WASHINGTON – If cornered by the West over its nuclear program, Iran could direct Hezbollah to enlist its widespread international support network to aid in terrorist attacks, intelligence officials say.
In interviews with The Associated Press, several Western intelligence officials said they have seen signs that Hezbollah's fundraisers, recruiters and criminal elements could be adapted to provide logistical help to terrorist operatives.
Such help could include obtaining forged travel documents or off-the-shelf technology — global positioning equipment and night goggles, for example — that could be used for military purposes.
The senior officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive positions they occupy.
Hezbollah was responsible for the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The group's Saudi wing, in coordination with the larger Lebanese Hezbollah, is blamed for the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed hundreds of American servicemen.
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. and its allies have grown over Iran's expanding nuclear program. Iran insists its aims are peaceful; leading U.S. officials say they are convinced the Iranians intend to develop a nuclear weapon within the next decade.
John Negroponte, head of the U.S. intelligence network, suggested in an interview aired Friday by the British Broadcasting Corp. that an Iranian bomb could be a fact in as little as four years away, although he admitted, "We don't have clear-cut knowledge."
The U.S. and five other world powers agreed Thursday on a plan designed to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Iran's president, without directly mentioning the proposal, pledged Friday that the West would not deprive his country of nuclear technology.
The Bush administration and U.S. allies know Iran could order attacks. Some officials believe that threat is a bargaining chip worth more to Iran if kept in reserve.
Given that diplomacy could fail to defuse the nuclear standoff, U.S. intelligence agencies are studying Iran's options to retaliate: using oil as a weapon, attacking Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, unleashing Hezbollah or deploying other tactics.
To the State Department, Hezbollah is a militant Lebanese group classified as a terrorist organization. Its terrorist wing, the Islamic Jihad Organization, is a global threat with cells in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, South America, Asia and North America. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for more American deaths than any other single terrorist organization.
Yet in many countries, Hezbollah is praised for providing education, medical care and housing, particularly in Lebanon's south, and raising money for it is legal.
So far there are no signs the Iranian-backed group is planning an imminent attack on U.S. interests. But that possibility has counterterrorism agencies keeping close watch as the friction with Iran grows.
U.S. analysts believe the potential is greater for Iran to use terrorism to retaliate, rather than to strike first. But they have considered scenarios under which Iran may view its own pre-emptive attack as a deterrent.
One senior official said that if Iran was backed into a corner and considered U.S.-led military action as inevitable, the Iranians might calculate that terrorism could break international unity, increase pressure on the U.S. or shift American public opinion.
U.S. analysts, however, are cautious in their judgments about what might lead Iran to order strikes.
Hezbollah, which means Party of God, was founded in 1982 to respond to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. The radical Shiite organization advocates for Israel's elimination and the establishment of an Islamic government in Lebanon modeled after the religious theocracy in Iran.
With some exceptions, Hezbollah has not targeted the United States in recent years — a strategic decision that gives the group more freedom to operate, according to one U.S. counterterrorism official.
On orders from Iran, Hezbollah was tied to a string of kidnappings and assassinations of Westerners in the 1980s, including the abduction of the CIA's station chief in Tehran, William Buckley, in 1984.
Hezbollah is accused of bombing the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in the early 1990s, killing more than 100. The group denies the charges.
A former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said before and right after the Sept. 11 attacks that Hezbollah was believed to have the largest embedded terrorist network inside the U.S. "I have no reason to believe that there has been a dismantlement of that capability," said former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.
Steven Monblatt, the head of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, said tensions with Iran could lead Hezbollah to take steps to prepare attacks on Western interests in Latin America and elsewhere.
"I think it is legitimate to be concerned about situations where terrorist groups will not have an operational base, but will have made the preparations to establish one," said Monblatt, a former State Department official. "I don't know anyone alleging an operational cell right now. Now, how do you distinguish an operational cell from a sleeper operation — a more kind of logistical base?"
Leadership in Hezbollah is exercised by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, a Shiite Muslim cleric who took over after Sheik Abbas Musawi was killed in southern Lebanon in an Israeli helicopter strike in 1992.
Hezbollah gets significant support from Iran, Shiite communities and particularly the Lebanese diaspora. One official said the group has access to several hundred million dollars a year, much of it going to the social service network in southern Lebanon.
The organization has been linked to all kinds of organized crime, including drug trafficking, drug counterfeiting and stolen baby formula. The substantial profits are thought to be funneled almost entirely back to the Middle East.
Kevin Brock, a career FBI agent who is now deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently told reporters that the U.S. has active investigations into Hezbollah around the world.
"The prioritization obviously has been Al Qaeda, but that doesn't mean Hezbollah has dropped off the screen by any stretch of the imagination," Brock said.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have had success in breaking up Hezbollah-linked crime rings, including a cigarette-smuggling operation in North Carolina.
This year, the Justice Department announced an indictment charging 19 people with a global racketeering conspiracy to sell counterfeit rolling papers, contraband cigarettes and counterfeit Viagra. Portions of the profits, law enforcers allege, went to Hezbollah.
Extensive operations have been uncovered in South America, where Hezbollah is well connected to the drug trade, particularly in the region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. The area has a large Shiite Muslim immigrant population.