The real threat of Iranian terrorism

Although they pose little risk to Western targets on Western soil, the activities of Iranian extremists are driving a wedge between the US and Europe, writes Nicholas Bethell
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The Independent Online
Iran is the fountain of all terrorism, at least this was the word from Washington in the wake of the TWA disaster, violence in Bahrain and the explosion at Al-Khobar in Saudi Arabia. Press leaks from the US administration, some of them inspired by Secretary of Defense, William Perry, on his return from the Persian Gulf, give the impression that the Ayatollahs have upped the terrorist stakes and are now embarked on a new policy of mass murder throughout the western world.

Strong American feelings about Iran date back to their expulsion from the country in 1979-80 and the hostage crisis, when the United States was humiliated, its foreign service most of all. Several key State Department officials from that wretched year, including Warren Christopher and Tony Lake, are in even more powerful positions today. There is a presidential election and Mr Clinton is expected to "do something" against Iran, which has few friends among those who will be voting in November.

Recently American officials have had to backtrack, at the same time analysing what Iranian terrorism actually is. What do these violent men of Islam do? What are their targets? Are they escalating their campaign?

Western experts agree that, whereas Iran is undoubtedly among the world's worst terrorist nations, it is not yet in the business of attacking Western targets on American or European territory. Recent events offer no good reason why this analysis should be varied.

Their most blatant behaviour is reserved for action against individual Iranian dissidents. Twelve have been murdered in Europe so far this year, most of them members of the left-wing Mujahedeen ul-Khalq violent opposition movement, others of them former high officials from the Shah's regime. Iran admits nothing, but it sees itself as entitled to kill Mujahedeen members. They are, after all, funded by the great enemy, Baghdad, and they carry out acts of violence inside Iran in pursuit of their declared aim, the overthrow of the Islamic republic.

Some days ago, I asked Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, why his government had named a nearby street after the hunger striker Bobby Sands, so giving the impression that Iran supports the IRA. He replied: "It is because you in Britain give safe haven to terrorists from the Mujahedeen, who kill our people. Men from your House of Commons and House of Lords receive them and speak up for them."

The Iranian charge d'affairs in London, Gholamreza Ansari, says: "A large and unbelievable number of innocent civilian people, including a president and a prime minister, MPs and ministers, have been killed by the Mujahedeen in Iran." Iran's director of prisons, Assadullah Lajavardi, told me: "These Communists come into our country and kill maybe 50 of our people. Should we leave them alone to kill another 50? They deserve to be executed."

I am sure that Mr Lajavardi meant that such people should be executed outside Iran as well as inside it. And he would see countries like Britain, France and Germany, which allow the Mujahedeen to operate politically, as their accomplices. He would think of Iran as a victim of terrorism rather than as a perpetrator.

However, it is not only the violent who are killed by Iranian agents. Two such men are today in prison in France, convicted of having cut the throat of the Shah's last Prime Minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, in Paris in August 1991. In Germany there is a warrant out for the arrest of Iran's Minister for Intelligence for allegedly bombing a dissident group in Berlin in 1994. British officials believe that in recent years, 40 dissidents, by no means all of them violent, have been killed in Europe by the Iranian secret police, and others in Turkey and Iraq.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence available to Western experts on the Bakhtiar case and others, the Iranian government refuses to admit that it has ever acted violently outside its own borders. "Show me your proof," said Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran's Minister for Relations with Europe and America, when I put the Bakhtiar case to him. "These are no more than rumours dreamt up by our enemies in Iraq, or by Israel." But he knew, I think, that I did not believe him.

In one particular case Iran has been ready to act against a Western target. This is the matter of Salman Rushdie. But Iran today would like the Rushdie issue to be forgotten. The chairman of the Iranian Parliament's Committee on Foreign Policy, Mohammed Larajani, says: "Iran has disassociated itself from the fatwah. There will be no Iranian hit squads trying to carry out the death sentence. These assurances ought to be enough for you, but Britain wants more. Britain demands that we sign a paper that amounts to an admission of guilt. This is unacceptable."

Again, Dr Larajani was being less than candid. An Iranian religious foundation known as "15th Khordad" still offers a $2m bounty to anyone who kills the British writer. This is an incitement to murder that Iran does nothing to silence.

Iran's protestation that its government cannot interfere in the finances of a private body does not impress the British side. Meanwhile, there are still, probably, Iranian agents keen to carry out what Ayatollah Khomeini ordered.

Another area of violence where Iran is active involves terrorism against Israel. British officials believe that Iranian agents were responsible for the bomb explosion and consequent loss of life at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires last year. Iran also, by its own admission, helps the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon, which fires rockets into Israeli territory. Iran will not concede that this amounts to complicity in terrorism.

Dr Zarif says: "Hizbollah has elected members in the Lebanese Parliament and it is not easy to call them terrorists just because they oppose the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. We help Hizbollah with food and medicines." Again, he is not telling the full truth.

A third category of Iranian terrorism involves the Persian Gulf area, especially Bahrain, where there is Shi'ite majority and where Iran has been closely engaged for many decades. British experts are convinced that some at least of the recent violence in Bahrain is Iran's work, to the extent that some of those involved were trained in Iranian camps in subversive techniques and provided with equipment and money.

Yet even here, Iran admits nothing and tries to justify a strong political stance. Mr Vaezi says: "Why does the West emphasise Iran's human rights problems? Kuwait has no valid parliament at all. Neither does Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia, a woman cannot drive a car and Christian worship is forbidden. Yet you never criticise these countries. You only attack Iran. You are very selective." Inevitably one is brought back to the Al-Khobar bomb and the alarming reports emerging from Washington sources these past days. The difference between TWA and Al-Khobar is that, whereas there is no evidence at all to link Iran with the TWA outrage, any more than there is with the World Trade Center or Oklahoma or Atlanta explosions, there are some circumstantial features of the Saudi Arabian bombing that give rise to suspicion.

American experts are now no longer jumping to conclusions, but they are worried by how skilfully and effectively the Al-Khobar operation was carried out. They doubt whether Saudi Arabian dissidents on their own would be capable of such a spectacular achievement against a tough American target. They sense foreign involvement and they know how deeply Iran resents the American military presence in Saudi Arabia.

They also detect in Iranian press reports of the explosion the same triumphalism as followed the bombing of the US Marine base in Beirut in 1984. The Iranian media is taking pains to remind Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that the death of American Marines in 1984 was followed by American withdrawal from the Lebanon, with dire consequences for America's friends in that country. American analysts, while agreeing that the evidence against Iran in this matter remains circumstantial, see this as a very threatening message.

The experts do not, therefore, blame Iran for purely anti-Western outrages, although they are sure of Iranian guilt in the three categories of terrorism mentioned above.

For instance, they hold Libya, not Iran, responsible for the Lockerbie disaster. Even though Iran has an apparent motive for revenge - the accidental destruction of an Iranian airliner by an American missile - Iran's name is not in the frame over Lockerbie. The evidence assembled by the Scottish police, which cannot yet be made public, points clearly to the two named Libyan assassins.

British officials nevertheless remain suspicious of Iranian intentions in the Rushdie case and they believe that Iran has the ability to attack more Western targets in the West, if their policies should change. Men are being trained in Iran for this eventuality and they can be activated if the West increases its pressure. Also an aggressive posture towards Europe and North America remains one of the characteristics of the Islamic Revolution. And, although many in Iran would like this to change and more practical policies to prevail, there is nothing yet to suggest that Mr Rafsanjani and his clerical rulers will allow such a change of policy, or that the technologists will be able to overrule the men of religious principle.

One of the most serious consequences for the Western world is that divisions now arise between Europe and the US. This was shown most vividly in April 1995 when the American company Conoco was awarded a $600m contract for an Iranian gas project. The US administration stepped in to prevent Conoco from concluding the deal, only to see it picked up by the French company CFP Totale.

An American official says: "The Europeans really irritate us over Iran. We make sacrifices in an effort to tackle a problem that threatens the security of us all, only to see our allies making profits out of what we have voluntarily given up. It is all very well for Europe to engage in 'critical dialogue'. We would do the same. We do not want to start a war. But if dialogue fails and terrorism continues, one must be prepared to exert pressure. Europe is not doing this."

The European Union, on the other hand, is conscious of the great export potential of Iran. It sees the Iranian issue as illustrating American foreign policy at its most clumsy, with an administration keen to demonstrate its machismo in the run-up to an election, indulging in frothy press releases and unreliable briefings which it then has to retract, and then proceeds to try to enforce American law outside American territory.

Iran, therefore, is happy to continue its carefully planned scale of terrorism, avoiding Western targets but using violent means in many other parts of the world. From the point of view of the mullahs, this policy has several merits. It is cautious enough to prevent the US from being so angered that they launch an armed response. At the same time, it is bold enough to keep the fervour of Islamic revolution alive, to infuriate the entire Western world and to create divisions between Europe and North America.