16 days after the Iranian revolution of 1979 Yasser Arafat was the first foreign leader who visited Ayatollah Khomeini. This was a historic visit for many reasons. Ayatollah Khomeini gave the PLO its own embassy in Tehran which was at the site of the former Israeli embassy. The PLO was also provided with two other representative offices in the oil rich Arab populated Iranian cities of Ahvaz and Khoramshahr.

The visit also included financial assistance plus promises of political support for the PLO by Iran. Arafat’s trip is also famous for being the only occasion in his political life when Ayatollah Khomeini openly smiled for the cameras. He had reason to smile as Arafat had been the only regional figures who provided military training to Khomeini’s allies in Lebanon prior to the revolution. Arafat also had reason to be happy. The year before the US had facilitated peace between Israel and Egypt behind his back thus sidelining him. With echoes of US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s famous phrase “Bye-bye, PLO” ringing in his ear Arafat was looking to get back at the Americans. Now he was being welcomed by a leader of one of the most regionally powerful countries who shared his deep animosity towards the US.

One year after his historic visit, despite the warm reception and aid offered by his Iranian hosts Yasser Arafat sided with Iraq as soon as Saddam Hussein invaded Iran.

Recent Developments

Official political relations were broken until early 2000 which is when the PLO was again allowed to have its representative in Tehran. This was due to a number of reasons the most important of which was the fact that Arafat by then had given up on the peace process. This brought the PLO closer to Iran’s rejectionist camp which also included Hamas and Jihad Islami.

Since then Salah Zawawi the PLO representative to Iran has been trying to drum up support for the PLO in the corridors of the Iranian parliament (Majles). His efforts were rewarded when in 2004 he was invited to a special parliament session in Tehran. During the session the Parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel defined the Palestinian problem as a “strategic issue for Iran,” stressing the Iranian parliament would do its utmost to support the “brave but oppressed Palestinians.”

The highest point in recent Iranian PLO relations was the visit by PLO Foreign Minister Qadummi to Iran on 20th of December in 2004. Since then both Iran and the PLO have continued their diplomatic relations at the same level.

Having relations with the PLO had strategic advantage for Iran. It provided Tehran with leverage over the three strongest Palestinian political and military parties which are Hamas, Jihad Islami and now the PLO. This increased the importance of Iran as a major role player in any future peace process.

It also enabled Tehran to jostle for more position regionally in relation to other Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia who compete with Iran for influence. Furthermore improved relations with PLO would enable Iran to have a second strike capability against Israel in case of an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear installations.

Relations with Iran also had rewards for the PLO. They provided the organisation with a bargaining chip for future negotiations with the US and Israel. Furthermore for many years PLO’s rivals Hamas and Jihad Islami were recipients of training as well as financial and political aid from Iran. With established relations with Iran PLO was hoping that it would now in the same position.

Although the doors of Iranian politicians were not as open to the PLO as they were to Hamas and Jihad Islami, nevertheless the PLO was rewarded in other areas by Iran. The biggest token of Iranian support post re-establishment of relations was the massive arms shipment sent by Iran in the Karine A ship. The cargo which was intercepted by Israel would have bolstered the PLO’s military capability immensely.

The way forward

Relations between the PLO and Iran are and have been based more on mutual benefits rather than shared ideology as both entities subscribe to differing beliefs. Iran’s ruling system is currently based on the teachings of Shiite sect of Islam which aims to export its system to other Muslim countries in the region.

The PLO however is based on nationalistic secular ideologies. As a result both parties have joined forces when it suited them and have parted when the benefits are better elsewhere. As mentioned this already happened when Iraq invaded Iran. Arafat saw it to his benefit to side with Saddam as both their movements were based on secular ideologies, plus the fact that Saddam had better relations with West and with the rich Arab countries than the regionally and internationally isolated Iran of the Ayatollahs.

Therefore despite the fact that relations between the PLO and Iran have been improving recently there still are areas of considerable weakness in their relations which may lead to relations being reduced or severed again the future.

The most probable scenario for such an eventuality is after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. In such a case if a serious political and/or military standoff develops between Hamas and the PLO then it is likely that Iran will take the side of Hamas as its religious ideologies are more in line with that of Iran. Furthermore Hamas has had a much longer and stronger relationship with Iran than the PLO.

Relations between the two sides are also likely to be strained if PLO and Israel reach a peace deal in which not all of pre 1948 Palestine plus its citizens are returned to Palestine as per Iran’s vision of a just peace deal for the Palestinians.