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U.S. Decries Iranian Arms Shipments to Hizbollah

By Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The Clinton administration denounced Iran Thursday for escalating arms shipments to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and charged that Tehran is trying to thwart the efforts of Secretary of State Warren Christopher as he shuttles around the Middle East in search of a cease-fire.

The third planeload of supplies in 10 days arrived in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, according to senior U.S. officials. The Iranian 747 contained crates of arms, including the Katyusha rockets that are among the weapons Hezbollah guerrillas continue to fire across the Lebanese border into northern Israel.

Iran's cargo planes are landing at the Damascus International Airport, the same airport where the blue-and-white U.S. Air Force plane carrying Christopher and his staff land on his shuttle diplomacy stops.

In an telephone interview Thursday, Iranian deputy foreign minister Javad Zarif called the report of the weapons shipments "a baseless allegation. We have increased our humanitarian aid to Lebanon after the recent Israeli aggression because of the increasing need of people for assistance and because they have been displaced." Zarif was in New York for a debate on Lebanon at the United Nations.

But a senior U.S. official claimed Thursday that Iran is not only pumping up assistance to its Lebanese allies and trying to undermine the peace process, but also to see to it that Christopher, the most outspoken U.S. official critical of Iran, experiences "pain, agony, embarrassment and failure" as he seeks a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.

From Iran's perspective, the heightened conflict between Israel and Lebanon has offered a rare opportunity to exert control in an area from which it has increasingly been excluded, U.S. officials say.

Hezbollah fighters were at a training camp outside Tehran in March, U.S. officials say, and Pentagon sources suspect the training was in preparation for new attacks. In the past, Hezbollah fighters have been trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, which abuts the Syrian border.

Keeping Hezbollah trained and supplied with Katyushas and other weapons allows Iran's allies to sustain pressure on Israel as well as on other parties involved in one of the Mideast's most volatile spots. U.N. military observers in Lebanon say 1,100 Katyushas have been fired at Israel over the past two weeks, and there is no indication that Hezbollah faces any imminent weapons shortage - or any reason to agree to a cease-fire, U.S. officials say.

Zarif insisted that Iran is trying to end rather than fuel the conflict, just as it was "instrumental in obtaining the 1993 understanding that ended that round of attacks.