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Differing Views Of Terrorism Lead To Iran-U.S. Impasse

(Washington, DC--May 17, 2003) A failure to agree on what constitutes terrorism has led U.S. and Iranian officials to a diplomatic stalemate. RFE/RL senior Iran analyst A. William Samii told a briefing audience this week that the two countries hold incompatible perceptions about militant groups. This conceptual divide has stymied U.S. efforts to pressure Tehran into abandoning its support of terrorist organizations. According to Samii, "this is more than an intellectual dispute ... it has legal consequences for Iran."

Samii noted that the U.S. State Department defines Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations and subjects state sponsors of such groups, such as Iran, to economic sanctions. Officials in Tehran maintain, on the other hand, that these are "national liberation movements" and point out that the Iranian constitution calls for support of "freedom fighters" and "the struggle by the oppressed against their oppressors." Although U.S. officials have agreed to engage Tehran in dialog, Samii said, Iranian officials refuse to talk until all legal measures are retracted and have called on the United Nations to adopt a universal definition of terrorism that will inform international policy. Washington has rejected these terms. "Everyone agrees they are against terrorism, but efforts to reach a shared conception of what terrorism is are at an irreconcilable impasse," said Samii.

While Iranian officials admit to providing political support to militant groups, Samii pointed out that Tehran's assistance to Hizballah is material and extensive. "Millions of dollars are provided each year in cash and direct subsidies for training, refuge and weapons," he said. Several sources have reported that Iranian President Khatami and other senior officials have met openly with leaders of these organizations in Damascus, Beirut and Tehran. Samii said "Officials meeting with organization members does not mean they are planning to blow things up," but added, "It seems to me that the events play against Iranian claims that they are not providing support."

Alleged links between Hizballah, Hamas and the Al-Qaeda network, Samii said, have increased U.S. concern over Iranian involvement in terror. He added that Lebanese, Kuwaiti, and Saudi Arabian reports indicate terrorists are transiting Iran on their way to and from fighting in Afghanistan and are being extradited to other countries, effectively bypassing U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Samii said that Iranian officials recently conceded that that its rugged 936-mile border with Afghanistan cannot be sealed, and that organization members may be in the country. To hear archived audio for this and other RFE/RL briefings and events, please visit our website at