When the road to Palestine passed through Iran

The establishment of the Islamic Republic changed the balance of power in the Middle East. The Shah had been Israel's main ally, while Khomeini was a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause and tried to control the course of the Palestinian struggle.

Yasser Arafat meeting Ayatollah Khomeini on February 12th 1979. Photo

February 17, 1979. Two weeks after the historic return of Imam Khomeini to Iran, PLO leader Yasser Arafat landed in Tehran, in full revolutionary fervor, to congratulate the new Iranian leaders. Arafat, who was the first foreign leader to visit post-Shah Iran, was given a triumphant welcome and was immediately received by Khomeini: photos at that time showed the usually austere Khomeini smiling during the meeting.

A euphoric Arafat said the Iranian Revolution was ushering in “a new era and a new dawn” in the Middle East. During his visit, Iran announced that it was severing diplomatic ties with Israel. Israeli diplomats were ordered to leave Tehran, and Iranian diplomats were recalled from their posts in Tel Aviv. The new Iranian leadership gave Abou Ammar the keys to the building that had housed the Israeli diplomatic mission, which became the Palestinian embassy, headed by respected Fatah leader Hani al-Hassan.

For the Palestinians, the Iranian revolution meant hope. In September 1978, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had signed a peace treaty with Israel at Camp David in the United States, shaking the Arab world. Iran was now poised to become the new champion of the Palestinian cause.

"I remember that Yasser Arafat fired shots in the air from his gun on the balcony of the PLO headquarters in Beirut to celebrate [when the Iranian revolutionaries took over]," recalled Michel Naufal, an expert in Iranian affairs and one of the journalists who accompanied Khomeini on the plane that brought him back to Tehran.

(Also in our series : “If the Shah and I have to die, it will be in Iran”)

Volunteers in the fight against Israel

For Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Iranian revolutionaries were not total strangers. Years earlier, they had established connection with the PLO, and many of the Shah’s opponents had received training in Palestinian military bases in Lebanon and Jordan. Both parties shared hostility towards Israel, the Shah’s close ally in the Middle East. Starting in the late 1960s, the Iranian opposition had moved closer to the Palestinian movements and began volunteering to fight against Israel.

"I remember that dozens of young Iranian revolutionaries came to train with us in Lebanon before and during the Civil War,” a former member of the Fatah Student Brigade, who requested to remain anonymous, told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ). "They were sometimes members of the People’s Mujahideen, who left to carry out attacks in Iran. I even saw the picture of one of those militants I knew on a poster on a wall in Paris presenting him as a martyr killed during an operation.”

Members of the People's Fedayeen, a leftist Iranian opposition group, also received training at bases run by the marxist Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP and DFLP).

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Another member of the Fatah Student Brigade told OLJ that some members of the People’s Mujahedin – which later became a fierce opponent of the Islamist regime – fought alongside progressive Islamist forces during Lebanon’s civil war. More conservative Iranians also started to come to Lebanon in the years before the revolution. "It was around 1977 or 1978 that we started seeing another kind of bearded militants who were more in the sphere of Imam Khomeini,” said the former Student Brigade member.

The Khomeini supporters trained with Fatah and also the Amal Movement of imam Moussa Sadr. It is worth noting that one of the founders of Amal mouvement was Mostafa Chamran, a prominent Iranian militant, close to Imam Sadr. After the Iranian Revolution, Chamran went on to serve as Iran’s minister of defense before being killed in combat in 1981 during the Iran-Iraq War.

Both religious and secular opponents of the Shah were strong supporters of the Palestinian cause and criticized the Shah’s unwavering support for Israel, whose security services are said to have trained Iran’s formidable secret police, the SAVAK.

(Also in our special series : Khomeini: the opponent, the guide and the despot)

"There is only one Islamic cause"

The warm welcome he received and the staunch support from Iranian revolutionaries led a triumphant Arafat to proclaim during his visit to Tehran that “the road to Palestine now passes through Iran.”

During a press conference, Arafat dismissed concerns that his main sponsors, the Gulf Monarchies, were threatened by the new Iranian regime. But he soon grew wary of his new Iranian allies. "When he went to Tehran, the relationship became complicated. He did not want to give them the keys to the Palestinian cause,” said Naufal.

A militant close to Fatah co-founder Abu Jihad told OLJ that the meeting between Arafat and Khomeini did not go so well: "Khomeini told him there is no Palestinian cause; it is an Islamic cause. It was then that he began to understand that the Iranians wanted to control this issue.”

And the Iran-Iraq war, which started in 1980, seriously damaged relations between the Palestinians and Iran. Arafat sided with Iraq while still trying to stay on good terms with the Iranian leadership.

As its relationship with the PLO became more complicated, Iran decided to begin sponsoring groups that would help spread its ideology in the Arab world. The Iranian leadership began using the Arab ideological discourse of the 1970s, which had the Palestinian cause at its center, according to Hassan Mneimne, a researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. “Iran inherited the 1970s-shaped anti-Imperialist, anti-Zionist, anti-reactionary Arab political discourse, with the loss of credibility of the revolutionary regimes that had adopted it – Iraq, Syria, Libya,” Mneimne said.

The disarray of the PLO after leaving Lebanon reinforced Iran’s claim to the revolutionary mantle in the region. Iran positioned itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and adopted measures, such as declaring the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan Jerusalem Day, that gave it credibility. The Sunni-Shiite divide had not yet come to dominate regional power dynamics, and Iran was able to "gain considerable traction and was sought as a role model and as a potential sponsor by various Shiite Arab personalities, moderate Sunni Islamists and Arab leftists of all stripes,” Mneimne added.

Following Israel’s 1982 invasion, the PLO was forced to leave Lebanon. In the vacuum left behind, Iran sponsored Hezbollah, “its first (and to date most successful) ‘franchise’ in line with its own rhetoric of ‘exporting the revolution,’” Mneimne concluded.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 25th of January)


Editor’s note: 40 years since the Iranian revolution under L’Orient-Le Jour’s magnifying glass

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The country went from being an imperial state to a theocracy and then to an Islamic Republic. Given how transformative the revolution has been in Iran, the Middle East at large and Lebanon in particular, it is undoubtedly one of the most significant events that took place in the region during the 20th century. L’Orient Le Jour will cover this anniversary by publishing a series of stories.

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February 17, 1979. Two weeks after the historic return of Imam Khomeini to Iran, PLO leader Yasser Arafat landed in Tehran, in full revolutionary fervor, to congratulate the new Iranian leaders. Arafat, who was the first foreign leader to visit post-Shah Iran, was given a triumphant welcome and was immediately received by Khomeini: photos at that time showed the usually austere Khomeini smiling...