Arafat believed to have alliance with Iran

Israeli, U.S. officials say hard-liners supplying arms to Palestinians

March 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TEL AVIV, Israel - American and Israeli intelligence officials have concluded that Yasser 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 Arafat and Iranian government officials. The meeting took place while 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 said they are alarmed by 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-Qaida 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.

The Palestinians and the Iranians deny that they are working together, but American and Israeli officials say they now see the shipment as part of a broader relationship. They say that it began with several smaller attempts by Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon to supply arms and was cemented in the Moscow meeting. Officials of Israel and the United States say they believe that Arafat personally approved the dealings.

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 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 Gaza Strip.

"This is a factory of lies," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister of information. "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 14th century."

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 that 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 when the country was trying to build closer economic ties with Europe.

But American intelligence officials said that they believe that the onset of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000 renewed the enthusiasm for terrorism among Iran's hard-liners.

CIA Director George Tenet recently told Congress that Iran's political reformers were losing momentum in their 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-Qaida members.

The most visible evidence of the new strategic partnership between the Palestinian Authority and Iran came in the case of the Karine A, a ship laden with 50 tons of mortars, rockets, missiles and explosives from Iran that was seized by Israeli commandos in early January.

The Israelis have been unable to tie the shipment directly to Arafat, but Israeli officials said the involvement of senior Palestinian Authority officials and Arafat's well-known attention to financial details created a strong circumstantial case for his knowledge.

The discovery sparked an intense debate within the Bush administration, U.S. officials said. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and some others argued that relations should be broken off with Arafat, but Secretary of State Colin L. Powell contended that there was nothing to gain by cutting ties with the Palestinians.

In the end, Powell and Bush chastised Arafat publicly over the shipment, but the United States did not end its relations with the Palestinian leader.

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