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A former aide to President Donald Trump has become known for his strong warnings about the threats of Islamic terrorism and Iran.
Sebastian Gorka, who left the White House in August, has called on Trump and Congress to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal it made with Iran. He has said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be listed as a terrorist organization.
And, during a speech at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on Monday, Gorka took it a step further in saying that militant groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State whose leaders are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims are less dangerous than Iran, led by fundamentalist Shiite Muslims.
"The far larger threat to America is, in fact, Shia jihadism – meaning Iran, and meaning the mullahs. Not the people of Iran or Persians, but the Iranian Republican regime," Gorka said.
"Why? … this is a regime which every Friday declares war on us – war and destruction. That America and Israel must be destroyed." He raised his voice to emphasize "every Friday."
Do Iran’s leaders declare war on the United States "every Friday," as Gorka suggests?
Trump and Iran’s supreme leader have certainly engaged in a war of words recently, with Trump calling a branch of the Iranian armed forces the leader’s "corrupt personal terror force and militia." Ayatollah Ali Khamenei jabbed back, telling local media that Trump is "foul-mouthed" and "pretends to be an idiot."
But PolitiFact wondered if it’s possible that Iran has been at war with the United States. (We feel like we would’ve heard about that by now.)
We reached out to Gorka by email and Twitter to ask what he meant. He doesn’t appear to elaborate on Iran’s war declarations in a video of the speech posted by the Christians United for Israel Facebook group.
Gorka responded by email after this fact check was published online.
"Is this meant to be a joke?" he said.
"‘Death to America’ is not a declaration of war? According to your ‘experts?" he continued. "Get real experts or just stop wasting my time."
‘Death to America’
It’s possible – even likely – that Gorka was referring to Iranian officials chanting "Death to America" during Friday prayers.
This isn’t the first time PolitiFact has looked into the chants of "Death to America" by Iranian officials, or the country’s views on America. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2015 claimed that Iran celebrates "Death to America Day" every year – a claim we ruled Mostly False.
Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, told PolitiFact at the time that the chant "is shouted every Friday at the weekly prayer services held across Iran." In fact, experts say some Iranians have been chanting "Death to America" in Friday prayers for decades, dating back to the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.
As recently as August, the Associated Press reported that members of Iranian parliament chanted it when they voted to increase spending on the country’s ballistic missile program and the foreign operations of its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
But experts say the chant isn’t meant to project the country’s intentions to physically harm Americans.
Foad Izadi, an assistant professor in the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, told Public Radio International in 2015 that the slogan should be interpreted as "death to American foreign policy." Iranians "have problems with the American government, not the American people," he said.
Kevan Harris, assistant professor at UCLA and author of a book on Iranian politics, agreed: "To me – and I've been to the ‘revolution day’ parades in Tehran as well as the Friday prayers in University of Tehran where the main political sermoning is given – it is political theater."
Harris compared it to Trump’s claims in August that he’ll unleash "fire and fury" against North Korea if it continued to threaten the United States. Harris said there are "lots of Iranian politicians" who are moderates that favor diplomacy. But often the statements that make American news headlines are from "some politician in Iran with a megaphone who is trying to outcompete his rivals by saying something scandalous."
Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst for the RAND Corporation, echoed Harris’ view.
"While hostile, this does not mean Iran is declaring war against the U.S. every Friday," Nader said. "The U.S. and Iran may be rivals, but there is also a history of cooperation between the two as well, including on the nuclear issue."
It’s one thing to wish ill of your political enemies. It’s another to formally declare war on another country.
Harris, the UCLA professor, says Article 110 of the Iranian constitution gives the powers of war to the supreme leader’s office – which has not declared war on the U.S.
"In reality, Iran's Supreme National Security Council makes decisions on foreign policy -- even Foreign Minister Zarif points this out when he's asked by journalists," Harris said.
And PolitiFact couldn't find news reports of the supreme leader declaring war.
Could Iran’s actions be interpreted as war? Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council, notes that Iranian money and resources are involved in battles across the region.
In fact, the U.S. State Department has listed Iran as the top state sponsor of terrorism for many years. Iran, PBS reports, has backed "anti-Israel groups as well as proxies that have destabilized already devastating conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen." The country has also "continued to recruit in Afghanistan and Pakistan for Shiite militia members to fight in Syria and Iraq."
But Marashi points out none of that activity means the country has declared war on the U.S.
"It’s fair to point out that Iran has participated in proxy wars, like in Syria for example," Marashi said. "But frankly in that regard they’re no different than Saudi Arabia or even the United States."
Gorka said the Iranian regime "declares war" on America "every Friday." The government-sanctioned prayers on Fridays sometimes include chants of "death to America." Experts say those chants are rhetoric and not serious declarations of war. Iran has never formally declared war on the US even once, let alone on a weekly basis.
We rate Gorka’s claim False.
A video of the speech posted by the Christians United for Israel Facebook group.
Email correspondence with Alireza Nader, Senior Policy Analyst for the RAND Corporation.
Email correspondence with Kevan Harris, assistant professor at UCLA and author of the book "A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran."
Telephone interview with Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse and visiting fellow at California State University – Northridge.
Telephone interview with Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council.
Comments made to PolitiFact in 2015 by Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute.
A story by the Associated Press on Aug. 13: "Iran lawmakers raise missile, Guard spending to challenge US"
A story by Public Radio International on Aug. 15, 2015: "In Iran, ‘death to America’ doesn’t mean what you think it means"
A PBS story on July 17 on the U.S. State Department's 2017 "Country Reports on Terrorism"
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