BRITAIN has warned Iran to break off all ties with the provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) after London-based intelligence agencies reported that Tehran had offered the terrorist organization arms and financial help.
The British move is an attempt to nip in the bud steps by the Iranian intelligence service to establish an operational relationship with the IRA, government sources say. It comes at a moment when there are clear signs of a renewed IRA terrorist offensive in Northern Ireland, and amid fading hopes by the governments in London and Dublin that last December's Downing Street peace declaration will be accepted by the IRA.
Newspaper reports say Iran was willing to help the IRA if, in return, Irish terrorists agreed to assassinate leading Iranian dissidents living in exile or help Iranian agents with assassinations.
Iran has emphatically denied that its ministry of intelligence and security (known as Vevak) has had contacts with the IRA, but a British foreign office spokesman said: ``We are convinced that there have been contacts. We take the gravest view of any contact which might assist or encourage terrorism.''
The statement came after Gholamreza Ansari, Iran's charge d'affaires in London, was summoned to the Foreign Office and told that all terrorist contacts between Tehran and the IRA must be immediately severed. A British intelligence source said the IRA had sent a representative to the Iranian capital last November, apparently in the hope of obtaining weapons and financial backing for its operations in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland.
The source said in the past the IRA depended on Libya for supplies of arms and explosives, but those have now dried up. Iran was seen as an alternative source of terrorist material, including Semtex, the IRA's favorite explosive.
Iranian sources, quoted by the Independent newspaper in London, said Vevak offered the IRA a ``shopping list'' of weapons, explosives, and cash. In return, the IRA was to help in the assassination of three leading dissidents, including Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, a former Iranian president, who now lives in France. British intelligence sources say about 20 Iranian exiles throughout Europe have been assassinated by Vevak agents since 1990.
The Iranian sources said the IRA turned the offer down, according to the Independent. The decision by the British government to make an open accusation about Vevak-IRA contacts apparently followed intelligence reports that Iran was attempting to revive the deal. According to some reports, Vevak may have suggested that supplies of hard drugs could be included in the deal. There have been charges in recent years that the IRA obtains money from drug transactions.
The British government felt that unless a high profile public accusation was made, secret contacts would continue, with the IRA eventually receiving help from Iran.
Contacts between Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, and Iranian intelligence began in the early 1980s, according to British officials. At first they were conducted openly.
In 1981, a senior Iranian cleric with intelligence connections attended the funeral of an IRA hunger striker who had fasted to death in a Belfast prison. In October 1986, Iran's embassy in the Netherlands offered political asylum to two escaped IRA prisoners. A year later, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, attended a conference in Tehran.
From that point on, British intelligence sources say, contacts became clandestine. Since then, the British intelligence organization MI-6 has monitored secret meetings in European capitals between senior Vevak figures and IRA representatives.