Saeb Erekat
Saeb ErekatIsrael news photo: Flash 90

The Palestinian Authority and Iran marked a historic first last week with an official high-level meeting between representatives of the two. Senior PA negotiator Saeb Erekat met in Sharm el-Sheikh with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, on the sidelines of a meeting of non-aligned nations.

Dr. Erekat told PA media that the two had discussed internal PA issues, primary among them the ongoing tension between Fatah and Hamas. Talks between Fatah and Hamas have been mediated by Egypt, which is seen as one of Iran's primary rivals for dominance in the Middle East.

An Israeli official quoted by AFP slammed the PA, saying it apparently “has no qualms about meeting the most extremist and violent enemies of peace.”

Erekat downplayed the importance of the meeting. “It was just a regular meeting,” he told Israel Radio. Erekat noted that he had spoken to Mottaki during pan-Arab conferences earlier in the year.

While Iran's mullahs have expressed support for the PA's demand for a state of “Palestine,” Iranian representatives had not held an official meeting with the PA since it was formed in 1994. Relations were initially cool due to the PA's warm ties with Iraq, Iran's enemy, and remained cool in recent years due to Iran's strong support for Fatah rival Hamas and other Islamic groups.

PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas criticized Iran earlier this year, saying in March that the Islamic Republic should “stop interfering” in PA affairs. Iranian involvement in PA and Hamas affairs serves to increase the rift between the rival groups, he said.

Between the years 2000 and 2007, as the PA worked with Hamas and engaged in attacks on Israel, ties with Iran began to warm. In 2006, former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz revealed that Iran had secretly agreed to provide aid to the PA in exchange for permission to build bases in PA-controlled areas of Gaza, Judea and Samaria.

Also in 2006, Iran provided tens of millions of dollars to the PA after western nations cut aid in response to Hamas' prominent role in the PA leadership.