US and Israeli intelligence officials have concluded that Yasser Arafat has forged a new alliance with Iran that involves Iranian shipments of heavy weapons and millions of dollars to Palestinian groups that are waging guerrilla war against Israel.
The partnership, officials said, was arranged in a clandestine meeting in Moscow last May between two top aides to Arafat and Iranian government officials. The meeting took place while Arafat was visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to senior Israeli security officials who declined to describe the precise nature of their information.
The new alignment is significant for several reasons, US and Israeli officials said. In recent years, Iran's support for terrorism around the world has been on the wane, with the notable exception of its ties to Hezbollah, the militant group that fought for 18 years to expel Israel from southern Lebanon.
Israeli officials say they are alarmed by Arafat's alliance with Iran because they say it gives the Palestinians a powerful and well-armed patron in the increasingly violent conflict with Israel. US officials echoed that concern and said they were also worried by intelligence reports that say Tehran is harboring al-Qaeda members, including one leader who recently tried to mount an attack against Israel from his sanctuary in Iran.
Questions about Iran's relationship with the Palestinians came into public view early this year when Israel seized a ship carrying 50 tonnes of Iranian-supplied arms, including antitank weapons that could neutralize one of Israel's main military advantages over the Palestinians and rockets that could reach most cities in Israel.
The Palestinians and the Iranians deny they are working together, but US and Israeli officials say they now see the shipment as part of a broader relationship. They say that began with several smaller attempts by Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon to supply arms and was cemented at the Moscow meeting. Officials of Israel and the US say they believe that Arafat personally approved the dealings with Iran.
US officials said that Israeli intelligence reports about the Moscow meeting were at the heart of secret briefings that Israel provided to the George W. Bush administration after the arms shipment was intercepted.
"There's plenty of evidence to show that it wasn't a rogue operation," a senior State Department official said of the ship that Israel seized in early January.
Palestinian Authority officials dismissed the charges of any Iranian involvement in their struggle against Israel and denied that Arafat knew of the arms shipment. They said the allegations were an attempt by Israel to discredit the Palestinians and to justify Israel's military operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"This is a factory of lies," Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister of information, said. "Israel is like any colonial power. When they get in trouble, they try to blame outsiders. There has not been a single Iranian here since the 14th century."
Iran also has denied any involvement with the Palestinians or the arms shipments. Ali Shamkhani, the Iranian minister of defense, told the state news agency that, "The Islamic Republic of Iran has had no military relations with Arafat, and no steps have been taken by any Iranian organization for the shipment of arms to the mentioned lands."