On May 10, 2018, Israel struck dozens of Iranian-military targets in Syria in response to rocket fire directed at the Jewish state from units of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, also known as the Pasdaran. For decades, the IRGC has targeted Israel and Jews throughout the world at the behest of Tehran’s Shi’ite Muslim theocratic dictatorship—often by supporting proxies, including Palestinian Sunni Muslim terror groups like Hamas.
Although Western press outlets and policymakers often discuss the Quds Force’s role as a purveyor of terrorism, less known is the pivotal role that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) played in creating the IRGC. Today’s IRGC might be a top terror sponsor; training and equipping terrorist groups across the globe, but it was once a beneficiary of what was arguably the preeminent terrorist organization of the 1970s: the PLO.
Under the direction of Yasser Arafat, the head of the Fatah movement and chairman of the, the organization carried out dozens of terror attacks against Israel, hijacking planes, buses and ships. After a brief but bloody war, the PLO was expelled from Jordan in 1971 and subsequently sought refuge in Lebanon. There the group attracted the attention of an Iranian Shi’ite cleric named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who himself had been banished by Iran’s ruler, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in 1964.
Born in 1902, by the 1960s Khomeini had become convinced that he was destined to change the world. He began to preach, “Islam is the only solution” and argued against the separation between civil and religious authority that was the mainstay in Iran. Khomeini’s preaching’s “had a distinct internationalist claim” and sought to create a “new Islamic epoch” that, while launched by a Shi’ite “was free of confessional restraint,” as Council of Foreign Relations scholar Ray Takeyh noted in his 2011 book Guardians of the Revolution.
Khomeini’s opposition to the secular rule of the Shah led to his being expelled, first to Turkey and later to Iraq and then France. His charisma attracted devoted followers while cassette tapes of his sermons proliferated across Iran and beyond. Among the devotees was a Shi’ite cleric named Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, who was dispatched by Khomeini in 1973 to create links elsewhere in the Muslim world. Among the many alliances that Mohtashamipur would create would be one with Arafat’s Lebanon-based PLO.
Supporters of Khomeini were provided with training overseen by Force 17, the Fatah movement’s elite intelligence unit that also acted as Arafat’s bodyguard. As Ronen Bergman recounted in his 2018 work Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations:
“At the training bases, PLO experts taught young men the arts of sabotage, intelligence operations, and terror tactics. For Arafat, having Khomeini’s men train at his bases was a way to acquire support for the Palestinian cause and to make himself into an international figure. But for Khomeini and Mohtashamipur, it was part of a long, focused strategy: to eventually extend the Islamic revolution…”
Like Lenin and other ideologues, Khomeini viewed himself as the leader of a revolution without borders. Khomeinism was bigger and broader than merely Iran and the Shi’ite branch of Islam. And the cleric viewed inroads in Lebanon as crucial; a “forward strategic position that brought us close to Jerusalem.”
The first component of what would become the IRGC was comprised of approximately 6,000 men, according to Steven R. Ward, a former CIA intelligence analyst and author of Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces. By the time of the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini’s return from exile, hundreds of Shi’ites, many from Lebanon, were joining up and being trained as a guerilla army by Force 17 operatives.
After the revolution, Mohtashamipur would be made the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to Syria—a post that he held while simultaneously serving as a high-ranking member of the newly formed IRGC. In July 1982, Mohtashamipur forged a successful military alliance with the government of then-Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad. Iran began to expand upon the success that began with the formation of the IRGC by building up Shi’ite militias in Lebanon. Among them was one that the ambassador named Hezbollah (“Party of God”).
Meanwhile, Israel’s war against the PLO in Lebanon raged on. Among the Force 17 members fighting against the Jewish state was a man named Imad Mughniyeh, a Shi’ite from southern Beirut who had become a protégé of Ali Hassan Salameh, a PLO terrorist known as “the Red Prince.” Although one was a Sunni and the other a Shi’ite, “the interests of both intersected” and the latter “was grateful to the PLO for their hospitality and support,” Bergman pointed out.
Salameh had grown up in the shadow of his father, Sheik Hassan Salameh, a terrorist who, among other actions, had been involved in a Nazi-approved plot to poison the water supply of Tel Aviv before being killed in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The younger Salameh founded Force 17 and planned numerous high-level terror attacks before he was assassinated by Israeli intelligence in January 1979. His star pupil would carry on and expand his work.
After the PLO’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Mughniyeh joined Hezbollah, which was led by Hussein Abbas al-Mussawi, himself a graduate of a PLO Force 17 training camp. Just as Salameh had founded Force 17, Mughniyeh led Hezbollah’s top intelligence outfit, acting as the head of its military and security wing.
Mughniyeh pioneered suicide bombings, first in Lebanon and then elsewhere. He oversaw Hezbollah’s international expansion, including planning advanced attacks, such as the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center, both in Buenos Aires. As the head of Hezbollah’s Unit 1800, Mughniyeh worked with Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), providing training for them and others, including al-Qaeda, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
By the time of his February 2008 death in a joint U.S.-Israeli operation, Mughniyeh had become one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. Fatah’s links with the IRGC, however, had changed.
Arafat had continued to receive some arms and support from Iran, which also provided aid to Fatah’s rivals, including Hamas and PIJ, all of which carried out terror attacks during the Second Intifada (2000-05). A Dec. 12, 2005 report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Center noted that Fatah’s Tanzim faction even “received money and instructions” from Hezbollah.
With the rise of Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, Force 17 was disbanded and the distance between Fatah and Iran increased. Now 13 years in to a single four-year elected term, the 82-year old Abbas is weakened and unpopular. Potential successors, including top Fatah officials, like Abbas Zaki and Saeb Erekat, have recently called for a “strategic dialogue with Iran.” Others, including Jibril Rajoub and Abbas’s deputy, Mahmoud Al-Aloul, are linked to the Tanzim faction.
The future could see greater Iranian influence in the Fatah-ruled West Bank—a possibility that has been ignored by many analysts and media commentators. History shows that the two can work together—with disastrous results.
(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in The Jerusalem Post on May 16, 2018)