When Yasser Arafat arrived in Tehran on Feb. 17, 1979, the first “foreign leader” invited to visit Iran mere days after the victory of the revolution, he declared he was coming to his “own home.” There was some truth in Arafat’s flowery words. Having developed and nurtured a decade’s worth of relationships with all the major forces, from Marxists to Islamists, which had toppled the shah, he had good reason to feel like the victory of the revolution was in some part his own.
Although the heady days of February 1979 would soon give way to tensions, the Palestinians were integral to both the Islamic Revolution and to the formation of the Khomeinist regime. For Arafat, the revolutionary regime in Iran carried the promise of gaining a powerful new ally for the Palestinians. In addition, Arafat saw a chance to play the middleman between Iran and the Arabs, and to encourage them to eschew conflict with each other in favor of supporting the Palestinians in their fight against Israel. Yet it soon became clear that Arafat’s double fantasy was unattainable, and would in fact become quite dangerous to the Palestinian cause.
The relationship between the Iranian revolutionary factions and the Palestinians began in the late 1960s, in parallel with Arafat’s own rise in preeminence within the PLO. After the Iranian government crackdown of 1963, opposition groups resolved to adopt guerrilla tactics against the shah. By the end of the decade, Iranian opposition factions had made contact with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representatives in regional states including Qatar, and also Iraq, where Ayatollah Khomeini had been living since 1965. Marxist Iranian guerrilla organizations looking to receive training soon found their way to PLO camps in Jordan and South Yemen.