Webcast Recap

Co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Security Studies and Middle East Program, Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, and the U.S. Army's Dwight D. Eisenhower National Security Series

Shahram Chubin, Director of Studies at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and an expert on Iran's foreign and security policies, examined the evolving uses of terror by the Iranian regime during the Islamic Republic's history. Chubin noted that the Iranian regime is a revolutionary one, which has "used terror to sustain its power." Its main goal has been to export the revolution to other parts of the region, with the aim of forcefully driving other powers out of the region (mainly Israel and the United States), and as a "continuing need to bolster domestic legitimacy." He emphasized that terror has not only been an important instrument in exporting the revolution, but has been done at a very low cost and low risk to Iran, and has proven to be effective.

Chubin explained that Iran's use of terrorism has passed through several phases. Terrorism has been used to sustain the momentum of the revolution; to maintain Iranian influence in the region, particularly as a means of defense against the American presence; and to flaunt its role as a key player within the Middle East region whose interests must be taken into account.

During the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, the Iranian leadership used terrorism as a means of "violent diplomacy" (in strategist Thomas Schelling's phrase). Indeed, Chubin argued, it became a "preferred and normal instrument of policy" that Iran employed both in its region and worldwide. Terror tactics were exercised both in an ideological fashion, against enemies of the regime, and in a strategic fashion, during the Iran-Iraq War against the French, the Americans, and the Kuwaitis. This post-revolutionary phase culminated in the 1996 Khobar Tower bombings in Saudi Arabia, in which Iranian complicity was alleged.

The latter part of the 1990s, which coincided with the ascendancy of reformist president Mohammed Khatami, witnessed a significant shift in Iran's state-sponsored terrorism abroad. Khatami focused on the risks involved in state-sponsored terrorism and attempted "to clean up intelligence agencies." State-sponsored terrorism, Chubin asserted, was driven by three domestic factors: the ideological factor of exporting the revolution; Iran's adoption of an asymmetrical strategy that gave Tehran an option between inaction and direct confrontation; and a consensus among Iranian hard-liners on the utility of terrorism that led it to become "institutionalized within the system."

Chubin explained that the types of terrorism tactics Iran employed are threefold: direct acts against Iranian expatriates (e.g., assassinations); indirect acts, such as its pivotal support Hizbullah in Lebanon; and passive sponsorship, such as hosting leaders of terror organizations. He emphasized that Iran has never paid a high price for its state-sponsored terrorism, relative to its Middle Eastern counterparts. Syria and Libya both were the targets of U.N. imposed sanctions, while Iraq underwent a complete regime change. Chubin stated that in the case of Iran, the unwillingness of the international community to penalize Iran, "makes it difficult [for those inside the regime] to argue against [terrorism]."

Chubin stated that although "in theory, the risks of practicing terrorism have increased since 9/11," Iran's use of terrorism has not decreased because of Iran's increased self-confidence under President Ahmadinejad, and because the entangling presence of the United States in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan (originally perceived as a threat to Iran) now creates a vulnerability that Iran can potentially exploit.

Chubin concluded that the "Libyan model has to be the ultimate aim of the United States administration," for Iran. The crux of that deal was a Libyan willingness to cease the behavior concern to the United States with respect to weapons proliferation and terrorism in return for a tacit assurance of regime security from Washington. The fact that Iran's Revolutionary Guards are responsible both for the nuclear installations and managing ties with terror groups underscores that the United States cannot focus solely on Iran's nuclear program. Rather, it must deal with all aspects of the problem. A solution to the nuclear problem can only be "a starting point to the challenge of dealing with Iran."

Middle East Program
Drafted by Joyce Ibrahim