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analysis - who's a terrorist?
From the moment radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took dozens of Americans hostage, the notion that Iran employs terror as a political tool has held fast in the American mind. U.S. officials recite the alleged transgressions, including Iran's support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that the U.S. holds responsible for several acts of terror against Americans in the early 1980s. The bill of particulars has grown since then. An indictment handed down in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing case indicated that the perpetrators were "inspired, supported, and directed by elements of the Iranian government," a charge Iran emphatically denies. And the U.S. believes that Iran is providing support to Palestinian groups that send waves of suicide bombers into Israel.

What is the evidence against Iran? And how does Iran respond to accusations that it supports terror? Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with former CIA officer Robert Baer; Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, an influential reformist cleric and protégé of Ayatollah Khomeini; Iran's ambassador to Canada, Mohammad Ali Mousavi; Iranian Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar; The New York Times' Elaine Sciolino; and David Frum, the former speechwriter for U.S. President George W. Bush who is widely believed to have authored the phrase "axis of evil" for Bush's State of the Union address.

photo of baer

A CIA officer from 1976-1997, he is the author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (2002).

read the interview If you drive Iran into the corner, Iran has the means to retaliate all it wants. ... Iran -- if it feels it's backed into the corner, it's at war again with the United States -- will resort to terrorism, because the people who were involved are still in Iran; they're free. They don't agree with the policies, [with] the way Iran's going now. They think there should be more attacks against Americans. Where they're going to be depends on how we treat them. ...

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David Frum
A speechwriter for President George W. Bush until February 2002, Frum is said to have coined the phrase "axis of evil."

read the interview Every other year, the State Department produces a list of terrorist states, states that sponsor terrorism and use it as a political tool. [The State Department has] done this since at least the middle-1990s. ... And every year, Iran has been identified as the single most important state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

Iran has, in a way that is almost qualitatively different from any entity on earth except maybe the Palestinian Authority, used terror as a conscious tool of state policy. And the United States has said so again and again and again. It hasn't always said so from a State of the Union [address]. [It] said so in print, and it said so through its actions. The United States maintains sanctions against Iran because it recognizes Iran, and has recognized Iran, for a long time as a terror-sponsoring state.

photo of Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei

Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei
One of the most revered and influential religious authorities in the holy city of Qom, Saanei was a protégé of Ayatollah Khomeini. Today he is a reformist who speaks in favor of greater freedom and democracy.

... The Islamic Republic supports Islamic groups in other countries like Lebanon and Palestine. Those groups then take the support and use it violently. What is the attitude of Islam toward that sort of action?

read the interview Look, sometimes we are discussing the Islamic beliefs of others. Well, they are responsible for how they think. What we are discussing now is our interpretation of Islam in our republic. We are never in favor of terror and assassination. I repeat what I said before, if Mr. Bush wants to serve the Iranian nation and bring security to the world, not political arguments and power games, he should express his ideas clearly and logically for all the people of the world. He should not take a defensive stance and use some political rhetoric that is really offensive and unprofessional, which indicates that the speaker does not have common sense and mere intellect.

As I told you, in Shiite religion terror is definitely condemned. Therefore you are not able to find a Shiite Muslim in Taliban movement. We are Shiite Muslims, and my interpretation as well as that of other religious leaders in Islam, is that Islam does not accept terror. Terror in Islam, and especially Shiite, is forbidden.

David Frum
A speechwriter for President George W. Bush until February 2002, Frum is said to have coined the phrase "axis of evil."

... Iran has made itself the armory of the suicide bombers in the West Bank. It is now outfitting people who are firing missiles into Israel from across the Lebanese border. It is acting as the powder monkey of what may be the most dangerous conflict in the entire world. It is acquiring missile technology from China. It is developing nuclear warheads. ...

The Iranian response to the accusation of being a provider of arms would be that if all things seem to be as they appear, a shipload of arms destined to a government organization -- the Palestinian Authority -- is not necessarily an act of international subversion. It's what goes on all over the place. And what is the principal American objection to that?

The arms that the Iranians are trying to introduce into the West Bank would have raised the level of violence in that conflict to what would have been then an unprecedented level. These are much more destructive explosives, much more destructive rockets, much more accurate tools of killing. Iran, by sending these weapons, was seeking to escalate the level of violence to a whole new degree of tragedy and sadness. ...

The Iranians often speak as if encouraging the murder of civilians were everywhere a normal tool of policy. It is not. It is a distinctive Iranian contribution. I shouldn't say "distinctive," because Iran's not unique. But Iran is one of a list of very, very few countries that uses the conscious murder of civilians as a tool of policy. It's a different kind of regime from other regimes -- even other troublesome regimes. ...

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Mohammad Ali Mousavi
He is Iran's ambassador to Canada, and one of only two Iranian diplomats in North America.

It is widely reported that Hezbollah, up until recently, was supplied with $100 million a year from Iran, that the Revolutionary Guards were running training camps for Hezbollah fighters and Hamas fighters, that Iran very actively supported Hezbollah with money and --


That's false?

read the interview Yes. We deny that. Our support to Hezbollah has been a moral support. We continue to do that, because in our belief, a fight against occupation is not a terrorist fight, it is a legitimate fight. It is not terrorism. We do not distinguish between bad terrorists and good terrorists. Terrorists are bad. Terrorists are evil. ...

Terrorism is a menace of this world. We are against terrorism. But we differentiate between terrorist act with those legitimate rights of people who had been or are under occupation. ...

But what is a terrorist, then?

Okay, terrorists are those who are occupying another country, those who are putting the civilians' life under threat and danger for their political-motivated illegitimate [reasons]. If someone occupies another's country, the occupier is a terrorist. But the one who fights occupation, in any standard, would be a legitimate fighter.

But what about the one who walks into a pizzeria or a bus or into a marketplace and blows up everything around them?

In our official position, putting the civilians' life in danger, no matter where, is not legitimate. Islamically, based on Islamic values, it's not legitimate.

But it's been happening, and it's been happening under the sponsorship of organizations that are considered to be creations of Iranian foreign policy.

It's happening because no one gets to the root of why it's happening, and that actually was our president's message in post-Sept. 11, that to fight terrorism, it requires two issues. One, it requires a global fight, a global coalition to fight terrorism. And secondly, to go to the roots of such act. ...

For example, in the Palestinian issue, if you have a fair, lasting peace there, then you have resolved the root. If you give the right of self-determination, give the right of return to the Palestinians who have been kicked out of their own homeland, then you have resolved the root, and there will be an end to this violence.

But if you want to deny such rights -- which are legitimate rights, on any standard -- to Palestinians, and you just want to end violence, it won't end there. And it has been proved in the past years that it hasn't. We are in this belief that whatever Palestinians decide, we respect that. That's their decision; that's their future. ...

Recently a shipload of arms bound for Palestine was intercepted by the Israeli navy. Iran is accused of having been the origin of that shipload of arms. Is this justified by the struggle of the Palestinian people?

No. We haven't been a part of that ship. From the first day that such accusation raised, we ask give us evidence. If it is so, the government of Iran will act strongly against any involvement, any possible involvement by anyone. But a month has passed. Accusations through media have been on the air, but no one has given us evidence. ...

You flatly deny that Iran has provided financial support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad?


And you flatly deny that Iran has provided armaments to the Palestinian effort? ... What about the general [relationship]?

... As we said, we believe, and it is not only Iran's belief -- in the Muslim world, if you go to any countries, nowadays even governments of Muslim world, they all take the same approach as Iran takes -- we support morally the cause of deprived Palestinians. But it is up to them. We haven't supported them financially, we haven't supported them through armaments. We deny exactly, and that's actually what I mention. Give us evidence on this issue.

But no one, it seems that in a way, it's a cooking taking place through some pressure group, some lobby groups, on the interest of one individual country against Iran. Why [does] no one provide Iran with evidence on such a major accusation? Have you asked Americans or Israelis, "Why don't you provide the evidence while we are asking for the evidence?"

Americans will tell you that the State Department, the CIA, and that all the American agencies have absolutely, satisfactorily proved that Iran is involved.

What is secret about this evidence that they don't provide it to Iran? ...

Our policy vis-a-vis Palestine has been clear. In our view, a lasting peace should be a just peace -- determining the right of Palestinians on their land, the right of a return of refugees. But this is our view. We do not impose our view. It is their decision, the second issue. What they decide, we respect, no matter it is against our view or not. ...

Whatever they decide we respect. We respect Palestinians' decision, because it is those rights. We don't hide our views. ... We clearly give our view, but we don't impose our view. ... We won't be more Palestinian than Palestinians themselves.

But surely it is a major impediment with the United States, for example, that you have not granted the right of Israel to exist.

We believe United States should play a fair role in the Middle East issue. If they don't do that, if they move as they have done up to now, a one-sided, biased approach in the Middle East case, that source of violence will not be resolved. ... You should be fair on your approach within the issue there. If they don't, it would remain there. This is the analysis. ...

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Elaine Sciolino
A senior writer for The New York Times and the author of Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (2000), she has covered Iran since the revolution in 1979.

read the interview Iran is diametrically opposed to a peace process that will result in a two-state solution in Israel, an Israel and a Palestinian state. That's Iran's official position. And despite the fact that President Khatami has modulated the position from time to time, it is still official Iranian policy.

Iran, according to the U.S. government, is the world's most active sponsor of state terrorism -- in particular, Iran supports Hezbollah, the Shiite guerrilla group in Lebanon, and supports two Palestinian anti-Israeli groups in the occupied territories. And because it gives material aid to those two groups and military aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon -- largely because of that -- the United States has branded Iran terrorist. ...

How does Iran's behavior differ -- in terms specifically in the real hot-button issue of terrorism -- from the involvement of, say, Saudi Arabian interests in Hamas? ...

It's [not] so much of designating countries either with us or against us. It depends on the attitude of the individual country. The Saudis say, "We're with you. We're working on this. We're trying to cooperate. We're trying to root out terrorism." And the Saudis aren't providing weapons to anyone in the region, so they get a pass. Or they get America's grievances told to them privately, not publicly, and not through punitive measures like sanctions.

It's the same thing with Pakistan. I mean, Pakistan could be branded a supporter of terrorism, because so many of the Al Qaeda fighters have ended up in Pakistan. Pakistan has such a long and porous border with Afghanistan. But because the regime in Pakistan has linked arms with the United States and everybody's singing kumbaya together, they get a pass, too. ...

photo of Massoumeh Ebtekar

Massoumeh Ebtekar
She is vice president for the environment in Mohammad Khatami's administration, and one of the highest-ranking women in the Islamic world.

read the interview The Islamic Revolution has always been a supporter of the Palestinian cause. The Islamic Revolution has always believed that the Palestinian cause is a just cause. And the Iranian people have always supported the Palestinian people. If that is a reason why the Iranian people should be punished, well, then that [decision] should be opened up for the world to make.

It's a discussion of methodology that's at issue here. It's the question of the tactics of organizations that test the law militarily. ...

Those are claims that need to be substantiated it, claims and issues which have never been proven. And the fact is that the Iranian nation supports the Palestinian nation, supports the just cause of the Palestinians. And if there's any reason to be worried about weapons of mass destruct[ion] or terrorism, I think that the Zionist state is a serious reason to be worried. The amount of weaponry that [that] state has can't be compared to any state in this region, the way that they've been using that against the Palestinian people, and the way that they've been occupying Palestinian territory. Even if the Americans try to get away with this, I don't think that human society, humanity would never accept these double standards. ...

photo of baer

A CIA officer from 1976-1997, he is the author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (2002).

What is the evidence that Iran influenced Hezbollah?

Well, we know they influenced Hezbollah because they accept Khomeini and Khamenei as the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, [not Sheik] Fadlallah. Fadlallah is the senior cleric in Lebanon, but he was not the main impetus of Hezbollah. It was Iran. I mean, it's acknowledged; it's public that the religious authority is found in Qom in Iran, and the Iranian clerics. It's a very hierarchical religion. ...

And how important [is] Hezbollah? ...

It's extremely important. Hezbollah's divided into many parties. There's the Islamic Resistance in the south, which beat the Israelis. They attacked the Israeli army. They defeated the Israeli army on Lebanese soil. I do not know how we can describe that other than a national liberation movement.

I don't agree that Hezbollah itself is a terrorist organization. It delivers powdered milk; it takes care of people. It's a social organization; it's a political organization. It fights corruption.

Then there's the Islamic Resistance, which is an army, which is a guerrilla force, fighting for control of its own country. And then, under the Hezbollah umbrella, was the Islamic Jihad, which I call their special security, which was controlled by Iran, which carried out terrorism against the West. And you can paint Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. You can do that for political reasons, but strictly speaking, it is many things. Just as [with] the IRA, you got Sinn Fein and you've got the real IRA, which is conducting terrorism.

And is the distinction important?

It's very important.


Well, I mean if you're going to retaliate against terrorism -- what we call terrorism, [which is] the attacking of innocent people for political motives, not liberating your own country -- we have to distinguish the two groups. Fadlallah is not a terrorist. ... He was a spiritual leader in his organization. ... We can't label him a terrorist and fight Hezbollah as an organization in its entirety. We have to isolate the murderers and fight them.

But when [Hezbollah] was taking American hostages...

It wasn't Hezbollah; it was the Islamic Jihad organization which was taking [hostages]. It was a very distinct organization, which was separate from Hezbollah because you had the consultative council which only had a vague idea of what the hostage-takers were doing. The hostage-takers were taking orders from Iran. Hezbollah itself does not care about American citizens running around Lebanon, as it doesn't care today. I mean, as an ex-CIA officer, I can go see Hezbollah, I can talk to them. They don't care. ...

But explain that. There is actually a different management structure here [that] we're talking [about]?

Absolutely. And it's very clear that special security in Hezbollah took its orders for all the important years from the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [in Iran]. Hezbollah itself accepted money and spiritual leadership from Iran, but it had nothing to do with terrorism. Ninety-nine percent of Hezbollah, people in Hezbollah, know nothing about it. They don't have the slightest idea how it works, who's behind it -- the Iranian role. And that nuance, I think, is missed in Washington today.

I think it's a mistake in U.S. foreign policy, first of all, to paint Islam as an enemy, because you get dragged into a cultural war which we can't win. You have to isolate the people who really do sponsor mass murder or kidnappings or individual murders of people. ... Those are isolated individuals which don't have anything to do with Islam in general. Same way in Hezbollah. It's a small group of people kidnapping, murdering. But Hezbollah itself is not a terrorist organization. ...

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