The US, Iran, and the Moral High Ground: On the US Government’s Ties to Terrorist Organizations

The harm a country is willing to inflict on another increases in proportion to the degree to which it perceives itself to be the other’s moral superior. Arguably, whether the harm is justified depends, in part, on the accuracy of this perception. In the specific case of U.S. policy towards Iran, American public support is to some extent explained by the perception that Iran is America’s moral inferior partly on account of its support for reputed terrorist organizations. How accurate is this perception, at least with respect to this particular basis? Here I provide a sample – by no means an exhaustive list – of cases in which the US government supported or cooperated with terrorist organizations. To avoid the charge of pedaling "conspiracy theories", I limit myself to mainstream sources in showing that the perception is dangerously inaccurate.

1. Support for the Nicaraguan Contras

In the 1980s, the Central Intelligence Agency published a manual entitled Psychological Operations in Guerilla Warfareto assist the Nicaraguan contras in its war against the leftist Sandinista government. The manual advocates for the use of "implicit terror" in order to maintain control over the population. Although it does discourage "explicit terror", this has less to do with any principled opposition to it than with the practical concern that "this would result in a loss of popular support." Elsewhere, the manual states that "it [may] be necessary…to fire on a citizen…trying to leave the town or city in which the guerrillas are carrying out armed propaganda or political proselytism…" "It is possible," it continues, "to neutralize [i.e., assassinate] carefully selected and planned targets, such as court judges, mesta judges, police and State Security officials." Evidently, gunning down civilians does not fall under the category of "explicit terror".


2. Support for the Kosovo Liberation Army

In the late 1990s, the Kosovo Liberation Army fought the Yugoslav armed forces for the independence of the mainly Albanian province of Kosovo. President Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, had this to say about the KLA: “I know a terrorist when I see one and these men are terrorists." Nevertheless, the same year that the US designated the KLA as a terrorist organization and supported United Security Council Resolution 1160 (1998), which explicitly referred to the violence perpetrated by the KLA as "acts of terrorism", the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had begun directly supporting the group (see Peter Dale Scott, 2007, The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America, University of California Press, p. 131).

3. Support for the Mujahedin-E-Khalq

Owing to the fact that the "Islamo-socialist" militant organization Mujahedin-e-Khalq was removed from the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012, some may object to my decision to include US support for this group among my four cases. For the sake of argument, let us assume that the State Department’s list is somehow an objective criterion by which to qualify a group as a terrorist organization. Even so, from 2005 to sometime before the Obama presidency – during which the MEK remained on the US list of FTOs – the US Joint Special Operations Command reportedly trained members of the MEK at the Nevada National Security Site. You read correctly – according to Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, our government trained members of a U.S.-recognized terrorist organization. On US soil.

4. Support for al-Qaida and ISIL

In a 2014 leaked email, then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, disclosed that the "governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia…are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region." Given our ongoing "War on Terror", one would think that this acknowledgment would prompt a radical shift in America’s dealings with these state sponsors of terror. On the contrary, in the following year, US arms sale deliveries to Qatar and Saudi Arabia amounted to $119 million and $2.8 billion, respectively.

Likewise, in 2017, President Trump publicly accused Qatar of being "a funder of terrorism, and at a very high level.” No more than five days after, however, he authorized Qatar "to purchase over $21 billion of US weapons." Perhaps, then, it is not terrorism, per se, that the US government opposes, but rather the political ends to which it is sometimes employed.

Consider, also, a 2018 investigative report on the war in Yemen. According to the Associated Press, a Saudi-led, US backed military coalition had "cut secret deals with al-Qaida fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash." Even more disturbing was the revelation that "hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself." It would be possible, arguably, to excuse the US government if it were shown that it was not privy to the fact that, among other things, Al-Qaida fighters had been enlisted to fight on the side of the coalition. Unfortunately, however, "key participants in the pacts [reportedly] said the US was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes [against al-Qaida targets]."

Finally, a commander in the al-Nusra front – an al-Qaida affiliate operating in Syria – alleged that his group has received support from the US"The Americans are on our side," he flatly remarked in an interview with the German newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. Far from joining a secular (albeit authoritarian) leader in combating a mutual enemy – i.e., groups listed by the State Department as terrorist organizations – our government seems to have done everything conceivable to undermine his rule.

Terrorism is a politicized term used in different and selective ways in the area within each government’s propagandistic reach. If this term were employed in a more consistent and politically neutral manner, we would discover that the US government has not refrained from doing that which it regularly imputes to its Iranian counterpart. Whatever distinguishes Washington from Tehran, it is not a refusal to support or cooperate with terrorist organizations. Although knowing this fact may bruise our national ego, greater national humility may serve to prevent another devastating war.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College.