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Iran's Ties to Terrorist Groups Pose Threat to US


European countries are preparing a package of incentives to persuade Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program. As tension rises over the country's nuclear ambitions, the United States is again accusing Iran of sponsoring terrorism. VOA's Bill Rodgers reports some experts believe Iran might respond to any U.S. action through surrogate terrorist attacks.

Hezbollah in Lebanon -- the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the Palestinian territories -- and possibly the notorious al-Qaida -- are all terror groups with alleged ties to Iran.

The U.S. State Department accuses Iran of being an active state sponsor of terrorism. Henry Crumpton heads the Department's Counterterrorism office.

"Again in 2005, Iran remained the most active sponsor of terrorism. Iran encouraged anti-Israeli activity: rhetorically, operationally and financially. Iran provided Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups with extensive funding, training and weapons."

The standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions has heightened tensions with Washington. There has been speculation in the U.S. media about possible pre-emptive strikes -- which the Bush administration refuses to rule out.

Should that happen, James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation believes Iran would retaliate in two ways: "One, driving up the price of oil by attacking oil convoys in the Strait of Hormuz and possibly by attacking oil facilities on the Arab side of the Gulf. And secondly, I think, it would step up its support for international terrorism, its support for anti-American attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Hezbollah in Lebanon would be activated not only to attack Israel but to attack Americans around the world."

Hezbollah, which receives financing from Iran, was responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines. A U.S. Federal grand jury charged that Saudi Hezbollah -- with Iranian backing -- was responsible for the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996 in which 19 American service members died.

Iran is now home for some members of al-Qaida, although their status is uncertain, according to former CIA counterterrorism officer Vince Cannistraro.

"When al-Qaida fled Afghanistan after the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States, a number of them went to Iran and many of them were incarcerated by the Iranians. The Iranians sent maybe 100 to 200 of these people back to their home countries: Saudi Arabia and Egypt, et cetera. But nevertheless they retain in Iran a number of senior al-Qaida leaders, ostensibly under some kind of custody."

That includes Saif Adel, a top al-Qaida member, who is believed to have planned a terrorist attack against Saudi Arabia in 2003 from inside Iran. Tehran in the past has denied ties to al-Qaida.

Middle East expert John Calabrese does not believe Iran would turn to al-Qaida to attack the United States. "I'm not really sure that if they wanted to perpetrate acts of terror against American targets or other western targets, or the American homeland for that matter, they would have to depend on al-Qaida operatives to do it. The Iranians have a very extensive, very sophisticated, very well-placed set of agents and operatives of their own. So I'm not sure they would have to outsource any of this."

But the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida remains murky. Some U.S. intelligence officials are said to believe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be forging an alliance with al-Qaida as a way to expand Tehran's influence. For its part, Iran has said no al-Qaida members remain in the country.

The U.S. accusations about Iran's ties to terrorism echo the kinds of charges made against Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. But in the case of Iran, most experts believe the evidence is more concrete - though Iran's ultimate intentions are unknown.