President Trump has claimed that Iran is the world’s “leading state sponsor of terror”.
But is that fair?
Before he became president, Trump said the “world’s biggest funder of terrorism” was Saudi Arabia – not Iran. So is his latest claim is just political rhetoric?
There are no “right” or “wrong” answers here, because it depends how we interpret Trump’s claim. For instance, does “leading sponsor” mean the country that channels the most cash to terrorist groups? Or does it refer to the biggest strategic threat to America?
And which groups are being counted as “terrorists”? The term is the subject of frequent debate; it’s often said that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.
Because of these ambiguities, the issue will ultimately come down to personal opinion. But here are some factors we think are important.
The US list of ‘State Sponsors of Terror’
Every year, the US Secretary of State publishes a list of countries that are deemed to be “state sponsors of terror”, which have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism”.
At the moment, four countries are named: North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria.
America’s annual terrorism report (last published in July 2017) describes Iran as “the foremost state sponsor of terrorism”, adding that “groups supported by Iran maintained their capability to threaten U.S. interests and allies”.
So, if Trump’s claim is assessed purely against his own government’s reports, then he is correct. But many would argue that the reality is more complicated than that.
This is not the first time President Trump has thrown this accusation at Iran. Last year, he said: “The regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and provides assistance to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist networks.”
His defence secretary, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo, who is now US Secretary of State, have also made similar statements.
They have been repeated here in the UK, too. Writing in the Times in 2016, the Conservative’s Michael Gove said: “The Khomeinist rulers of the Islamic Republic have been identified by the US state department as the world’s principal state sponsors of terrorism.”
But other countries have also had this accusation thrown at them – including by Donald Trump himself.
In his 2015 book, ‘Time to Get Tough,’ which was published ahead of the presidential election, Trump wrote: “Then look at Saudi Arabia. It is the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars – our very own money – to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people, while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.”
To support this, he cites a 2010 article from the Independent, which reports on a secret memo written by the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
The memo, published by WikiLeaks, says Saudi donors “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.
Despite some positive steps made by the regime, the memo says: “It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”
Clinton said that Saudi Arabia provided “a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Toiba and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources.”
But, despite the position he took on Saudi Arabia prior to becoming president, Trump has not added Saudi Arabia to the official list of state sponsors of terrorism – let alone maintained his claim that they are the world’s biggest terror sponsors.
Yet the same claim that has been made by many other commentators and organisations. Indeed, last year FactCheck assessed claims that the kingdom had “funded and fuelled extremist ideology”.
A report by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations said: “For years, individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda. And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem.”
In the UK, claims that Saudi Arabia (or elements within the country) is one of the key supporters of terror have come from voices as diverse as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, and elements of the mainstream British press.
The question is: does the absence of Saudi Arabia from the list of state sponsors of terrorism undermine its objective integrity?
Of course, Saudi is not the only country that some would argue should be included on this list. For instance, the President Trump has previously accused Qatar of funding terrorism “at a very high level”, but later praised the country for trying to tackle the problem.
Meanwhile, countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon are listed by the US as “safe havens” for terrorism, where groups can “organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both”.
Clearly, there will continue to be claims and counter-claims about which countries should be included in America’s official briefings. Let’s put that aside for a moment and examine Iran’s links to terrorist organisations.
Iran’s relationship with ‘terror’ groups
President Trump accused Iran of supporting “terrorist proxies and militias such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban and al-Qaeda”.
Let’s have a look at Iran’s relationship with each of those groups:
There is no doubt that Iran has strong links to Hezbollah, which is both a political and military organisation in Lebanon. Like Iran’s regime, the group are Shia Muslims.
The group’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has admitted it recieves “political and material support in all possible forms from the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1982”.
Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s and has been described by the US as “Iran’s primary terrorist partner”.
But some would dispute the claim that Hezbollah are a terrorist group.
Its military wing has been accused of a string of bombings against Israeli targets and is a proscribed group in the UK and US. The UK government says: “Its military wing supports terrorism in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.”
But, to many, Hezbollah is a liberation movement, using force to legitimately resist Israeli occupation. It has evolved into a political party, as well, which has just won an election in Lebanon.
But regardless on your perspective, it is clear that America and Western allies consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist group – rightly or wrongly. So, from Trump’s point of view, his claim is correct.
The situation is messy, though, because Hezbollah is simultaneously fighting for and against Western efforts in the Middle East. As Shia Muslims, the group has supported President Assad’s fight against Sunni rebels in Syria. But those rebels include ISIS, who Hezbollah has fought against in both Iraq and Syria, who the West also want to defeat.
The US says: “Historically, Hamas has received funding, weapons, and training from Iran.” But it adds: “Hamas’ supply lines have suffered since the crackdown on smuggling tunnels”.
Like with Hezbollah, Hamas’s leader has publicly acknowledged that it is supported by Iran. The group’s leader said: “Relations with Iran are excellent and Iran is the largest supporter of [Hamas’s armed wing] with money and arms.”
Again, there are those who argue that Hamas is a resistance movement, rather than a terrorist group. But this will continue to be a matter of debate.
Iran’s links to al-Qaeda are slightly less clear. The US government says: “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior [al-Qaeda] members it continued to detain and has refused to publicly identify the members in its custody.
“Since at least 2009, Iran has allowed [al-Qaeda] facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through the country, enabling [al-Qaeda] to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.”
While it is true that Iran did not satisfy the West over its handling of al-Qaeda captives, that does not necessarily mean the regime was in bed with the terror group. After all – as the US admits – it did at least detain some of its members.
Documents obtained from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, which were released in 2012, suggested a varied and difficult relationship.
Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins, of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, told Reuters: “The relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran was antagonistic, dominated by indirect negotiations over the release of jihadis and their families detained in Iran.”
But subsequent releases by the CIA have since hinted at more friendly cooperation. One document, apparently written by a senior al-Qaeda member, said that Iran had previously offered “money, arms” and “training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon”.
Like many terrorist organisation, the Taliban’s structure is extremely complicated. For instance, there are two similar but distinct Taliban movements – in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not clear which elements President Trump was referring to.
In Afghanistan, whilst Shia Iran has long been ideologically opposed to the Sunni Taliban, there have been many reports that it chose to back them against the bigger enemy, America; arming it and providing sanctuary to some fighters. The Taliban in Afghanistan has been accused of countless suicide bombings.
In 2010, Channel 4 News revealed how Iranian weapons, including mines and mortars, were being smuggled over the border into Afghanistan to Taliban insurgents fighting British and US forces.
One Taliban member said: “Day by day the Iranian border becomes more important for us.”
And, in 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with a Taliban commander who claimed: “Iran supplies us with whatever we need.”
Trump did not mention Iran’s relationship with ISIS, perhaps for good reason: far from supporting them, the regime has in fact been instrumental in holding back the terrorist group that has dominated the Middle East.
The US says that Iran has teamed up with different terrorists in order to “fight ISIS in Iraq”. But, whichever way you cut it, Iran and America have a common enemy in ISIS.
In fact, the New York Times has claimed that the US military indirectly cooperates with Iran in its efforts to defeat ISIS in Iraq.
The newspaper said: “American war planners have been closely monitoring Iran’s parallel war against [ISIS]… through a range of channels, including conversations on radio frequencies that each side knows the other is monitoring. And the two militaries frequently seek to avoid conflict in their activities by using Iraqi command centers as an intermediary.
“As a result, many national security experts say, Iran’s involvement is helping the Iraqis hold the line against Islamic State advances until American military advisers are finished training Iraq’s underperforming armed forces.”
The EU has said that Iran’s struggle against ISIS “presents the most immediate opportunity for dialogue with Iran and limited collaboration with the West”.
As well as fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Iran has also increasingly had to defend itself. ISIS carried out its first major attack in Tehran last summer, killing 18 people.
But the New York Times has noted: “While Iran’s increasingly public military role has proved essential in repelling the advances of the Islamic State, American officials worry that it could ultimately destabilize Iraq by deepening sectarian divisions.”
Trump is right to say that Iran supports certain organisations which many Western governments deem to be terrorist groups.
Of course, what constitutes a “terrorist” group will always be subjective; many will disagree with the position taken by these Western governments.
When it comes to ISIS, though, Iran has helped fight against them. Indeed, the EU has said that it is “spearheading the fight against ISIS”.
Furthermore, there is a whole debate to be had over which countries should be included in America’s list of state sponsors of terror.
This point has been emphasised by President Trump himself, by previously suggesting Saudi Arabia was the world’s leading sponsor of terror.