Three years ago, Iran described Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a "traitor" to the cause of Palestine. The head of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizbullah organization has called Mr. Arafat a "disgrace to Palestine, Arabism, and Islam" and urged the Palestinian people to kill him.
But in the past two weeks, Israel has been energetically promoting the idea of a secret "terror" triangle linking Arafat's Palestinian Authority with Iran and Hizbullah. Israel's argument has been received with cautious sympathy by the United States, denials from the Palestinians and Iran, and guarded skepticism by Arab commentators.
The connection, according to Israel, was an attempt to smuggle 50 tons of mainly Iranian weapons by sea from an island off the coast of Iran to the Gaza Strip. The plan was foiled Jan. 3 when Israeli naval commandos seized the Karine A's cargo in the Red Sea.
The Israeli government said it had conclusive evidence that Iran supplied the weapons, that the Palestinian Authority was the recipient, and that the deal was engineered by Hizbullah.
Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, claimed that a "significant strategic connection between the Palestinian Authority and Iran" has existed since last April.
"A most dangerous axis began to be created, consisting of an attempt to infiltrate the region," General Mofaz was quoted as saying by the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot.
Israeli government adviser Dore Gold said that, following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Iran had been seeking an entry for Hizbullah into the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"Iranian involvement in the Karine A affair reinforces the impression it is seeking a regional role, largely by meddling in terrorism," Mr. Gold said.
Hizbullah's fighters line the Lebanon-Israel border, but the organization denies being active in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has accused Iran of manipulating three fronts against Israel: Hizbullah along the Jewish state's northern border, the alliance with the Palestinian Authority, and an unspecified penetration of the Israeli-Arab community.
However, the Palestinian Authority scoffs at the charge that it has established military ties with Iran.
"There is no such military or security relationship," Palestinian spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo says.
Iran has been equally dismissive.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran has had no military relations with Yasser Arafat, and no steps have been taken by any Iranian organization for the shipment of arms to the mentioned lands," Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told the Islamic Republic News Agency.
Given the iciness of their previous relations, a strategic alliance between Iran and the Palestinian Authority would appear unlikely at first glance.
Iranian leaders have been openly hostile toward Arafat in the past. Iran strongly opposes the 1993 Oslo Accords, which provided the framework for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and believes that Arafat has granted too many concessions to the Jewish state in negotiations.
In October 1998, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the supreme leader of Iran, scathingly described Arafat as a "lackey of the Zionists" for signing the Wye River land-for-security agreement with Israel. Two days later, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbullah, urged Palestinians to kill Arafat.
The Palestinian leader has also leveled criticism at Tehran for supporting the hardline groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat views the growing popularity of the two Islamist groups in the West Bank and Gaza as a potential threat to his own leadership.
Nonetheless, the once-frosty relationship between Iran and Arafat appears to have thawed since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. Iran, which opposes Israel's very existence, is a staunch backer of the intifada, opening its hospitals to wounded Palestinians, training fighters, and rallying support for the up rising.
In April last year, Tehran hosted a conference for 34 Arab and Islamic countries and organizations. All the hard-line Palestinian groups were there as well as Hizbullah. But also attending was a representative of the Palestinian Authority, Salim Al Zeenoun, who admitted that the Oslo Accords had turned out to be "a sandcastle of illusion."
Two months later, Arafat sent a telegram to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to congratulate him on his re-election.
"We look to all the people of the Islamic world, foremost among them the Muslim Iranian people and their faithful leadership, to support, aid, and assist [Palestine]," Arafat said. He also asked Iran to "work fast to end this bloody and savage war which the Israeli government has been waging for eight solid months."
Israel says that the military alliance between Iran and Arafat and the scheme to smuggle a shipload of weapons to the Palestinian Authority was born at around this time.
Israel's announcement of its seizure of the Karine A coincided with the arrival to the region of US envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni and served to undermine the former US Marine's attempts to help preserve the shaky cease-fire between the Israeli Army and the Palestinians. The timing and the idea of a terror link between Iran, Hizbullah, and the Palestinian Authroity is a little too convenient for some.
"Whether or not the shipment story turns out to be true, it serves Israel's purpose to say there is an alliance between its arch enemies," says Prof. Nizar Hamzeh of the American University of Beirut.
Iran is included on the US State Department's list of terrorism-supporting countries and has been cited as a possible target in the second phase of the "war on terror." Hizbullah is classified by Washington as a terrorist organization and US officials have been quoted as saying that the Shia Muslim organization is second only to the Al Qaeda network of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden on the hit list.
Israel has taken pains to link Arafat with Iran and Hizbullah, sending a delegation of military intelligence officials to Washington to share the evidence of the Palestinian Authority's involvement in the arms shipment.
Israel claims the architect of the smuggling operation was Imad Mughnieh, a Lebanese who is thought to have killed more Americans in terrorist operations than anyone else before Sept. 11. Mr. Mughnieh, who appears on the FBI's most wanted list, is believed to have headed a special operations section of Hizbullah run under the guidance of Iranian intelligence.
Mughnieh stands accused of a multitude of anti-American attacks and kidnappings. They include the bombing of the US Marine barracks at Beirut airport in 1983, in which 241 American servicemen perished; the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, in which a US navy diver was killed; and the kidnappings of dozens of Westerners in war-torn Beirut of the late 1980s.
The US has said that the evidence provided by Israel is "compelling" and has demanded an "urgent" and "full explanation" from the Palestinian leader.
Arafat's growing isolation from his own Palestinian people as well as the international community could give some credence to the suspected new relationship with Iran.
"Arafat's running out of options," says Professor Hamzeh.
Attempting to wipe out Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as other Palestinian groups that want to continue the intifada would spark a civil war, he says. The Israeli government has declared Arafat "irrelevant" and appears to no longer consider him a serious negotiating partner.
"What options does he have left, except to strike a military/political deal with Iran which would allow Hizbullah access to the Palestinian territories and ease tensions with Islamic Jihad and Hamas," Hamzeh says.