Iran has again surfaced on Israeli radar screens as a strategic threat to the Jewish state.
Israeli officials charged that 50 tons of weapons captured aboard a ship in the Red Sea last week were destined for the Palestinian Authority. The officials also made clear where they thought the shipment originated -- the Islamic Republic of Iran.
"There is a partnership of interests between Iran and the Palestinian Authority," said Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, who has warned for years of the Iranian threat. The Palestinian Authority "prepares itself for a military confrontation, and Iran provides the tools that could destroy Israel."
As Sneh and other Israeli officials see it, Iran wants to repeat its successful experience with Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah used Iranian-supplied arms to threaten Israeli population centers in the north, Sneh says, ultimately forcing Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon after 18 years of occupation.
So, too, the arms shipment on board the seized ship, the Karine-A, was designed to threaten areas in the heart of Israel, he says.
The Iranians have denied any connection with the Karine-A. They quoted Lloyd's List -- a British publication that gives details of vessel movements and other information dealing with the merchant shipping community -- that the vessel was owned by an Iraqi named Ali Mohammed Abbas. The Iranians also cited documents indicating that Abbas had bought the vessel from a Lebanese shipping company last August.
Lebanon, however, said Lloyd's had confused the Karine-A with a similarly named ship that still flies the Lebanese flag.
"Iran's denials are not surprising," said Iranian affairs expert Menashe Amir, head of Persian-language broadcasts on Israel Radio. "Iran always denies its armed support of terrorist organizations, but confirms its ideological support."
For years, Iran supplied arms to Hezbollah and trained its fighters on Iranian soil to be guerrillas and terrorists. Over the years, Iran also has provided ample financial support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
At one point the Palestinian Authority, which sometimes appears to consider the two terror groups as threats to its control, complained that Iran had given Hamas $1 million to carry out armed attacks against Israel.
Some Israeli security experts, among them Maj. Gen. Alik Ron, former chief of police in Israel's northern region, have expressed concern that Iran has reached out to Israeli Arabs, using Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah operatives as intermediaries.
Prior to the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, Iran was openly critical of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, calling him a traitor for pursuing the peace process with Israel. After the intifada began, Iran "rehabilitated" Arafat. He subsequently met with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who encouraged him to continue with the armed struggle against Israel.
Last April, representatives of the Palestinian Authority were invited to a conference in Tehran of the so-called Palestinian rejectionist movements, which oppose the entire peace process with Israel. At the conference, Iranian officials said the anti-Israeli front should intensify its activities to take advantage of Israel's "state of instability and weakness."
Iran's supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called in a recent speech for the destruction of Israel, which he described "as a malignant tumor that must be pulled out of the Islamic soil."
And Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran who still holds an influential position in the country, spoke last month of the need to annihilate Israel with nuclear weapons.
After Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres complained to the United Nations, Iran issued a statement saying Rafsanjani had been misinterpreted. True, an internal debate in Iran over the need for greater democratization has also affected some attitudes toward Israel. Lately, some have argued that Iran does not need to be more extreme than the Palestinians themselves, who ostensibly are willing to make peace with Israel.
Some Israeli officials wonder whether the United States has focused too much on Iraq and has been blind to the threat posed by Iran.