State Sponsors of Terrorism

Who’s on the List and Who’s Missing

Hossein Askari
6 min readApr 20, 2022


This is how the State Department’s website describes the list’s designation and its current membership:

“Countries determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism are designated pursuant to three laws: section1754(c) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961). Taken together, the four main categories of sanctions resulting from designation under these authorities include restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions…Designation under the above-referenced authorities also implicates other sanctions laws that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with state sponsors.”

Countries that had been on the list but have been removed are: Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Sudan. Countries currently on the list are: Cuba, North Korea, Syria and Iran — the latter two countries are veterans of the list and have stayed on it after being so designated in1979 and 1984 respectively.

If we accept the State Department’s criterion — support for acts of international terrorism — we should emphasize that these acts of terror should be international, namely, outside the country designated as the sponsor. So which acts of countries on the list qualify under these guidelines and are there countries that have escaped notice? Let’s look at the two longest serving members and still on the list.

First up, Syria. As someone born in Iran, I have repeatedly written that I am ashamed of Iran’s support for the Syrian regime. I understand it — with Syria the only country that supported Iran after it was illegally invaded by Iraq with internationally banned weapons of mass destruction. Let me repeat, while I am ashamed of Iran’s support for the Assad regime, still Assad’s horrific acts are not international. They are aimed at his own people. So why has Syria been the dean of international terrorist sponsors and founding member of the list? My best guess is that the United States abhors Bashar Assad’s, and earlier his father’s, human rights abuses against his own people as well as Israel’s adversarial relations with Syria, but to put Syria on the list diminishes the credibility of the list. So much for the founding and longest serving member of this list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. A horrible regime, but not an international sponsor of terrorism.

Second up, Iran, put on the list in 1984 and a member ever since. What are Iran’s transgressions? In the early days after the 1979 Revolution, a number of high-profile opponents of the new regime in Tehran were assassinated in Europe. However, while the numbers may be in dispute, no assassinations have been attributed to the regime since 1990 that I know of. Yet, Iran continues to be on the terrorist list. The U.S. does not even mention early transgressions but claims others: support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, for Shia militias in Iraq, for Houthis ruling most of Yemen and fighting Saudi interventionists, support for Palestinian groups (Hamas, Islamic Jihad) and for Assad in Syria. Yes, Iran has supported these entities. But in so doing is Iran a sponsor of international terrorism? I would claim not. On what basis is Iran’s support of Hezbollah (a legal party in Lebanon) and for Shia militia in Iraq (part of the Iraqi military) sponsoring terrorism? The only reason I could imagine is that the U.S. and Israel have problems with Hezbollah and the U.S. has had conflicts with the Shia militia in Iraq, but such U.S. feelings seem insufficient to designate Iran as a sponsor of terrorism. Designating Iran’s support for the Houthis as sponsoring terrorism is even more farfetched. They are fighting Saudi aggression, namely, an ongoing war with possibly over 350,000 casualties and what may indeed be the most horrific genocide of this century. On the other hand, Iran’s support for Assad has been destructive, shameful and morally wrong, and is to my mind the only ongoing justification for putting Iran on the list.

There are a number of countries left off the Terrorism List.

First up, Russia. Russia’s crimes are many and include: its invasion of Georgia, massacres in Grozny in Chechnya (but something that is not international as Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation), interference and aggression in Libya, massacres using chemical weapons in Aleppo Syria constituting much more effective support for the oppressive regime of Assad than Iran’s (a main crime attributed to Iran), the annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine with support for separatists, and now the horrific invasion of Ukraine with thousands killed and massive destruction. Yet Russia is not on the list! Why? Is it because the powerful don’t make it to the list no matter what they do and how many crimes they commit? Is it only those who have no lobbyists in the U.S. and those that America can easily dominate who are deemed terrorists?

Second up, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia with its coffers full of oil dollars has interfered widely around the world, funding radical Sunni Muslims. It has long been a backer of all those opposed to Shia Muslims, with Saudi crimes in Yemen against Houthis as the standout. To this must be added the interference of Saudi military in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, as well as meddling in Libya and in Syria. The Saudi luring and kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister in Saudi Arabia was a well-known crime; he was held hostage until the French President intervened. And yes, the assignation and gruesome dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul Turkey must not be forgotten.

Third up, the UAE. This little country with lots of money from oil, backed by the U.S. and more recently by Israel and armed to the teeth with the most sophisticated weaponry, has been throwing its weight around with little regard for any possible consequences. It has intervened in Libya and most dangerously in support of the Saudi Arabian war effort in Yemen.

Fourth up, Israel. Israel has assassinated Iranian scientists and sabotaged nuclear facilities inside Iran, has bombed Palestinians living in Gaza and Syrians who support Assad.

Why has the U.S. excluded Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel from its Terrorism List? Saudi Arabia and the UAE have many U.S. business connections. Numerous former U.S. Congressmen, cabinet members and high-ranking military personnel have direct and indirect financial ties to these two countries and many influential U.S. companies and their lobbyists quietly protect their interests. As for Israel, it has lobbyists and enjoys more influence than any other country with the U.S. Congress and media.

Interestingly, many of the things that the United States accuses its four adversaries on the Terrorism List of doing — interfering in other countries with ensuing torture and casualties, supplying lethal weapons, funding elements opposed to those in power and assassinating adversaries such as Iranian general Ghassem Soleimani — are the very acts it has committed around the world. What hypocrisy!

What does the list achieve for the United States? It is another tool for America to mark, isolate and punish its weak adversaries — Iran, Syria, North Korea and Cuba. All the while, it protects its allies — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel for even worse international transgressions. In the process, however, the U.S. shows its weakness and lack of moral fortitude as it has never put Russia — the biggest terrorist of all — on the list and it even hesitates to do so today in the face of Russia’s latest aggression.

Unfortunately for the United States, instead of representing America’s moral outrage at what other countries do, the State Sponsors of Terrorism List only magnifies America’s own moral deficiency and hypocrisy.



Hossein Askari

MIT engineer-economist. Prof: Tufts, UT-Austin, GW. IMF Board. Government-Mediator Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. Econ-Finance, Oil, Sanctions, Mid-East, Islam.