America’s Arch-Demons

The Americans regularly release a blacklist of “state sponsors of terrorism.” We explain what it is.

While the United States is managing to expunge the last vestiges of the Cold War with Cuba, it is far from ready to forgive Iran. Although a favorable outcome has been reached regarding the highly sensitive issue of the Iranian nuclear program, the Islamic Republic of Iran appears regularly on the American blacklist of “state sponsors of terrorism.” What is this blacklist?

The first blacklist of “state sponsors of terrorism” was published by the U.S. State Department in December 1979, when Jimmy Carter was president. Four countries were listed: Iraq, Libya, Syria and South Yemen. Annick Cizel, an expert in American foreign policy at the Sorbonne, explains that the list was entirely “inspired by democratic dualism, similar to the Cold War’s communist witch hunts.” In the 1980s and 1990s, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Sudan were added. Barthélémy Courmont, director of research at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and an expert in international relations, remarks that, “Overall, we see that there are additions to this list under Democratic administrations, such as those of Carter and Clinton, as well as Republican ones, for example under Reagan, which shows that this question is treated in a bipartisan fashion in the United States.” The current list includes three “state sponsors of terrorism:” Iran, Syria and Sudan.

Although it has caused a stir in Europe, the list remains relatively unknown in the United States. Cizel and Julien Zarifian, lecturers in American studies at the University of Cergy-Pontoise, note that although it is difficult to be sure, “we can assume that the vast majority of the American public is unaware of the existence of such a list.” For those in the know, the list is far from eliciting unanimous opinion. Organizations and intellectuals, including the philosopher Noam Chomsky, have denounced the legal vacuum and the temptation to criminalize countries that are not allies of Washington. “The concept of a state that supports terrorism is difficult to define precisely. It can seem incomplete or simplistic,” points out Zarifian.

How did Iran, Syria and Sudan “Win” Their Places on This List?

Iran was listed in 1984. Following the Islamic revolution of 1979 which ousted the pro-American shah, the new supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, launched a policy of fierce resistance to “American imperialism.” The antagonism between the two countries reached its zenith when hostages were taken from the American Embassy in Tehran and were not released until 1981 after 444 days in captivity. Furthermore, Tehran has angered Washington because of its steady support for armed groups which are classed as “terrorist” including the Palestinian Hamas, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which was founded by Iran. But according to Thierry Coville, an expert on Iran, the key incident was the attack on Oct. 23, 1983 in Beirut, in which 241 American soldiers were killed, and for which Washington blamed Tehran and Hezbollah. A year later, the Islamic Republic of Iran joined the blacklist, from which it has never been removed.

Syria, which since the 1970s has been considered by Washington to be the other “state sponsor of terrorism” in the Middle East, “does not cease to support terrorist organizations such as the Palestine Liberation Front and the Palestine Islamic Jihad,” according to a report from the U.S. State Department.* The same source says that Damascus may have both sheltered these terrorists and allowed them free movement across territory it controlled in Lebanon. But it was only in 1979, when Hafez al-Assad’s regime positioned itself firmly on the side of the Iranian Islamic revolution that Washington decided to put Syria on its blacklist.

“There Are No Eternal Allies”

The discord between Khartoum and Washington goes back to well before the Darfur “genocide.” Situated at the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, the “land of the blacks” has served as a conduit for arms travelling from Iran to the Gaza Strip since the 1990s. “Sudan appears to the United States to be as much a refuge for small groups affiliated with al-Qaida as for the Palestinian Hamas. It is a logistics base where extremists from Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and Syria convene,” adds Cizel, the expert in American foreign policy at the Sorbonne. Furthermore, we must remember that the infamous al-Qaida Osama bin Laden, who at the time was already in America’s sights, moved to Sudan in 1992 to train jihadi fighters. “Thus the inclusion of the country on the list in 1993 was directly linked to the identification of al-Qaida as a major security risk,” Courmont points out.

As Lord Palmerston said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal.” Indeed, the list of “state sponsors of terrorism” evolves according to American interests. North Korea is an enlightening example. A long-standing bête noire of the United States, Pyongyang was added in 1988 due to its alleged implication in the destruction of a South Korean airliner in 1987. It was removed from the list in 2008 following an (ephemeral) agreement made with Washington on its nuclear program. Last December, following the Sony hacking affair, President Barack Obama announced that it would be entirely conceivable for Pyongyang to return to the list.

*Editor’s note: The quoted material, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

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