Beirut, Lebanon — A limited number of Iranian volunteers have joined Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters in southern Lebanon, pointing up the influence Iranian revolutionaries now are able to exert in the Arab-Israeli arena.
But the volunteers issue already has proved somewhat of an embarrassment to Iran's main allies in that arena -- Syria and the PLO.
Neither syria nor the PLO has much interest right now in escalating the existing tension in southern Lebanon. The PLO reason is its continuing diplomatic initiative. Syrian lack of interest is because any escalation of conflict in south Lebanon would threaten to bring the might of the Israeli Army up against Syrian peace-keeping troops in other parts of Lebanon.
But both Syria and the PLO are eager to retain the friendship of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime because of Iran's oil wealth and potential for destabilizing the Middle East.
The Syrian dilemma in this respect is particularly acute. President Hafez al-Assad's government has been on excellent terms with the present rulers in Iran for nearly a decade. Syria offered a refuge to at least two of Iran's present ministers during part of their exile from the Shah's regime.
the good will of the Iran Government became of even greater importance to Mr. Assad after Syria's newly forged friendship with neighboring Iraq fell apart again in July, 1978, and Syria's relations with its other neighbors continued to be strained.
Syria, for example, was one of the few Arab nations that sought to excuse the Iranian students' capture of American hostages in Tehran.
But when Iranian Hojatoleslam Muhammad Montazeri started organizing his volunteer force of Iranians, hoping to fight against Israeli-backed forces in southern Lebanon, the Syrians apparently tried to dissuade him.
"But they didn't have much choice," one Western diplomats in the Syrian capital of Damascus pointed out. "Either they could try to limit and regulate the flow of volunteers as best they could, or be faced with the prospect of planeloads of iranians arriving fully armed in Beirut airport, which is nominally under the Syrian peace-keepers' control."
The Syrians chose the former course. And early last December the first of some 300 Iranian volunteers started arriving in Damascus. From there they were whisked off to a nearby PLO Al-Fatah guerrilla training camp.
At the end of December, to the grave concern of Lebanese authorities, the first of the volunteers arrived in Lebanon. There now are thought to be less than 50 of them serving with the PLO guerrillas in the south.
In a recent press conference held under PLO auspices in Beirut, Mr. Montazeri tried to keep Syria's and the PLO's faces clean by stressing that the volunteers had crossed into Lebanon entirely under their own steam.
"Anyway, does the central government give visas to the Israeli officers who cross into south Lebanon every day to direct their allies' operations?" he asked rhetorically.