Fact check: Trump falsely claims Iran didn’t fund terror groups when he was president

Former President Donald Trump has falsely claimed over and over this year that Iran was so impoverished because of his policies as president that it did not provide any money to terror groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

“Iran was, as you know, they were broke. They weren’t funding Hamas, and they weren’t funding anything. They weren’t funding Hezbollah,” Trump, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said in a May interview with right-wing host Dan Bongino.

In a June interview with Phil McGraw, the personality known as Dr. Phil, Trump claimed Hamas would have never perpetrated its October attack on Israel if he had still been president, “because Iran was broke and Iran wasn’t funding Hamas and they weren’t funding any of the terrorists – Hezbollah, all of them, there’s like 28 of them.”

Facts First: Trump’s claim that Iran wasn’t funding Hezbollah, Hamas or any other terror group during his presidency is false. Iran’s funding for such groups did decline in the second half of his presidency, in large part because his sanctions on Iran had a major negative impact on the Iranian economy, but the funding never stopped entirely, as four experts told CNN this week. Trump’s own administration said in 2020 that Iran was continuing to fund terror groups including Hezbollah.

Trump could have fairly said that his sanctions on Iran had made life more difficult for terror groups (though it’s unclear how much their operations were affected). Instead, he continued his years-old practice of exaggerating even legitimate achievements.

Pompeo said Iran continued to fund terror in 2020. Experts agree

Research institutions in the US and Israel have reported that Iran’s financial relationship with Hamas actually grew stronger in 2017, the first calendar year of Trump’s presidency, after several years of frostiness related to divisions between Tehran and Hamas over the war in Syria.

The Trump administration began imposing sanctions on Iran in late 2018, pursuing a campaign known as “maximum pressure.” But Trump-appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said himself in 2020 that Iran was continuing to fund terror groups.

“So you continue to have, in spite of the Iranian leadership demanding that more money be given to them, they are using the resources that they have to continue funding Hezbollah in Lebanon and threatening the state of Israel, funding Iraqi terrorist Shia groups, all the things that they have done historically – continuing to build out their capabilities even while the people inside of their own country are suffering,” Pompeo said in a May 2020 interview, according to a transcript posted on the State Department’s website.

Earlier that week, during a visit to Israel, Pompeo told reporters that the Trump administration’s effort to limit the money the Iranian regime has available to inflict harm around the world “has borne fruit, it has been successful,” but added, “We’re going to stay at it. There is still work to do on that file as well.” He said, “Even during this pandemic, the Iranians [are] using the ayatollahs’, the regime’s, resources to foment terror across the world even when the people of Iran are struggling so mightily.”

Four experts told CNN this week that Iran’s funding for Hezbollah and Hamas never vanished under Trump.

“It absolutely did not and has not,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.

“Definitely it didn’t stop. It decreased, yes,” said Hanin Ghaddar, senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“I would say it slowed down, but it never stopped entirely,” said Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group.

“Iran has never ceased funding many of its core proxy groups” such as Hezbollah, said Phillip Smyth, who studies Iran’s proxies. “They are hyper-focused on continuing these relationships and proxy building efforts. However, sanctions do take a toll on some of their operations/abilities to build proxies.”

A funding cut, but funding continued

Iran does not disclose how much money it gives to Hezbollah, Hamas and other foreign armed groups. Brian Hook, who served as the State Department’s special representative for Iran under Trump, claimed in 2019 that Iran “has provided Hezbollah almost $700 million annually and gave more than $100 million a year to Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

Hook declined in June 2020 to publicly say how much less money Iran was spending on foreign activities than it had before Trump launched the pressure campaign, but he pointedly noted media reports about Iranian proxies receiving less than they had before. Pompeo also touted this reduction in August 2020.

In 2019, The Washington Post published an in-depth report explaining that, because Iran’s financial situation had been worsened by Trump policy, Hezbollah had “seen a sharp fall in its revenue and is being forced to make draconian cuts to its spending, according to Hezbollah officials, members and supporters.” Reuters published a report in 2020 about how Iran had slashed its payments to Shiite militia groups in Iraq because of the impact of the US sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic.

And Iran reduced its publicly disclosed military budget under Trump. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which monitors countries’ military spending, reported that Iranian military spending declined 20% between 2018 and 2020.

Still, there’s no doubt Iran’s unspecified spending on foreign armed groups continued to some significant extent even after these cuts. The State Department’s report on international terrorism in 2020 made clear that Iranian support for terror entities endured in the last calendar year of Trump’s term.

“Iran continued to support acts of terrorism regionally and globally during 2020. Regionally, Iran supported proxies and partner groups in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, including Hizballah and Hamas,” the report, released in 2021, said. “Senior (al Qaeda) leaders continued to reside in Iran and facilitate terrorist operations from there. Globally, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force remained the primary Iranian actors involved in supporting terrorist recruitment, financing, and plots across Europe, Africa, and Asia, and both Americas.”

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