Alex Alfirraz Scheers holds a diploma in Politics and History from the Open University, a bachelor's degree in War Studies and History from King's College London, and a master's degree in National Security Studies from King's College London. He has worked as a research assistant at the Henry Jackson Society, a defence and foreign policy think tank based in London, and is currently a research assistant at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, also based in London. His research areas of interest include the international politics of weapons of mass destruction, and Islamist extremism.
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