By Douglas Frantz and James Risen, March 24, 2002
TEL AVIV – American and Israeli intelligence officials have concluded that Yasir
Arafat has forged a new alliance with Iran that involves Iranian shipments of
heavy weapons and millions of dollars to Palestinian groups that are waging
guerrilla war against Israel.
The partnership, officials said, was arranged in a clandestine meeting in
Moscow last May between two top aides to Mr. Arafat and Iranian government
officials. The meeting took place while Mr. Arafat was visiting President
Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, according to senior Israeli security officials who
declined to describe the precise nature of their information.
The new alignment is significant for several reasons, American and Israeli
officials said. In recent years, Iran’s support for terrorism around the world has
been on the wane, with the notable exception of its ties to Hezbollah, the
militant group that fought for 18 years to expel Israel from southern Lebanon.
Israeli officials say they are alarmed by Mr. Arafat’s alliance with Iran because
they say it gives the Palestinians a powerful and well-armed patron in the
increasingly violent conflict with Israel.
American officials echoed that concern and said they were also worried
by intelligence reports that say Tehran is harboring Al Qaeda members,
including one leader who recently tried to mount an attack against Israel from
his sanctuary in Iran.
Questions about Iran’s relationship with the Palestinians came into public view
early this year when Israel seized a ship carrying 50 tons of Iranian-supplied
arms, including antitank weapons that could neutralize one of Israel’s main
military advantages over the Palestinians and rockets that could reach most
cities in Israel.
Both the Palestinians and Iranians deny they are working together, but
American and Israeli officials say they now see the shipment as part of a
broader relationship. They say that began with several smaller attempts by
Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon to supply arms and was cemented in the
Officials of Israel and the United States say they believe that Mr. Arafat
personally approved the dealings with Iran.
American officials said that Israeli intelligence reports about the Moscow
meeting were at the heart of secret briefings that Israel provided to the Bush
administration after the arms shipment was intercepted.
“There’s plenty of evidence to show that it wasn’t a rogue operation,” a
senior State Department official said of the ship that Israel seized in early January.
Palestinian Authority officials dismissed the charges of any Iranian involvement
in their struggle against Israel and denied that Mr. Arafat knew of the arms
shipment. They said the allegations were an attempt by Israel to discredit the
Palestinians and to justify Israel’s military operations in the West Bank and the
“This is a factory of lies,” Yasir Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister of
information, said. “Israel is like any colonial power. When they get in trouble,
they try to blame outsiders. There has not been a single Iranian here since the
Iran also has denied any involvement with the Palestinians or the arms
shipments. Ali Shamkhani, the Iranian minister of defense, told the state news
agency, “The Islamic Republic of Iran has had no military relations with Arafat,
and no steps have been taken by any Iranian organization for the shipment of
arms to the mentioned lands.”
For several years, American counterterrorism experts believed Iran’s terrorist
apparatus had fallen dormant. Hezbollah and other groups backed by Iran had
not attacked American targets since the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi
Arabia killed 19 American servicemen in 1996. Iranian leaders had apparently
decided that state sponsorship of anti-American terrorism was too risky at a
time when the country was trying to build closer economic ties with Europe.
Iran also seemed locked out of Palestinian issues while Mr. Arafat pursued the
Oslo peace process with Israel. Relations soured so badly between Tehran and
Mr. Arafat after the Oslo accords in 1994 that the Palestinian leader became
convinced that religious leaders in Iran had issued an order that he be killed for
dealing with the Jewish state, according to American and Israeli officials.
But American intelligence officials said that they believe that the onset of the
Palestinian uprising known as the intifada in September 2000 renewed the
enthusiasm among Iran’s hard-liners for terrorism.
“The main variable is that the intifada has stirred the radical juices in
Iran,” said a senior American official. “With the outbreak of the intifada, the
Iranians decided they wanted things to burn hotter. The Iranians are now
supporting a number of Palestinian groups – it’s been a bad news story on Iran
over the last 18 months.”
George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, recently told Congress that
Iran’s political reformers were losing momentum in the long-running battle for
power with the conservative clerics who control the Iranian intelligence and
security agencies that support extremist groups. He warned that there had been
little reduction in Iran’s backing for terrorism and he said that Tehran had failed
to seal its eastern border with Afghanistan to block the escape of Al Qaeda
Israeli officials said there was new evidence that some Iranian officials have
allowed Al Qaeda to use the country not just as a transit point after escaping
Afghanistan, but as a staging area. Abu Musaab Zarqawi, a senior Al Qaeda
leader who fled the western Afghan city of Herat after the American military
campaign began, has turned up in Tehran under the protection of Iranian
security forces, according to senior Israeli and American officials.
Last month, Mr. Zarqawi dispatched three Afghan-trained operatives to attack
Israel, Israeli officials said. The three, two Palestinians and a Jordanian, were
arrested when they crossed from Iran into Turkey on Feb. 15.