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Analysis: Iran Sends Terror-Group Supporters To Arafat's Funeral Procession

  • Bill Samii --> Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's death will not only affect the Palestinian nationalist movement internally, but it will also have an impact on the authority's relationship with other countries, particularly Iran.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has come to be dominated by members of Arafat's ruling Fatah party, and with his passing the PA might become more open to people from other Palestinian organizations. Tehran has relations with the PA and with Fatah -- Arafat visited Iran in August 2000 -- and it materially supports more extreme Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--General Command (PFLP-GC).

Notable in this context is the makeup and announced plans of the official delegation Tehran sent to Arafat's 12 November funeral procession in Cairo. Parliamentarians, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, who is secretary-general of the Support for Palestinian Intifada conference series, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi would represent Iran at the funeral procession, ILNA reported on 11 November. "Mohtashami-Pur is expected to hold talks with representatives of a number of Palestinian movements while in Cairo," ILNA added. Mohtashami-Pur made his mark as a founder of Lebanese Hizballah when he was ambassador to Damascus in the 1980s, and he has maintained his relationship with Hizballah since that time. Representatives of Hizballah, Hamas, the PIJ, the PFLP-GC, the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, and Fatah Uprising met at his April 2001 and June 2002 "Support for the Palestinian Intifada" conferences.
Tehran praised Arafat, condemned Israel, and called for Palestinian unity against Israel. Arafat's name and Palestine are permanently linked.

One of the Iranian legislators who attended the funeral procession is Hussein Sheikholeslam, IRNA reported. Sheikholeslam is a former ambassador to Damascus and one of the "students" who held U.S. diplomats and military personnel hostage from 1979-81. In the 1980s, Sheikholeslam was the Foreign Ministry's director for Arab affairs and, in this position, he coordinated Islamic Revolution Guards Corps participation in Hizballah operations. He was Mohtashami-Pur's Foreign Ministry contact in connection with the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

The revolutionaries who took power in Iran after 1979 had good relation's with Arafat's movement, Professor Sadegh Zibakalam told Radio Farda on 11 November. Relations deteriorated badly during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, however, when the Palestinians threw their support behind Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and their Arab brethren, Zibakalam added.

After his death was announced, statements from Tehran praised Arafat, condemned Israel, and called for Palestinian unity against Israel. Arafat's name and Palestine are permanently linked, according to an Iranian government statement cited by the official Islamic Republic News Agency on 11 November. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said Iran offers its condolences to "the oppressed Palestinian people," IRNA reported, and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani also offered his condolences.

The government statement was aggressive in tone, as it concluded by saying, "Israel, which only understands the language of force and violence, is incapable of confronting the intifada and the anger of Palestinians." It also demanded the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its headquarters, the return of Palestinian refugees, and an end to the occupation.

Unity was a common thread in the other statements. "What is important now is that the Palestinian people understand the current sensitive situation and, by maintaining unity, they defuse the plots of the Zionist regime," Assefi said, as he warned that Israel is trying to exploit the situation. Hashemi-Rafsanjani, meanwhile, urged Palestinians to set aside their differences and practice unity to consider the nature of the alleged threat facing them.

Tehran's call for unity, coming at the same time as Mohtashami-Pur's meeting with the Palestinian groups, is indicative of what the subject of conversation will be. Timing, too, is relevant here.

On the same day as Arafat's funeral, 12 November, Iran commemorated Qods Day (Jerusalem Day). The founder of Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared that the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan (12 November this year) would be marked annually as Qods Day. In his 5 November Friday prayers sermon, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged his compatriots to participate in the state-organized rallies, state radio reported. He praised Palestinian "resistance" against Israel and he criticized the international community's "silence." "America is an accomplice itself," he added. "The hands of American administrations are stained with the blood of Palestinians right up to their arms. If a court there was to rule in the Palestinian case, the accused would not be only [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and the Zionists. The Americans accused in this case are also people such as Bush, his gangs, and American administrations."

Khamenei then switched to Arabic, presumably so audiences in other countries would understand the sermon when it is rebroadcast by Iran's Arabic-language media, and discussed Qods Day some more. He discussed "crimes committed by the usurping Zionist regime," the Islamic community's pride in Palestinians' courage, and the silence of regimes that claim to defend human rights.

On 12 November, according to IRNA, people gathered at Tehran University to participate in the Qods Day rally. In the Friday prayers sermon after the rally, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said the Palestinian problem will continue until Western powers cut their support for Israel, IRNA reported. He added that the only way to solve the leadership void left by Arafat's death is to hold free elections.

Rafsanjani told his congregation that the Palestinian issue affects Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. But the makeup of the Iranian delegation at Arafat's funeral suggests that Iran is trying to extend its currently limited influence over activities in the West Bank and Gaza, and over Palestinian politics in general.

For more on Arafat see:

Middle East: With Arafat Gone, What Next For The Palestinian Leadership?

Analysis: Arafat's Legacy In The Palestinian Authority

Middle East: Palestinian Leader Arafat Dead At 75