"God may smile on us, but I don't think so." - anonymous Pentagon adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh April 2006 on Bush administration plans to pressure Iran militarily
This article is from 2003 and Iran has had a change in its elected government since then. But Gary Sick is one of the US' leading experts on Iran, and in this article he addresses the question of terrorism: Iran: Confronting Terrorism Washington Quarterly Autumn 2003.
This is a useful overview of the difference between the secular/elected and religious/theocratic elements in the Iranian government:
Iran has a split personality. Some parts of its government - the presidency, the Majlis (parliament), and the functional ministries - though far from a fully functioning democracy, are held accountable for their policies and actions through public review and frequent elections. A second set of government institutions, including the Supreme Leader (velayat-e faqih), oversight committees such as the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council, and the security services, are dominated by a conservative clergy who are officially above reproach, essentially accountable only to themselves. These institutions have veto power over government policies and command a shadowy but potent network of influence and protection that grew out of the revolution, permeating Iran’s national security structure and economy. The tension between these two unevenly balanced power centers affects Iranian policy at all levels so that, at times, Iran appears to be pursuing different or even contradictory objectives. (my emphasis)
This was before the current Iranian President Ahmadinejad came to power. But it's a reminder not to be snookered by the propaganda twist of demonizing Ahmandinejad and acting as though he controls Iran's foreign and military policies. He doesn't. Even though Newt Gingrich has taken to referring to him as the "dictator" of Iran.
He also provides a good sketch of Iran's main terrorist undertakings in the years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979:
The triumph of the Iranian revolution in February 1979 kindled a burst of radical actions by Iran that deserve to be called terrorism. These include kidnappings sanctioned and sponsored by the government itself, such as the taking of American hostages in the first years of the revolution, and reputed Iranian support for and suspected direct involvement in Hizballah operations in Lebanon, including the bombings of U.S. installations and hostage-taking throughout the 1980s. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran pursued a strategy of maritime terror, using unmarked gunboats and floating mines to attack noncombatant shipping. Numerous assassinations of enemies abroad in the late 1980s and 1990s were widely and persuasively attributed to Iranian official sponsorship, and Iran was accused of sponsoring operations by other militant organizations, such as the Argentinean bombings of 1992 and 1994 and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, attributed to Hizballah organizations in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Iran is currently suspected of supporting terrorist acts against Israel through its support of radical Palestinian factions. (my emphasis)
But he observes that more recent sponsorship of terrorism has been much more focused on attacks against Israel, not against the United States. We've heard accusations, of course, that Iran has been backing terrorists acts against the United States in Iraq. Especially given what Sick explains about the "split personality" of the regime, some of that could be true. But it hardly seems to make sense right now for Iran to be attacking the US, when the net effect of the Iraq War so far has been to greatly strengthen Iran's regional influence.
Sick doesn't mention it in the passage just quoted, but the United States Navy had some direct clashes with the Iranians in the latter part of the Iran-Iraq War, in which the Reagan administration was actively assisting Iraq - while also selling weapons to Iran in the Iran-Contra operation. (He does mention that Iranian-US clash later in the article.)
That restraint can be expected to change quickly if the Bush-Cheney administration carries out the plans they appear to have put in motion already to expand the Iraq War to Iran by bombing Iran's suspected nuclear facilities.
Hizbollah has been the most effective result so far of Iran's sponsorhip of terrorism in other countries:
Iran’s ambassador to Syria in the early 1980s, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, provided financing and support for the creation of Hizballah (“Party of God”), the Lebanese political party and resistance movement. Hizballah is widely believed to have been associated with the bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and the U.S. embassy in Lebanon in 1983, although its leadership denies the charge, as well as the killing and hostage-taking of Americans and others throughout the 1980s. Its success in conducting a guerrilla war in southern Lebanon against Israel, ultimately leading to Israel’s departure in 2000, won widespread admiration in the Islamic world and made Hizballah a source of inspiration and training for militant organizations throughout the Middle East, many of which adopted the same name. Iran takes pride in its continued support for Hizballah as a national resistance organization but denies having operational control over decisionmaking. In recent years, Iran has openly called on Hizballah to display “prudence and self-restraint” to prevent Israel from finding a pretext to attack Lebanon again.
Iran provided many examples of state-sponsored terrorism. And one of the main criticism of the Bush Doctrine in both theory and practice has been that it still sees the problem of transnational terrorism primarily in the framework of state-sponsored terrorism. But today's radical-Salafist jihadist movement - inspired by Al Qaida in particular - is a different phenomenon requiring different approaches.
He focuses particular attention on the Khobar Towers bombing of a US military barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996:
The Al-Khobar case is crucially important to understanding Iran’s use or nonuse of terror, at least historically. If, as the Bush administration’s indictment asserts, the Al-Khobar incident shows that Iranian intelligence services maintained active contacts with radical Islamist elements opposed to the United States, that should not come as a great surprise. If, however, the Iranian government deliberately orchestrated an attack on U.S. installations and personnel as a means, for example, of driving Americans out of the Gulf region, that would be evidence of a significant shift in Iranian policy toward the United States and Saudi Arabia. Only the year before, Iran had offered a major offshore development contract to a U.S. company as a signal of interest in improved relations and was engaged in a major strategic effort to develop closer relations with Saudi Arabia.
It is impossible to conclude on the basis of the Bush administration’s indictment that the Al-Khobar attack constituted a major shift in Iran’s willingness to use terror against Saudi Arabia and the United States. As former U.S. national security adviser under the Clinton administration Sandy Berger described the Al-Khobar investigation: “We know it was done by the Saudi Hizballah. We know that they were trained in Iran by Iranians. We know there was Iranian involvement. What has yet to be established is howsubstantial the Iranian involvement was.” (my emphasis)
It's important as the Bush administration moves closer to war with Iran that we remember pieces of recent history like the following:
After the September 11 attacks, in sharp contrast to much of the Arab world’s scarcely concealed glee that the United States had gotten a taste of its own medicine, Iran responded with official statements of condolences and unofficial candlelight vigils in support of the American people. Although Iran officially opposed the subsequent U.S. attack on Afghanistan, it made no effort to interfere and even cooperated quietly on issues such as humanitarian relief, search and rescue, and other practical matters. After the Taliban government was deposed, Iran participated positively and creatively in the Bonn talks to establish a new interim government in Afghanistan, drawing rare praise from U.S. officials. At the Tokyo donors conference in January 2002, Iran pledged a total of $560 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan - the largest donation of any developing country. Speculation emerged among pundits that this would be the beginning of a new U.S.-Iranian relationship. (my emphasis)
But it didn't take long for Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address to include Iran in his "axis of evil".
And the administration is making the same claim about Iran and Al Qaida as Dick Cheney was so fond about making (falsely) about Iraqand Al Qaida. Such claims deserve extreme skepticism, especially when used as a justification for widening the Iraq War to Iran:
Some reports, usually ascribed to anonymous intelligence sources, have mentioned a connection between Al Qaeda and some elements in Iran, possibly via Hizballah. Those allegations strained credulity, however, given Iran’s vigorous opposition to the Taliban government in Afghanistan and its Al Qaeda supporters. Al Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim group that espouses the views of the most extreme proponents of the Salafi (often [wrongly] called Wahhabi) school of Islamic thought, which regards Shi'ism, the religion practiced most in Iran and by Hizballah in Lebanon, as heretical. One can imagine some low-level tactical contact between the two groups, particularly in view of their shared opposition to the Western presence in the Gulf region. Claims of an alliance, however, lack evidence and logic. (my emphasis)
He cautions further:
The alleged sheltering in Iran of Al Qaeda members and other fugitives, such as the Al-Ansar group in Iraq, is a different problem that is less obvious than it may appear. Even without porous borders and isolated, lawless regions, the apprehension of Al Qaeda operatives is not a simple matter, as evident elsewhere. Osama bin Laden and some of his contingent reportedly move back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistani border almost at will, despite the best efforts of both the United States and the Pakistani government to locate and intercept them. The United States itself has repeatedly discovered cells of Al Qaeda operatives within its own borders, including some members who had recently arrived and were reportedly conducting training operations not far from the nation’s capital. Washington is quick to assume the worst with Iran, especially in light of Iran’s lack of transparency concerning issues of intelligence and national security. Nevertheless, after massive misjudgments of intelligence concerning Iraq, the United States might be well advised to regard its present intelligence reports on Iran with a bit more caution. (my emphasis)
With the Bush administration now more actively encouraging anti-government groups within Iran, we may already be seeing the following risk identified by Sick becoming a reality:
One of the few unquestioned positive achievements of the 1979 revolution was its lesson to the Iranian people that they were in charge of their own destiny, rather than blaming every political development on foreign hands. Losing that would be a huge setback. Iran has been in a century-long struggle for freedom that started with the Constitutional Revolution of the early twentieth century. It has not been an easy or linear process, and the outcome is far from certain. Any attempt to short-circuit the process by sticking a U.S. finger in the Iranian pie, however, is a formula for disaster. Success in prompting a revolt would bring a crushing response from the conservative forces that would at least temporarily halt the democratization movement. Even if U.S. calls for revolution went unheeded, they might taint those seeking change as lackeys of a foreign power. (my emphasis)
Expanding the war to Iran would be a very, very bad idea. But that's what the Bush administration clearly looks like it intends to do. And if the reports about US Special Forces already operating within Iran are true, it may be in its preliminary stages already.