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Arafat and the Ayatollahs – Tablet Magazine

The Horror and Hope Undergirding Jewish Life in Post-Revolution Iran – Tablet Magazine

This week, Tablet seems again on 40 years of the Iranian Revolution.


When Yasser Arafat arrived in Tehran on Feb. 17, 1979, the first “foreign leader” invited to go to Iran mere days after the victory of the revolution, he declared he was coming to his “own home.” There was some fact in Arafat’s flowery phrases. Having developed and nurtured a decade’s value of relationships with all the main forces, from Marxists to Islamists, which had toppled the shah, he had good cause to really feel like the victory of the revolution was in some half his personal.

Though the heady days of February 1979 would quickly give approach to tensions, the Palestinians have been integral to each the Islamic Revolution and to the formation of the Khomeinist regime. For Arafat, the revolutionary regime in Iran carried the promise of gaining a strong new ally for the Palestinians. As well as, Arafat noticed an opportunity to play the intermediary between Iran and the Arabs, and to encourage them to eschew battle with one another in favor of supporting the Palestinians of their battle towards Israel. But it quickly turned clear that Arafat’s double fantasy was unattainable, and would in reality turn into fairly harmful to the Palestinian trigger.

The connection between the Iranian revolutionary factions and the Palestinians started in the late 1960s, in parallel with Arafat’s personal rise in preeminence inside the PLO. After the Iranian authorities crackdown of 1963, opposition teams resolved to undertake guerrilla techniques towards the shah. By the finish of the decade, Iranian opposition factions had made contact with Palestine Liberation Group (PLO) representatives in regional states together with Qatar, and additionally Iraq, the place Ayatollah Khomeini had been dwelling since 1965. Marxist Iranian guerrilla organizations trying to obtain coaching quickly discovered their solution to PLO camps in Jordan and South Yemen.

But after the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 warfare, and a string of PLO terror spectaculars made Arafat a media star, the PLO itself suffered a serious army and political defeat in 1970, when it tried to take over Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom then defeated and expelled Palestinian army organizations, in what turned generally known as Black September.

One nation afforded the defeated Palestinians the capability to function freely beneath Arab cowl, in the type of the Cairo Settlement of 1969. That nation was Lebanon. As a result of the PLO’s place in the tiny nation was unmatched anyplace else in the Arab world throughout the 1970s, Lebanon turned the website the place the main a part of the Iranian revolutionaries’ encounter with the Palestinians performed out.

Even earlier than Lebanon’s personal system collapsed, and the nation plunged into civil conflict, fueled partially by Palestinian weapons and ambitions, the nation had turn into a coaching floor for revolutionaries from throughout the world, and a magnet for cadres of the fundamental Iranian revolutionary factions, from Marxists to theocrats and every little thing in between. Leftist Palestinian teams, like the Fashionable Entrance for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), labored with Leftist Iranian factions, like the Marxist Fadaiyan-e Khalq and small Communist teams. Arafat’s Fatah group labored with everybody. Coordinating these actions was Arafat’s right-hand man and Fatah’s chief army commander, Khalil al-Wazir, additionally recognized by his nom de guerre, Abu Jihad.

The variety of guerrillas that educated in Lebanon with the Palestinians was not notably giant. However the Iranian cadres in Lebanon discovered helpful expertise and procured weapons and gear, which they smuggled again into Iran. A 1977 U.S. intelligence evaluation famous the “quantity and sophistication of the weapons available to the terrorists,” which included “assault rifles, armor-piercing rifle grenades and possibly mortars, which allows them considerable flexibility in their tactics.” However guerrilla techniques carried out by Iranian leftist teams didn’t have any main success and even prominence in the revolutionary wrestle inside Iran earlier than its very remaining part. These techniques, nevertheless, would come into play in the transitional interval following the collapse of the Pahlavi regime.

The three essential Iranian opposition factions working in Lebanon have been: the Liberation Motion of Iran (LMI), typically described as Islamic modernists; the Islamic-Marxist Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK); and the Islamist devotees of Ayatollah Khomeini. However the incontrovertible fact that the PLO labored with all of them didn’t imply that Arafat held all of them in the similar regard. The PLO didn’t develop any critical relationship with the LMI, for example, which was aligned in Lebanon with the Iranian-Lebanese Shiite cleric Musa Sadr, who had fallen out with the Palestinians.

The PLO did set up shut working ties with the Khomeinist faction. Three figures particularly from that camp have been lively in Lebanon, working intently with the PLO. Mohammad Saleh Hosseini, who was lively in Iraq the place he made contact with Fatah earlier than coming to Lebanon in 1970; Jalaleddin Farsi, an Islamic activist and instructor who would run for president in 1980 as the Khomeinist faction’s candidate (earlier than disclosure of his Afghan origin disqualified him); and Mohammad Montazeri, son of senior cleric Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, and a militant who had a number one position in creating the concept of building the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as soon as the revolution was gained.

The Lebanese terrorist and PLO operative Anis Naccache, who coordinated with these three Iranian revolutionaries, has given an account of the relationship. In it, he talks about his Khomeinist allies’ worry of a coup, after their victory, as the impetus behind the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—and he takes private credit score for the concept. Naccache claims that Jalaleddin Farsi approached him particularly and requested him on to draft the plan to type the principal pillar of the Khomeinist regime.

The formation of the IRGC might be the biggest single contribution that the PLO made to the Iranian revolution. Whereas it’s also true that after the revolution, Montazeri requested Arafat to ship Fatah fighters to Iran to instantly practice the new IRGC recruits, that effort didn’t see the mild as a consequence of opposition from LMI figures in the provisional authorities. Reviews of an enormous Palestinian presence in Iran extra usually would look like wildly overblown. Whereas each the Palestinians and their enemies may fantasize about the PLO exerting a serious unbiased affect inside Iran, there isn’t a proof that these fantasies ever approached reality.

The important thing battleground on which Palestinians and Iranians truly met was Lebanon. Khomeinist operatives in Lebanon have been hostile to the LMI and their ally Musa Sadr, whose relationship with the Palestinians had turned antagonistic. The mutual hostility of Khomeinists and Palestinians in the direction of Sadr led in 1978 to the Lebanese Shiite cleric’s homicide in Libya—a rustic with whose chief, Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Khomeinists had established ties, with assist from the Palestinians.

Arafat’s lieutenant, Ali Hassan Salameh, defined to the late CIA officer Robert Ames that Sadr was supposed to satisfy prime Khomeini aide, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, to iron out variations underneath Qaddafi’s auspices in Tripoli. Sadr arrived, however Beheshti by no means did. As an alternative, in line with Salameh, Beheshti requested Qaddafi to detain Sadr, whom he described as a Western agent. Extra importantly, Beheshti would additionally characterize Sadr as “a threat to Khomeini.”

Again in Lebanon, Sadr’s circles pointed the finger particularly at Arafat allies, Jalaleddin Farsi and Mohammad Saleh Hosseini. In accordance with these circles, Hosseini informed an official from Sadr’s Amal motion, “your friend isn’t coming back.”

Along with liquidating Sadr, Libya was an necessary supply of funding for Khomeini in addition to for the MEK. It additionally would show to be a helpful ally with the breakout of warfare between the new child Islamic Republic and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which introduced itself as the sword of the Arabs towards the Persians and sought to crush its expansive-minded revolutionary neighbor.


The interfactional alliances and murderous rivalries that performed out in Lebanon foreshadowed the energy wrestle that occurred in the two-year transitional interval following the triumph of the revolution, as the Khomeinists moved to consolidate their grip on energy.

Arafat understood that the Khomeinists had the largest capability for fashionable mobilization amongst the revolutionary forces inside Iran. However being Arafat, he all the time appeared to maintain a number of channels open whereas making an attempt to leverage contradictory relationships. Following the revolution itself, he maintained his ties to the MEK, which in 1979-1981 was locked in a violent struggle with the Khomeinist faction. That had now coalesced in the Islamic Republic Celebration (IRP), which dubbed itself Hezbollah, or the Social gathering of God.

Hani Fahs, a Lebanese Shiite cleric who labored with Fatah as a liaison with the Iranians, defined that Arafat noticed persevering with his relationship with the MEK as a approach to “poke” at the new Iranian regime if he needed one thing or if he was upset at them. Shaking down Arab states was a longtime technique for Arafat, one he thought he might replicate with Iran.

It’s additionally been famous that as the new Iranian regime launched operations to suppress the Kurdish insurgency in 1980, the protection minister at the time, Mostafa Chamran, who had hung out in Lebanon and was an in depth ally of Musa Sadr, acknowledged in the insurgency a few of the similar guerrilla techniques he noticed the Palestinians and their allies use towards Sadr’s Amal militia in Lebanon.

But Arafat’s continued ties to the MEK because it fought a bloody battle with the IRP, and his makes an attempt to stay his nostril in home Iranian affairs, didn’t amuse Khomeini, who had no endurance for the Palestinian chief’s juggling act, and noticed his actions as threats. Makes an attempt by the PLO to overstep its boundaries inside the Iranian political sphere have been shortly shut down, in ways in which have been typically not delicate.

Fahs relays a related anecdote of how he as soon as provided his opinion throughout a dialog Mohammad Saleh Hosseini was having with Jalaleddin Farsi about Iranian overseas affairs, solely to be curtly put in his place by Hosseini, who curtly knowledgeable Fahs that he had no enterprise weighing in on Iranian issues.

To make certain, Fahs was however a lowly apparatchik. However, this angle prolonged to Arafat himself, and to his lieutenants. Actually, as a 1980 CIA memo defined, PLO workplaces in Iran have been intently monitored. The brand new regime wouldn’t permit Arafat and his Palestinians to turn into the tail that wagged the Khomeinist canine.

It wasn’t solely Arafat’s try and play politics inside Iran that soured his relationship with Khomeini. From the get-go, Arafat additionally tried to money in on his ties with the new regime by trying to mediate the 444-day U.S. Embassy hostage disaster. Arafat’s meddling angered Khomeini, and additional elevated his suspicions of the Palestinian chief. When Arafat despatched considered one of his prime aides, Abu Walid (Saad Sayel), to Tehran to mediate, at the People’ request, Khomeini refused to obtain him.

The Iraq-Iran conflict solely deepened the PLO chairman’s predicament. Arafat couldn’t aspect with Iran and condemn Iraq. That might danger dropping the help of the Arabs, particularly the rich Gulf states, which helped sponsor Saddam by paying him blackmail, and additionally offered the lion’s share of direct and oblique funding although bribes, payoffs, and remittances for the PLO’s personal operations.

Once more, Arafat tried to mediate. Khomeini, busy preventing a conflict during which half one million troopers are estimated to have died, a majority of whom have been Iranian, didn’t even hassle to obtain him this time. If Arafat thought he might journey two horses directly, balancing Iran towards the Arabs, he was shortly disabused of that notion.

By the finish of 1981, Arafat had very clearly misplaced favor in Tehran. To make issues worse, two of his closest Iranian allies, Mohammad Montazeri and Mohammad Saleh Hosseini, can be assassinated that yr—the former in an MEK bombing, the latter by Iraqi brokers in Beirut. By then, the IRP had consolidated its grip on energy inside Iran and sidelined rival factions.

Likewise, inside Lebanon, the dominant Iranian revolutionary faction—Hezbollah—had already begun cloning itself inside its host nation. Khomeini lieutenants like Hosseini had used connections with Fatah to recruit new cadres of Lebanese Shiite youth (amongst whom was a younger man named Imad Mughniyeh) to their very own banner. These recruits acquired army coaching in Fatah’s camps, however turned a part of a separate Khomeinist formation which was named after its Iranian progenitor.

In 1982, the PLO can be routed in Lebanon by the IDF, and was pressured to withdraw its management beneath American safety to Tunis. By then the Iranians had already arrange their very own various construction to the PLO inside Lebanon, formally referred to as Hezbollah.

Arafat would have one final dance with Iran earlier than his dying. After launching the Second Intifada towards Israel, Arafat reached out to Iran for weapons. He bought a freighter, the Karine A, in Lebanon, and the Iranians loaded it with 50 tons of weapons. Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh performed an integral position in the operation. The IDF intercepted the ship in January 2002.

Arafat’s fantasy of pulling the strings and balancing the Iranians and the Arabs in a grand anti-Israel camp of regional states by no means stood a lot of an opportunity. Nevertheless, his want to see Iran again the Palestinian armed wrestle is now a reality, as Tehran has successfully grow to be the principal, if not the solely, sponsor of the Palestinian army choice although its direct sponsorship of Islamic Jihad and its sustaining strategic and organizational ties with each Hamas and Hezbollah.

By forging ties with the Khomeinists, Arafat unwittingly helped to realize the very reverse of his dream. Iran has turned the Palestinian factions into its proxies, and the PLO has been relegated to the regional sidelines.


Learn extra about 40 years of the Iranian Revolution in Tablet’s particular collection.

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