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Iran Primer: Iran and the Palestinians


28 Oct 2010 18:05No Comments
MeshalBigKBackgroundPhoto.jpg[ primer ] Between Israel's birth in 1948 and Iran's revolution in 1979, the two countries had close relations based on common strategic interests, particularly as the two non-Arab countries in the Middle East. Iran became an important source of oil for Israel, and Israel became an important source of weapons for Iran. Thousands of Israeli businessmen and technical experts aided Iranian development projects. But after the shah's ouster, relations deteriorated and envoys went home. Israel remained a source of Western arms during the early years of Iran's 1980-1988 war with Iraq. But by the mid-1980s, even commercial ties had ended.

Tehran's new theocrats refused to recognize Israel as a state or even use its name, instead calling it the "Zionist entity" or the "Little Satan." Leftists opposed Israel because of anti-imperialist sentiment and its relationship with the United States. The religious right viewed Israel as an illegitimate occupier of Muslim land and a threat to Islam and Islamic justice. Shortly after the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini designated the last Friday of Ramadan as a new national holiday -- Qods Day, or Jerusalem Day -- to "proclaim the international solidarity of Muslims in support of the legitimate rights of the Muslim people of Palestine." Qods Day is honored across the Muslim world.

During the revolution's first decade, Iran's primary focus in the Arab-Israeli conflict was aiding and arming its Shia brethren in Lebanon's new Hezbollah. But Tehran's involvement with the Sunni Palestinians deepened progressively with three major turning points: The Palestinian Liberation Organization's call for peace talks with Israel in 1988, the second intifada -- or uprising -- in 2000, and the election of Hamas in 2006.


During the monarchy, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had close ties with the Iranian opposition. Many Iranian dissidents trained at PLO camps in Lebanon in the 1970s. The PLO also backed the 1979 revolution. Days after the revolution, PLO chief Yasser Arafat led a 58-member delegation to Tehran. Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan hosted the official welcome ceremony, where the keys to the former Israeli embassy were handed over to the PLO. The road in front of the mission was renamed Palestine Street. Arafat traveled throughout Iran to set up PLO offices, which members of his delegation stayed to manage for more than one year.

Khomeini did not welcome Arafat with open arms, however. During their two-hour meeting on Feb. 18, 1979, the ayatollah criticized the PLO for its nationalist and pan-Arab agenda. He appealed to Arafat to model the PLO on the principles of the Islamic revolution. Arafat was an observant Muslim, but he rebuffed Khomeini. Arafat and Khomeini never met again

Relations between Iran and the PLO eroded further when Arafat joined the Arab world in supporting Iraq during its 1980-1988 war with Iran. In 1988, Tehran also condemned Arafat after he recognized Israel's right to exist, renounced terrorism, called for peace talks with Israel, and began a dialogue with the United States. Iran's new Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denounced the PLO chief as a "traitor and an idiot" in 1989. Arafat did not visit Iran again until 1997, when Tehran hosted the Organization of Islamic Conference. The PLO maintained a diplomatic presence in Tehran, but Iran did not actively aid the PLO again until 2000.

Intifada and Karine A

The second Palestinian intifada erupted in September 2000 after the collapse of Middle East peace talks at Camp David and Ariel Sharon's visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif in Arabic, home of the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. To support the uprising and heighten pressure on Israel, Arafat released Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants held by the Palestinian Authority. Iran lauded Arafat and his Fatah party for their resistance. In 2001, Iran hosted a second "Support for the Palestinian intifada" conference, attended by Palestinian parliamentarians and representatives from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Ayatollah Khamenei praised the intifada for restoring Palestinian unity.

Iran's renewed support for Arafat's Palestinian Authority was evident when Israel captured the Karine A, a ship reportedly destined for Gaza, in 2002. The ship carried 50 tons of advanced weaponry -- including Katyusha rockets, rifles, mortar shells, mines, and anti-tank missiles -- that had been loaded in Iranian waters. It was interdicted by an Israeli commando raid in the Red Sea. Arafat denied any involvement; the arms were a clear violation of Palestinian-Israeli agreements. But Israel interpreted the shipment as a sign of Iran's renewed support for the PLO resistance.

Islamic Jihad

Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is the smallest but most violent Palestinian group -- and long the closest to Iran. The underground movement was founded by Fathi Shikaki, a young physician and Gaza refugee, in the late 1970s as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. PIJ endorsed the Iranian revolution. Shikaki shared Khomeini's belief that "Islam was the solution and Jihad was the proper means." The Sunni Muslim group also adopted the suicide tactics used mainly by Shia militants, justified as martyrdom for the greater cause. Since 1989, it has carried out more than a dozen major suicide attacks against Israeli targets. Unlike other Arab and Sunni groups, Islamic Jihad supported Shia Iran during its long war with Iraq.

The group's leadership was forced out of Gaza in 1988, first to Lebanon, then to Syria, where it is now based. Ramadan Abdallah Shallah became secretary general after Shikaki's assassination in 1995. He has met frequently with Iranian officials both in Tehran and Damascus, often in meetings with other major Palestinian militant groups. Shallah reportedly attended a meeting in Tehran in 1996, when he coordinated with the Qods Force, an elite wing of the Revolutionary Guards that handles Iran's foreign operations. PIJ maintains a representative in Iran. Iran has armed, trained, and funded PIJ, although its aid is reportedly modest compared with support for Hamas or Lebanon's Hezbollah.


Hamas, an acronym in Arabic for "Islamic resistance movement," emerged out of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1987. It was cofounded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and six others, originally as a local offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas and Iran both wanted to see Israel replaced by the Islamic state of Palestine. Yet Hamas initially had little connection to Iran due to sectarian differences, Tehran's ties to Islamic Jihad, and the Hamas desire to be an independent resistance movement.

Relations between Iran and Hamas developed after the PLO called for making peace with Israel. In 1990, Tehran hosted a conference on support for Palestine, which Hamas attended but Arafat did not. In the early 1990s, a Hamas delegation led by Mousa Abu Marzouk held talks Tehran with key officials, including Ayatollah Khamenei. Iran pledged military and financial support -- reportedly $30 million annually -- as well as advanced military training for thousands of Hamas activists at Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran and Lebanon. Hamas also opened an office in Tehran and declared that Iran and Hamas shared an "identical view in the strategic outlook toward the Palestinian cause in its Islamic dimension."

Tehran continued support for Hamas throughout the intifada. Aid steadily increased after Arafat's death in 2004 and Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. But Hamas's surprise victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections dramatically transformed its relations with Iran. Tehran stepped in rescue the nearly bankrupt Palestinian Authority in Gaza, now under Hamas control, after foreign aid dried up. When Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh visited Tehran in December 2006, Iran reportedly pledged $250 million in aid.

Iran reportedly provided military aid and training for dozens of men in Hamas's military wing, the Izz ad-Din al Qassam Brigades. Iran also allegedly supplied much of the military equipment that Hamas used against Israel in the December 2008 Gaza war. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited Tehran in February 2009, after the war ended, to thank Iran for its help during the conflict, citing Iran as a "partner in victory."

Palestinian Authority

The ebbs and flows of relations between Iran and the many Palestinian factions often correlated with the status of peace efforts. After the U.S.-orchestrated peace process resumed in Washington in 2010, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a rally in Tehran that the talks were doomed to fail. He also lambasted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him a "hostage" of Israel. Abbas, who was Arafat's successor, shot back.

In a pointed reference to Ahmadinejad's disputed win in 2009 elections, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said, "He who does not represent the Iranian people, who forged elections and who suppresses the Iranian people and stole the authority, is not entitled to talk about Palestine, or the president of Palestine. We have fought for Palestine and Jerusalem. And the Palestinian leadership has provided thousands of martyrs and tens of thousands wounded and prisoners [and] did not repress their people, as did the system of Iran led by Ahmadinejad."

Middle East peace process

Iranian politicians all condemn Israel, and the regime has opposed the peace process since the 1993 Oslo Accords launched sporadic diplomacy. But the language of the leaders has varied, albeit slightly.

* Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: In 1981, he said, "To liberate Qods [Jerusalem], Muslims should use faith-dependent machine guns and the power of Islam and keep away from political games which reek of compromise.... Muslim nations, especially the Palestinian and Lebanese nations, should punish those who waste time indulging in political maneuvers."

* Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: In 2005, he said, "We want all the Palestinians back in their homeland, and then there can be a fair referendum for people to choose the form of state they want. Whoever gets the majority can rule."

* Former President Mohammad Khatami: In 1998, he said, "The root of tension in the region is the Zionist regime." He also said Iran "morally and logically" does not recognize Israel but would not interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

* President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: In September 2010, he told a Qods Day rally in Tehran, "Who gave them [Mahmoud Abbas's negotiating team] the right to sell a piece of Palestinian land? The people of Palestine and the people of the region will not allow them to sell even an inch of Palestinian soil to the enemy. The negotiations are stillborn and doomed."

* Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Israel a "cancerous tumor" and urged Palestinians to unite and model their resistance against Israel on Hezbollah. In 2005, he said, "Palestine belongs to the Palestinians, and the fate of Palestine should be determined by the Palestinian people."

Iran's Palestinian allies

* Ramadan Abdallah Shallah: Islamic Jihad secretary general and British-educated economist who briefly taught at the University of South Florida and took over after Shikaki was assassinated in 1995. "Our ties with Iran date back to the first days of our movement, just after the Islamic revolution took over in Iran," he once said. Shallah is also on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list.

* Khaled Meshal: Hamas leader based in Damascus. After the 2006 Hamas victory, Meshal visited Tehran and said, "Just as Islamic Iran defends the rights of the Palestinians, we defend the rights of Islamic Iran. We are part of a united front against the enemies of Islam."

* Ismail Haniyeh: Hamas leader who became prime minister of the Gaza half of the Palestinian Authority after Hamas's 2006 election victory. Later that year he visited Tehran, where he told a Friday Prayer service, "The world arrogance [i.e., the United States] and Zionists...want us to recognize the usurpation of the Palestinian lands and stop jihad and resistance and accept the agreements reached with the Zionist enemies in the past.... We will never recognize the usurper Zionist government and will continue our jihad-like movement until the liberation of Jerusalem."

* Sheikh Ahmed Yassin: Hamas cofounder and spiritual guide. The quadriplegic cleric was hosted by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mohammad Khatami during a 1998 visit to Tehran. After meeting the sheikh, Ayatollah Khamenei said, "The Palestinian nation's jihad is a source of honor for Islam and Muslims.... God's promises will undoubtedly come true and the Islamic land of Palestine will someday witness the annihilation of the usurper Zionist rule." He died in an Israeli helicopter gunship attack in 2004.

The future

* For the foreseeable future, Iran will have the means to play primary spoiler in the Middle East peace process through its proxies in Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah.

* As long as it has substantial financial and military support from Iran, Hamas can in turn refuse to work with Fatah and other parties to form a single Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza. The split between the two halves of the Palestinian Authority seriously complicates peace efforts since only two of the three parties to the conflict have been negotiating.

Rachel Brandenburg is a Middle East program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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