“Terrorists” in the Eye of the American Beholder

In the early 1970s the shah, via his intelligence organisation SAVAK, the CIA and the Israeli MOSSAD, sponsored a sustained “covert war” of Iraqi-Kurdish factions under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani against the Ba’thist leadership in Iraq which led to bombings of oil installations in Kirkuk and other infrastructural facilities with civilian use and subsequently to a full-fledged insurgency.  Amongst us, we may deem the methods employed by the Kurdish movement “terroristic”.  But this was certainly not the official view in Washington (or Britain, Iran and Israel).  A White House Memorandum authored by Henry Kissinger and dated 5 October 1972 (White House Memorandum 1972, p. 1) refers to ‘Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish resistance movement’.  In the same memo (p. 1) it is indicated, that CIA Director Richard Helms reports the delivery of ‘money and arms . . . to Barzani via the Iranians without a hitch.  More money and arms are in the pipeline’, it is stated.  ‘Barzani received the first two monthly cash payments of each for July and August . . .  By the end of October, the Iranians will have received for onward shipment to the Kurds 222,000 pounds of arms and ammunitions from Agency stocks and 142,000 pound from [Retracted].’  Note also that since its inception in 1979, the Iraqi government was put on the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.  The country was taken off that list in 1982 in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war and at a time when the Reagan Administration was aware of Saddam Hussein’s directives to use chemical weapons against advancing Iranian army units and Iraqi civilians who resisted his regime (Adib-Moghaddam, 2006, 2008).  Iraq was put on that list again after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  Ultimately then, the allocation of the terror label shifted with the particular political context in which it was employed.

Moreover, other declassified documents from the 1970s show that the label “terrorist” was readily applied to student activists protesting the dictatorship of the shah.  A US State Department Telegram of August 1972 (US Department of State, 1972, p. 1), for instance, observes that ‘Terrorist activities in Iran seem to be increasing instead of usual summer subsidence due to vacation for students, perhaps indicating better organisation and broadening of appeal to non-student groups.’  In the same memo (p. 1) it is indicated that there ‘have been 28 confirmed explosions (11 of which directed against US presence), ten shootouts and several other incidents including unsuccessful attempt to kidnap daughter of Court Minister Alam, and plot to sabotage Isfahan steel mill.’  The fact that these “terrorists” seemed to use similar measures as the Kurdish movement that the Nixon Administration supported during the very same period was not the measure according to which the terror label was allocated here.  Rather, it was the fact that the students were acting against a leader who was considered to be an ally of the United States that turned them into “terrorists.”  So in the discursive field I am dissecting here, the term terror and all its derivatives do not have any normative or analytical value beyond their signification within a particular politico-cultural constellation.  Not because it is me who is blurring their meaning for the sake of my argument, but because politicians have twisted and turned them for their own purposes since the “birth” of the term during the “reign of terror” in the aftermath of the French revolution.


Arshin Adib-Moghaddam teaches comparative politics at SOAS and is the author, most recently, of Iran in World Politics: the Question of the Islamic RepublicThe text above is an excerpt of Arshin Adib-Moghaddam’s most recent research article entitled “Discourse and Violence: the Contemporary Friend-Enemy Conjunction in Iranian-American Relations” published in a special section of Critical Studies on Terrorism, Vol. 2, No. 3 (December 2009), pp. 517-531.

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