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IRA would find Iran link hard to resist: Libyan connection did little political harm to the terrorists. David McKittrick reports

Over the years there have been numerous reports, many of them spurious, of IRA contacts between foreign governments and terrorist movements. The organisation's basic approach is that it has been prepared to deal with almost anyone prepared to supply it with weapons or money.

Iran, with its largely negative image in the West, would probably not be the IRA's first choice of international partner. But the prospect of doing business with a powerful government with access to the most modern heavy weaponry, and large amounts of money, would be irresistible to it.

The organisation's well-known relationship with Libya in the mid-1980s appeared to cause little political damage to its reputation. Its hard-core supporters have long accepted the proposition that it must seize whatever opportunities present themselves. More surprisingly, the Libyan link did not appreciably damage its standing even in the US.

The military benefits of the Libyan connection to the IRA were immense. Several large shipments of arms gave the organisation its biggest store of weaponry, giving it enough rifles and handguns to last it into the next century.

The shipments also supplied heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns which have been used to bring down several army helicopters in south Armagh. They are also believed to have included SAM-7 ground-to-air missiles, though so far as is known these have not been used in Ulster.

Another key element in the shipments was a large quantity of powerful Semtex plastic explosives, which for the past five years has been the mainstay of the terrorist campaign in Britain. It has also been put to ingenious and lethal use in a variety of improvised mortars and grenades in Northern Ireland.

Given that the IRA has a sufficiency of rifles and handguns, its priority in recent years appears to have been the acquisition of Stinger ground-to-air missiles. The FBI has produced evidence of several IRA attempts in the US to obtain these.

The Stinger is a much more effective and more modern weapon than the SAM-7, and security sources acknowledge that its acquisition would give the terrorists a dangerous new cutting edge. The IRA may also be on the lookout for fresh stocks of explosives. Libya supplied it with large quantities of Semtex, but the material has been used in hundreds of explosions over the years and stocks will at some point run low. The organisation is known for its ability to plan its campaign for years ahead.

In any contacts with Iran it will also have been keen to obtain financial support. The organisation spends millions of pounds each year, and the authorities have been stepping up efforts to squeeze its cash flow.

Previous reports, many of them unconfirmed, have linked the IRA with the ANC in South Africa, the PLO, the Stasi secret police in East Germany, Sikh militants in Britain, and even the Mafia.

Many of these alleged connections seem groundless.

(Photograph omitted)