April 29, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Geopolitics and the ‘Terrorism List’

• Decisions to remove a country from the so-called “terrorism list”—a list of countries the United States claims provide systematic support for acts of terrorism—are primarily based on criteria beyond terrorism-related issues

• With Cuba’s removal from the list in April, the three remaining countries—Iran, Syria, and Sudan—are all Middle Eastern and North African countries extensively involved in the region’s many conflicts

• Sudan has realistic prospects to be removed from the list, but Syria will likely only be removed if President Bashar al-Assad falls from power

• Iran will not likely be removed from the terrorism list in the foreseeable future, even if it finalizes a nuclear deal with the “P5+1” countries (United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia).


The U.S. “terrorism list” was established in 1979 to impose U.S. sanctions on countries that are determined by the Department of State to provide repeated support for acts of international terrorism. The stated intent of the listing, and the sanctions that are imposed as a consequence, is to incent countries to cease terrorism sponsorship. However, once listed, de-listing a country often becomes a function of the broader issues beyond terrorism.

By April 30 of each year, the State Department is required to issue its annual “Country Reports on Terrorism” report that assesses the degree to which terrorism list countries meet the criteria for continued inclusion on the list, as well as information on worldwide terrorist groups (“foreign terrorist organizations,” or FTOs). The report issued in April 2014 (covering calendar year 2013) clearly showed that Cuba had exited the “terrorism business.” However,  Cuba’s removal from the list was held up pending a broader decision by President Obama in December 2014 to improve relations with the island nation. Cuba’s removal from the list, announced in early April 2015, will open Cuba to the U.S. financial system and remove a key remaining stigma from conducting trade and other transactions with it.

Similarly, Libya’s removal from the list in 2006 was based not on primarily on terrorism issues, but rather represented a “reward” for Libya’s decision in 2004 to completely and verifiably dismantle its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. North Korea’s removal from the list in 2008 was part of a U.S. effort to preserve an agreement with North Korea to reverse some aspects of its nuclear program. In these cases, the Administration was able to show that removal from the list was technically justified on the grounds that these countries had already largely ceased backing terrorist groups. Furthermore, the Administration was able to assert that the terrorism listing had accomplished its objectives by causing these countries to change their behavior.

Cuba’s removal leaves on the list only three countries—all of which are located in the Middle East/ North Africa—Sudan, Syria, and Iran. Syria was an original 1979 member of the terrorism list because of its support for militant Palestinian factions that were conducting acts of terrorism against Israel. Iran was added in 1984 primarily because of its role in establishing and supporting Lebanese Hizballah, which in October 1983 had attacked the barracks of the U.S. Marines attempting to keep peace in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen based there. Sudan was listed in 1993 primarily for its harboring of Usama bin Ladin and other al-Qaeda leadership. Despite expelling bin Ladin in 1996, Sudan remained listed primarily for serving as a transit hub for Iranian weapons shipments to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

A variety of factors will determine whether any of these three countries are removed from the terrorism list. Of the three, Sudan has the most realistic possibility of being removed. The last annual State Department report on international terrorism praises Sudan for prosecuting terrorists and conducting raids on terrorist training camps in Sudan—indicating that the Administration could make a credible case that Sudan has stopped supporting terrorism. More importantly however, Sudan appears to be severing its ties to Iran and aligning itself with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab powers. It ordered Iran’s cultural centers in Sudan closed in 2014 and has joined Saudi Arabia’s coalition against the Houthi rebels in nearby Yemen. Saudi Arabia might advocate that the United States remove Sudan from the terrorism list in order to consolidate Sudan’s realignment.

Syria’s de-listing is dependent on the outcome of its four-year-old civil war. With Iran and Hizballah helping Assad against rebel groups, Syria will almost certainly remain on the terrorism list for so long as Assad is in power. Even if Assad falls, Syria will likely remain on the list if the Islamic State and/or Jabhat al-Nusra—both U.S.-designated FTOs—dominate a post-Assad Syria. On the other hand, if moderate rebel elements are prominent in a post-Assad government that assists the United States against the Islamic State, Syria might be removed from the list.

Of the three remaining listed countries, Iran is the furthest from being de-listed. In late February, Iran and Hizballah were left off the annual terrorism threat assessment report issued by the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. However, it is important to note that such assessments given by numerous departments and agencies do not carry the weight of the State Department designation. Even if Iran finalizes and abides by a nuclear agreement with the P5+1, it is exceedingly unlikely to discontinue its support for Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, and for various Iraqi Shi’a militias that are named by the United States as FTOs, such as Kata’ib Hizballah. Ending such support would be tantamount to abandoning the core principles of Iran’s revolution. Israel and the Arab Gulf states are concerned that a nuclear deal will cause Iran to be more active in the region, not less, as sanctions relief provide Iran with additional financial resources to arm movements such as the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is likely that only a resolution of broad regional and U.S.-Iran conflicts would pave the way for the removal of Iran from the terrorism list.


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