Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984, Iran continued its support for terrorist-related activity in 2021, including support for Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and various terrorist and militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere throughout the Middle East. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to provide support to terrorist organizations, provide cover for associated covert operations, and create instability in the region. Iran has acknowledged the involvement of the IRGC-QF in the Iraq and Syria conflicts, and the IRGC-QF is Iran’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorist activity abroad. In 2019, the Secretary of State designated the IRGC, including IRGC-QF, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Iran also used regional militant and proxy groups to provide deniability, in an attempt to shield it from accountability for its destabilizing policies.
In Iraq, Iran supported various Iran-aligned militia groups in 2021, including the U.S.-designated terrorist groups Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), Harakat al-Nujaba, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, with sophisticated weapons — including increasingly accurate and lethal unmanned aerial systems (UAS) — support, funding, and training. These groups conducted roughly two dozen rocket and UAS attacks on U.S. and coalition facilities across Iraq in 2021. These included rocket attacks on U.S. Embassy Baghdad on January 22 and July 8; explosive UAS attacks on U.S. facilities in Erbil on February 15, April 14, and July 6; and multiple attacks in June on U.S. and coalition forces at Ain Al-Assad Airbase. Additionally, Iran-aligned militia groups conducted an explosive UAS attack on PM Kadhimi’s residence on November 6.
Iran also bolstered terrorist groups operating in Syria, including Hizballah, which has provided significant support to the Assad regime. Iran views the Assad regime in Syria as a crucial ally and Iraq and Syria as vital routes through which to supply weapons to Hizballah, Iran’s primary terrorist proxy group. Iranian forces have directly backed militia operations in Syria with artillery, rockets, drones, and armored vehicles. Through financial or residency enticements, Iran has facilitated and coerced primarily Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to participate in the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown in Syria. These Iran-aligned forces conducted an attack on U.S. forces at Al-Tanf, Syria, on October 20.
Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah conflict, Iran has supplied Hizballah in Lebanon with thousands of rockets, missiles, and small arms in violation of UNSCR 1701. Israeli security officials and politicians expressed concerns that Iran was supplying Hizballah with advanced weapons systems and technologies, as well as assisting the group in creating infrastructure that would permit it to indigenously produce rockets and missiles to threaten Israel from Lebanon and Syria. Iran has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Hizballah and trained thousands of its fighters at camps in Iran. Hizballah fighters have been used extensively in Syria to support the Assad regime.
In 2021, Iran continued providing weapons systems and other support to Hamas and other U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. These groups were behind numerous deadly attacks originating in Gaza and the West Bank.
In Bahrain, Iran has continued to provide weapons, support, and training to local Shia militant groups, including the al-Ashtar Brigades and Saraya al-Mukhtar, both U.S.-designated terrorist groups.
In Yemen, Iran has provided a wide range of weapons, training, advanced equipment such as unmanned aerial systems, and other support to Houthi militants, who engaged in hundreds of attacks against regional targets in Saudi Arabia. In May and December, the U.S. Navy and partner forces interdicted dhows carrying Iran-origin weapons intended for the Houthis, including hundreds of heavy machine guns and sniper rifles; dozens of advanced, Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles; several hundred rocket-propelled grenade launchers and optical sights for weapons; and thousands of assault rifles.
In 2021, Iranian forces attacked several commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman, including an April 13 attack on the Hyperion Ray and a July 29 UAS attack on the Mercer Street vessel.
Iran pursued or supported terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in 2021, including a thwarted January plot to attack an Israeli embassy in East Africa, a January bomb attack outside the Israeli embassy in New Delhi for which the Indian government said the IRGC-QF was responsible, and a disrupted attempt to attack an Israeli businessman in Cyprus in October.
Senior al-Qa’ida (AQ) members continued to reside in the country, and Iran has refused to publicly identify members it knows to be living in Iran. Iran has allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria, among other locales.
As in past years, the Iranian government continued supporting terrorist plots or associated activities targeting Iranian dissidents. In recent years, Albania, Belgium, and the Netherlands have all either arrested or expelled Iranian government officials implicated in various terrorist plots in their respective territories. Denmark similarly recalled its ambassador from Tehran after learning of an Iran-backed plot to kill an Iranian dissident in Denmark. In 2021, the United States disrupted an Iranian intelligence network plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist and human rights advocate living in Brooklyn, New York, from within the United States. The plot entailed luring Alinejad to a third country to capture her and forcibly render her to Iran. An Iranian plot to kidnap an Iranian helicopter pilot from Türkiye was also reportedly foiled by Turkish authorities.