Until 9/11, Iranian-backed terrorist networks, such as Hezbollah, were responsible for killing more American citizens than al-Qaida.
In the years since, the balance has been gradually tilting back towards Iran. In the words of former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, al-Qaida may be the 'B' team of international terrorism, but Hezbollah is the 'A' team. Indeed, Iran's Khomeinists began their war on the U.S. and other democracies years before Osama bin Laden began his jihad.
The takeover of Iran's government in 1979 by radical Islamist forces faithful to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the breakthrough after which the so-called Islamic Revolution spread throughout the Middle East and beyond.
The Khomeinist revolution is ideologically rooted in a radical Islamist doctrine that stands in opposition to the more traditional "Quietist" school of thought among Shia clerics.
In a sense, the Khomeinists are the Shia world's equivalent of the Salafists within the Sunni world. The Islamist Shias are also jihadists, in the sense that they call for the establishment of a future Imamate, a Shia form of Islamic Caliphate, by any means necessarily, including what they coin as "jihad," which practically means war.
Because it cannot project much conventional military power, Iran threatens the United States, Israel, and other democracies by unconventional means.
Through the use of its terrorist surrogates — such as Hezbollah — Tehran's reach extends around the world.
Through Hezbollah, Iran controls the resources of a large religious community in Lebanon and has established itself as a dominant force inside the country. Iran is therefore able to develop networks overseas more easily and engage Israel in direct confrontation from across the border.
Furthermore, the alliance has granted greater access to U.S., European, and other interests on behalf of the Khomeinist regime.
Hezbollah was an Iranian project designed to export its revolution globally and it fast became the single most dangerous terrorist network.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (Pasdaran) established its first bases in the northern Bekaa valley in 1980. From there, it connected with "Islamic Amal," an offshoot of the Amal Movement, and with radical religious scholars who studied at the holy cities of Qum in Iran and Najaf in Iraq.
Hezbollah was born in a gradual process under the auspices of the Pasdaran and launched from the Bekaa towards South Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburbs.
It took part in limited clashes against Lebanon's Christian enclave in early 1982, and as the Israeli invasion destroyed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) infrastructure in the South in June, Iran sent Hezbollah into the fray.
Its first strikes were directed at the U.S. embassy and Marines, and French troops. Throughout the 1980s, Hezbollah took U.S. and European hostages and engaged in operations against Israeli forces and their local allies in the South Lebanon Army (SLA).
In 1990, Syria invaded East Beirut, seizing the central government and conferring a mantle of state legitimacy on Hezbollah. Iran consequently gained a third ally in the region, the Syrian-controlled Lebanese Republic.
After a decade of attacks, including suicide bombings, the Iranian-funded organization won another victory when Israel withdrew from the security zone in southern Lebanon and the SLA was disbanded.
In May 2000, Hezbollah was poised along the international border with the "Zionist enemy." Through Lebanon's institutions, ports of entry, and security apparatus, Iran has expanded its base inside the country, obtained additional funding, and penetrated many countries around the world, from Africa to Latin America.
The new strategic partnership gave Iran influence inside the Palestinian communities, particularly in Gaza. As a jihadist organization, Hamas rejects the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, as it does not recognize the existence of a Jewish state.
Initially, its Muslim Brotherhood training and Wahhabi funding directed its efforts against the PLO negotiations with Israel, but when Hamas entered an alliance with Hezbollah and Iran, it became part of a regional axis commanded from Tehran, and thus became part of the ayatollahs' strategy to expand across the region and topple moderate Arab governments.
Hamas' 2007 coup d'etat against the Palestinian Authority signaled that Hamas had become another Iranian tentacle in the region.
Iran and Iraq
The Iranian plan for Iraq is nothing new. Since the first days of the 1979 revolution, Iranian intelligence fomented trouble in the Shia areas of Iraq. Its long-term goal would see the Shia majority in Iraq sympathetic to the regime in Tehran and provide a land bridge to Syria and Lebanon in the west — from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
With southern Iraq dominated by Iran, it would change the nature of the confrontation with Israel and threaten the oil-rich states of the Arabian Gulf.
Iran penetrated most political parties with Islamist (Shia) inclination, and organized a bold pro-Khomeinist force: the Mahdi Army. Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah worked in unison to establish a "pro-axis" force inside Iraq.
In Afghanistan, Iran's strategists were undeterred by the presence of NATO troops after 2001. Despite the collapse of the Taliban regime that year, Tehran infiltrated Afghanistan's Shi'ite Hazara community in the center of the country and provided logistical support to the Taliban insurgency.
Infiltrating Arabia: Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf
Over the past few years, Tehran has widened its subversive activities in the Arabian Peninsula, quarreling with the Gulf Arab states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Although the U.A.E. claims the island of Abu Musa as part of its sovereign territory, Iranian forces have occupied it, and reject calls to withdraw.
Recent statements by Khomeinist clerics assert that Bahrain, too, is an Iranian possession under the name of Mishmahig Island, and it has triggered a severe diplomatic crisis with the small kingdom.
Behind these historical disputes lay greater geopolitical ambitions. Iran has been investing large amounts of oil money in the U.A.E. with the aim of expanding its political and military influence in the Gulf.
Targeting North Africa
Although North Africa has been home almost exclusively to Salafi jihadists, it has witnessed increased activity by Tehran's Shi'ite operatives. According to Moroccan authorities, Iran has funded religious institutions whose first mission is to convert Sunnis to Shia, in what is coined as "Tashyeeh."
Moreover, Moroccan and Algerian opposition sources believe Iran is attempting to convince Algiers to proceed with cooperation agreements similar to the Iranian-Syrian treaties or the latest Syrian-Turkish accords. If this thrust were to bear fruit, the benefits for Tehran would be incalculable.
Meanwhile, last year in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's government accused Hezbollah of creating cells inside the country and planning attacks against Egyptian and Western targets.
The Iranian strategy to build terror networks along the Nile Valley by way of Hezbollah has not been limited to Egypt. Sudan, whose regime has been both Islamist and jihadist since 1989, has undergone a rapprochement with Tehran.
Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence benefit from the immense land mass by building military bases and training regime militias for potential confrontations to come.
By linking up with Sudan, Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors now have a host south of Egypt, where they can access the Red Sea via Port Sudan and use paths to Eritrea and Chad.
East and West Africa
Towards the end of 2008 and 2009, intense contacts between Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's representatives and Eritrean officials culminated in the signing of an agreement granting Iran's navy facilities along the coasts of the Eritrea.
Taking advantage of the substantial size of the Lebanese communities in Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, Benin, and Nigeria, Hezbollah has developed financial and intelligence networks that span the entire region. This increase of Iranian-backed activities in West Africa could have negative effects on security coordination between these countries and the West, including the U.S. and Europe.
Iran in Europe
Since the so-called "Islamic revolution," Iran has undertaken sinister intelligence activities throughout Europe, intimidating and occasionally assassinating opposition figures and dissidents. But Tehran's most dangerous presence in Europe comes in the form of active Hezbollah cells.
Since 9/11, a number of European governments have detected Hezbollah activities on their soil. Indeed, Germany has arrested and tried members of the organization who were planning illegal activities.
Iran has extended its strategic reach into European countries, penetrating them with intelligence and terrorist networks, and weakening their resolve to join forces with the U.S. in sanctions or other punitive measures against Tehran.
Into the Americas
Iran's longest arm stretches into Latin America. As of the early 1990s, Hezbollah had established a presence in the tri-border area between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.
This lawless zone enables the network to develop illegal financial activities and train and plan for terrorist attacks in the region.
The 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center there are prime examples of Tehran's terrorist activities and global reach.
With the rise of the Hugo Chavez regime, Iran's Latin American presence expanded even further. The Venezuelan strongman has signed several agreements with Ahmadinejad's regime, including an April 2009 defense treaty that provides for military and intelligence cooperation.
Venezuela has granted Hezbollah operatives permission to organize their presence under the protection of Iran's Pasdaran and local intelligence, and according to U.S. Department of Defense reports, the Venezuelans are providing Iranian units with Spanish language instruction with the aim of inserting them in a Latin American context.
One of the most dangerous aspects of Iran's presence in Venezuela is the increasing ability to install Iranian missiles aimed at the United States and other countries in the region.
Working naturally through Lebanese communities, beginning with its bases in the home country, Hezbollah has established groups and cells inside the U.S. in states such as Michigan, New York, and North Carolina.
The main activities detected by U.S. law enforcement organizations have centered on smuggling, fundraising, and providing material support to the mother organization in Lebanon. But Hezbollah has gained valuable experience in penetrating Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and the countries of northern Africa, which enables Iran to do considerable damage to the U.S. in case of open conflict.
The threat from Iran goes far beyond its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Its use of terrorist proxies and its creation of global terror networks has been one the longest-standing bones of contention with the West. Despite the current focus on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, no group has had more practice in global terrorism than Hezbollah, and no state has proved a better and more consistent patron than Iran.
From a U.S. counterterrorism perspective, the threats posed by Iran, Hezbollah, and its global terrorist network are considerable. But the addition of nuclear weapons into this global network of Khomeinists may well prove as dangerous if not more so than nuclear weapons in the hands of al-Qaida.
Walid Phares is a professor of Global Strategies and an adviser to the Counter Terrorism Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the author of "The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad."
Visit Dr. Phares on the web at www.walidphares.com.
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