Defining terrorism to exculpate terrorists


Men hold pictures of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini while attending a ceremony to mark his death anniversary at the Khomeini shrine in the Behesht Zahra cemetery, south of Tehran, June 4, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Terrorism will likely remain an impediment to Iran’s relationship with the West, even if the nuclear issue is resolved.

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  • While Iranian officials will often condemn terrorism, their remarks often come replete with an asterisk.

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  • “The United States can’t do a damned thing; we will export our revolution to the world,” became Khomeini’s mantra.

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According to the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism (previously known as the Patterns of Global Terrorism report), Iran, designated a terror sponsor since 1984, remains “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism” as it “continues to undermine international efforts to promote peace and democracy and threatens stability, especially in the Middle East and South Asia.”

While Iranian officials will often condemn terrorism, their remarks often come replete with an asterisk, as Iranian officials embrace a definition that exculpates support of groups which target civilians for causes the Islamic Republic believes to be righteous. It is within this context that the excerpted remarks by Gholam-Hossein Dehqani, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, should not surprise. In recent years international diplomacy has focused upon the Iranian nuclear program, but even if there is resolution to that issue, differences regarding terrorism will likely remain an impediment to Iran’s relationship with the West.

The Islamic Republic’s concept of terrorism has multiple roots. Not only religious but also political ideology provided the sustenance upon which Iran’s revolutionaries thrived in the run-up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Anti-Western ideology—which some contemporary analysts associate with the Islamic Republic and perhaps eases acceptance of terror as an asymmetric strategy—actually has deeper roots inside Iran. In 1962 Iranian writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad condemned Iranian association with Western notions of modernity, coining the term “Westoxification,” as if this were a sickness. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s xenophobia therefore appealed not only to a religious constituency, but also more broadly to Iranian intellectuals. In the decade prior to the Islamic Revolution, the student generation which now occupies top positions in government and civil society embraced moral equivalence, which exculpated terrorism in support of revolutionary movements. Khomeini’s antipathy toward the State of Israel led the Islamic Republic to embrace the Palestinian cause as its own, often manifested by unapologetic support for groups—Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas, for example—which the United States government and European Union label as terrorists. The Iranian government has even been so bold as to include a line item for “resistance” in its budget.

Khomeini enshrined the support of such groups both in the Islamic Republic’s constitution and in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) foundational documents. Article 3 of the Constitution, for example, declares a goal of the regime to be “unsparing support to the oppressed of the world,” while Article 154 calls for “support of the just struggles of the oppressed against the arrogant in every corner of the globe.” “The United States can’t do a damned thing; we will export our revolution to the world,” became Khomeini’s mantra and, subsequently, an IRGC slogan.

Today, the Iranian leadership accepts only an interpretation of revolutionary export rooted in violence. In a 3 May 2008 speech, former President Mohammad Khatami, often labeled a reformer by Western analysts, suggested that Iranian officials redefine the concept of revolutionary export in terms of soft power. Iranian authorities countered with a full-throated declaration that the mandate to export revolution was to be conducted militarily.

Tehran’s use of both the United Nations and the Islamic Republic’s possession of the rotating presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement to exculpate terrorism conducted in causes it believes just highlights the intellectual side of a battle conducted from the Iranian perspective as much in international forums as in the back alleys of Beirut, Gaza, and Damascus.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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