Iran plot to aid IRA exposed: Secret service uncovers scheme involving guns, drugs and money as Ulster violence claims more victims

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Britain yesterday confronted Iran with evidence that its agents have plotted with the Provisional IRA to supply guns and money. The evidence was pieced together during a surveillance operation by the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, which is understood to have been under way for at least a year.

The Iranian charge d'affaires, Gholamreza Ansari, was summoned for a meeting with Douglas Hogg, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, 'to convey our concern and to request an assurance at senior level that contact would be immediately and conclusively severed,' the Foreign Office said.

Mr Ansari later issued a statement, after consultation with Tehran, in which he denied any Iranian involvement in the supply of arms or money to the Provisionals.

Speculation centred last night on why the Government had chosen now to go public with the allegations. The secret Iranian-IRA contacts had apparently been monitored by British intelligence since last year - spanning the period of the Anglo-Irish peace process.

The reported Iranian link raises fresh doubts over the sincerity of recent republican protestations that Sinn Fein and the IRA are interested in peace. With a rising death toll, questions have already been raised about the ability of republican leaders to deliver their more militant supporters. Nine people have been killed by republican and loyalist terrorists in the past eight days - the ninth victim being shot in Armagh just before midnight.

The IRA made no comment on yesterday's allegations. It has substantial supplies of guns and explosives, but has for years been trying to get advanced weaponry such as Stinger ground-to-air missiles. Money is always welcome.

In summoning the charge, the Foreign Office pointed to 'press reports' that Iran was assisting the IRA in a drugs-for-guns scheme. The article appeared in the Greek newspaper Elephteros Typos on Monday. It is believed the information was leaked to that newspaper by British intelligence services, via the Greek security ministry, once Britain saw fit to crack down.

The operation's mastermind is named in the article as Amir Hossein Taghani, head of the Western European Section of MOIS, the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security. Mr Ansari acknowledged Mr Hogg had put the name to him but said he had replied that he had no knowledge of Mr Taghani.

The combination of drugs and Iran is calculated to damage the IRA's reputation in the United States, where Sinn Fein pulled off a big propaganda coup in February with the high-profile visit by Gerry Adams to New York.

British sources said yesterday that, rather than allow a 'Libyan- style' situation to develop, as when Tripoli was supplying the IRA with Semtex explosive, the British government had decided to nip the operation in the bud.

The evidence is believed to include telephone taps and surveillance of meetings throughout Europe from Germany to Greece. Informed sources said two centres of IRA-Iran collaboration were Dortmund and Munster. They said a meeting was also held in November in Tehran with the IRA, the left-wing Greek 17 November group, Corsican nationalists and ETA, the Basque separatists. It was agreed then that 17 November should serve as a conduit between the IRA and Iran, prompting secret missions by Iranians to Greece.

The Elephteros Typos article said a British intelligence team specialising in IRA surveillance was operating in Athens and had tracked down a 7bn drachma ( pounds 19m) drug consignment destined for the IRA.

Mr Ansari said last night: 'There is absolutely no contact between the intelligence services of our country and the Provisional IRA. We naturally understand that any such contact would produce a feeling of revulsion in the UK but as there is none there is no need for alarm or criticism. There is no shred of evidence to support these astonishing claims.'

Political contacts between Iran and the IRA go back a long way. Iran voiced support for the 1981 IRA hunger-strikers and changed the name of the Tehran street where the British embassy stands from Churchill Avenue to Bobby Sands Avenue. In 1987, Mr Adams visited Tehran; that same year two Sinn Fein members met members of the Iranian-backed Hizbollah in Beirut to try to win the release of the Irish hostage Brian Keenan.

It is probably coincidental, however, that the switchboard of the Iranian embassy in London has as its call-waiting music a recording of 'Molly Malone'.

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