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The initial coverage of President Trump’s designation of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “terrorist organization” has oddly avoided a central question.

CIA and Pentagon officials tell the New York Times the decision would threaten U.S. military personnel in the region. Iraqi observers tell Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen the designation might alienate Iraq where Iran has many allies in an unstable government. The reliable LobeLog calls the move “another dangerous step in the relentless campaign Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are waging to provoke a U.S.-Iranian military conflict and overthrow the regime.”

Left unexplained: what exactly is the Iranian terrorist threat? What danger does Iranian terrorism pose to American civilians and U.S. interests? What is the factual record?

Answers are scarce, propaganda is unrelenting, and the American attention in the age of social media is fleeting. Falsifying the complex facts of Islamic terrorism is key to Pompeo and Bolton’s mad dream of provoking another war in the Middle East. These war hawks seek to reverse one of the few attractive impulses in President Trump’s foreign policy: his Obama-like insistence on withdrawing military force from the region.

The target of this campaign of falsification are not only the President, but a long-passive U.S. Congress and public that are finally tiring of the post-9/11 endless wars.

What Threat?

The complex truth is that threat of Iranian terrorism to Americans is real. It is also small.

If you read the annual reports of the National Counterterrorism Center over the last twenty years, you will learn that the CIA attributes the vast majority of the Islamic terrorist attacks around the world since 2001 to “Sunni extremists.”

Terror attacks by ideology
Terror attacks by ideology of the perpetrator, 2010. (Credit: National Counterterrorism Center)

These are the jihadists, inspired by the sexist and stufilfying Salafist theology of Saudi Arabia. They are ISIS and other fundamentalist militias, often funded by wealthy Persian Gulf Arabs. They hate the heretical Shia Muslims of Iran almost as much as they hate “the crusaders and Jews” of Washington and Tel Aviv. They are the fanatics behind the attacks of 9/11, Madrid, London, Paris, and San Bernardino. None of the terrorists involved in those bloody attacks was Iranian–not a single one.

That’s a big problem for Mike Pompeo, Mohammed bin Salman, and their Zionist allies in Israel and Washington. They want to confront and degrade and destroy Iranian power. So the party of war in Washington (and Tel Aviv and Riyadh) needs to change the subject. They want to divert news media coverage from Saudi-funded Sunni terrorism (epitomized by the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi) to Shiite terrorism. They do this knowing full well that the former is an exponentially greater threat to Americans, according to the CIA and every other informed source.

Read the NCTC reports of the last 20 years and you will see Iranian/Shiite terrorism is not even a category in U.S. counterterrorism reporting. By any objective measure it is a much smaller threat to Americans and the world than either Sunni terrorism or white nationalist terrorism.

You wouldn’t know it from the statements of the Trump administration.

The Hype

In denouncing the IRGC Pompeo declared that Iranian terrorism is a threat to Americans, without providing any specifics.

“We’re doing [it] because the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in remarks announcing the decision. “This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”

Pompeo didn’t mention any American deaths but the State Department fact sheet released Monday did, asserting “The IRGC has been directly involved in terrorist plotting; its support for terrorism is foundational and institutional, and it has killed U.S. citizens.”

Who and When?

Bruce Riedel,
Bruce Riedel, former CIA station chief (Credit: Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs)

Looking for specifics I emailed a couple of experts and asked for their take on the State Department claim. Which Americans were killed by Iran? When?

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA station chief, replied by email, “The best case is in Iraq after 2003 when IRGC supported Iraqis killed US troops.”

Bruce Hoffman, counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, told me via email that the State Department was probably referring “to the intense fighting in Sadr City in Baghdad in 2008 between IRGC and US military forces.”

In other words, the IRGC forces attacked uniformed U.S. military forces that had invaded Iraq on a false pretense and it attacked them after they had stayed in the country for five years.

Mike Pompeo and fellow hawks want Americans to believe that such attacks qualify as “terrorism.” Many Americans, propagandized by cable news and social media, may actually believe. The Israel lobby wants to encourage the notion. Some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are going along with the campaign for preventive war, just like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden did in 2002.

To most Iranians, even those who detest their government, the American rhetoric of “terrorism” is not credible. It is insulting.

Bruce Hoffman,
Bruce Hoffman, counterterrorism expert. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Hoffman emphasized that the IRGC was involved in terror attacks against Americans in the 20th century, which is both indisputably true and a long time ago.

“The IRGC had a role in training Hezbollah and providing logistical assistance for the US embassy bombings in Beirut in 1983 and 1984 and the US Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport also in 1983,’ Hoffman wrote. “They were also likely involved in the kidnappings, torture and deaths of CIA Station Chief William Buckley in 1985 of USMC Col William Higgins in 1989.”

Bombing an embassy–even one that housed a hostile CIA station–is clearly an act of terrorism. But the U.S. Marines killed by a car bomber were sent to Lebanon in support of the brutal 1982 Israeli invasion. After the Marine barracks bombing, President Ronald Reagan quickly withdrew the U.S. forces, knowing full well he had not sent American boys on a peacekeeping mission. He had sent them into a war zone on the side of the Israeli invaders. The Marines were victims of war, not terrorism.

The last terror attack on Americans, plausibly linked to Iran or its proxies, was the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel. That happened 22 years ago.

To be sure, Iranian forcess have attacked Israeli citizens in violation of international but that is a separate issue for U.S. policymakers.


When I tweeted that no American civilians had been killed by Iranian terrorism in the 21st century, the anti-Russian propagandists at ProporNot accused me of repeating “Russian propaganda.” (The shadowy group makes the same claim about Counterpunch, TruthDig, and other publications that question the Washington orthodoxy.)

It was a predictable yet odd claim. My sources were Riedel and Hoffman, hardly Putin apologists. I have no sympathy of the Russian government. To the despair of some friends on the left, I am no Trump-Russia skeptic. I have reported on GRU assassination operations and Moscow’s Trumpian influence schemes. I agree with the U.S. intelligence assessment that the Russian government used the GRU to intervene in the 2016 election.

When I asked for a specific example of Iranian terrorism, PropOrNot tweeted me a link to a 2017 Atlantic article, headlined “Al-Qaeda Has Rebuilt Itself—With Iran’s Help.”

It was a classic Twitter self own, not expecting me to actually read the article, which actually supported my argument.

The Atlantic article did not allege that Iran had been involved in any terror attacks on Americans in the last 20 years. It detailed a phenomenon well-known to U.S. intelligence. During the Bush administration, the Iranian government gave safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists, not to sow terror but to counter it.

In 2001 Iran cooperated fully with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that sought to rout al-Qaeda from their mountain redoubt. The Iranians wanted to take down Osama bin Laden too. That is why they took in al-Qaeda operatives: to turn them over to the United States. The Iranians detested bin Laden’s anti-Shiite ideology and would have been glad to send the Salafists to Guantanamo or wherever the Americans wanted to torture them.

The Bush White House refused to take them, even though some of the jihadists were known to have taken part in attacks on Westerners. The Americans didn’t want to negotiate any deals with the Iranians. So Iran later let the suspected terrorists leave the country. If the Great Satan didn’t want them, why should the Iranians care?

Terrible Record

The IRGC actions that do arguably fit a broad definition of terrorism are the taking of hostages like Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. These legalized kidnappings and ensuing torture are a gross violation of human rights. They have taken place on Iranian soil. I could find no evidence that Americans outside of Iran have been kidnapped or attacked.

In its treatment of some of its own people–environmentalists, women who throw off hijab, independent bloggers–the Iranian government has a terrible record, and the IRGC is part of its repressive apparatus.

Bottom Line

What history tells us about Iranian terrorism is this:

The Iranians, and the IRGC will engage in violent attacks on American uniformed personnel when the U.S. (or Israeli) troops invade its neighbors. When threatened with American or Zionist attacks, the Iranians are likely to target military and intelligence personnel with inevitable civilian casualties.

If Iran is not provoked by invasion of neighboring lands, the IRGC does not attack Americans. At least, that is the record in the last twenty years. That is why CIA and Pentagon officials opposed Trump’s decision.

Might Iran revert to the bloodshed of the 1980s when it waged war on the CIA and other targets in the Middle East?

I would say it is virtually certain. The Iranian record on terrorism is one very good reason to reject the war that Mike Pompeo (like Dick Cheney before him) is ginning up with sensational and verifiably false claims about “terrorism.” Such a criminal war is sure to provoke deadly attacks on American civilians.

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