The Hamas coup against the Palestinian Authority in Gaza was a monumental event, not just for the Palestinians, but also for its patron Iran. Much like its sponsorship of Hizbullah’s war against Israel in 2006, Iran has demonstrated, this time through its Palestinian client Hamas, that Iran is fast becoming a regional power.
The relationship between the devout Palestinian Sunni organization and its Shi’ite patron is a complicated one. Ties date back to December 1990, when Hamas’ leaders paid Iran an official visit and attended a conference in support of the first Palestinian intifada. Thanks to Iranian perseverance and financing, as well as a shared interest in Israeli bloodshed, ties between Hamas and Iran have grown stronger in recent years. Today, the relationship is no longer one of convenience. Hamas is now a strategic asset for the Islamic Republic.
The Three Stages of Iran-Hamas Ties
Ties between Iran and Hamas have gone through three discernible stages. In the first stage, beginning in the late 1980s, relations were marginal. Iran focused its attention on rallying Shi’ite support in the Gulf, encouraging and sustaining international terror, and building up Hizbullah, its Shi’ite arm in Lebanon. Due largely to sectarian differences, Hamas had little to do with Iran. Hamas also bristled at Iran’s support for its rival, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which openly challenged Hamas for popular support in the Palestinian street.
The second stage began with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Following Iraq’s defeat, Iran saw itself as a budding regional power. Iran’s ties to Hamas grew stronger after October 1992, when a Hamas delegation led by Dr. Musa Abu Marzook visited Tehran for meetings with key Iranian figures, including the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei. According to some reports, Iran pledged an annual $30 million subsidy to Hamas, in addition to a promise of weapons and advanced military training at revolutionary guard facilities in Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan. The following year, Hamas opened an office in Tehran, proclaiming that Iran and Hamas shared an “identical view in the strategic outlook toward the Palestinian cause in its Islamic dimension.”
Stronger ties notwithstanding, Iran stilled viewed Hamas during the post-Gulf War period as a pawn in its regional ambitions. This may have stemmed from the fact that Hamas had the support of only 14 to 18 percent of the Palestinian population. Additionally, Hamas may have appeared weak to Tehran after it was expelled from Jordan in 1999, leading to the subsequent dichotomy between its West Bank and Damascus leaders. Thus, Iran chose to invest more in Hizbullah, which was growing stronger in Lebanon, thanks to successful, Iran-sponsored attacks against Israeli soldiers in Israel’s self-imposed security zone in Southern Lebanon.
The third stage of Iran-Hamas ties, beginning in the year 2000, transformed a lukewarm relationship into a full-blown alliance. The second intifada (2000), the American invasion of Iraq (2003), Yasir Arafat’s death (2004), and Hamas’ electoral victory (2006) have all drawn Iran closer to its Palestinian client. These events—particularly Hamas’ rise to power—demonstrated to Tehran that Hamas could be a powerful tool to help Iran realize its quest for regional domination.
Hamas also stood to gain from the relationship. After the international community isolated the newly elected Hamas government in 2006, its leadership gravitated toward Iran for support. Hamas Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh in December 2006 admitted that, “Iran constituted ‘strategic depth’ for the Palestinians.” It has since been speculated (primarily by officials in the rival Palestinian Authority) that Iran helped plan the Hamas coup in June 2007 and its violent takeover of Gaza.
Iranian Financial Support
Iran supports Hamas as a means to gain leverage over the group and establish a relationship akin to what it has with Hizbullah in Lebanon. Iran has primarily gained this leverage through financing. Indeed, Iran is Hamas’ main backer, eclipsing Sunni Arab patron states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.
Since 1993, Iran has provided Hamas an annual subsidy of approximately $30 million, in addition to military training. In January 1995, outgoing Director of the Central Intelligence Committee James Woolsey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran had provided more than $100 million to Hamas, but did not provide a timeframe for when those funds were provided.
More recent assessments indicate that Iranian funding has increased significantly, particularly after Hamas’ January 2006 electoral victory. Immediately following the elections, Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal visited Iran and re-affirmed the joint agenda of advancing radical Islam. “Just as Islamic Iran defends the rights of the Palestinians,” he said, “we defend the rights of Islamic Iran. We are part of a united front against the enemies of Islam.” The following month, Iran pledged aid to the new Hamas-led government, and a Hamas spokesman in the West Bank confirmed that Iran “was prepared to cover the entire deficit in the Palestinian budget, and [to do so] continuously.”
By November 2006, amidst an international embargo against Hamas, the organization announced that Iran had already given $120 million. During a visit by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to Tehran the following month, Iran pledged $250 million in aid to compensate for the Western boycott. The funds were earmarked to pay the wages of civil servants, bankroll Hamas security forces, and compensate Palestinian families that lost their homes during Israeli military operations.
Iran’s support of Hamas extends beyond domestic financial aid. Hamas Interior Minister Said Sayyam visited Iran in October 2006 and received generous pledges of financial and military aid for Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Hamas’ security force commander, Jamal Isma’il Daud Abdallah, also known as Abu Ubaida Al-Jarrah, further announced that Iran pledged to train operatives in its police training camps.
Iran’s Levant Clients
The alliance with Hamas is a key part of Iran’s larger Levant strategy whereby it acquires powerful regional clients to sow the seeds of the Islamic revolution. This strategy is intended to bring Iran one step closer to establishing a caliphate that would spearhead a pan-Islamic jihad against the West, most notably the United States and Israel.
Hamas is an ideal client for Tehran because both Hamas and Iran share an ideological Islamist weltanschauung. Indeed, Hamas does not only seek an Islamic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Rather, it seeks to create an Islamic state to replace Israel as a first step in re-establishing the caliphate.
Similar to the way in which Iran uses Hizbullah in Lebanon, Iran now uses Hamas to foment conflict. In some cases, Iran may coordinate the two groups’ activities. For instance, Hamas’ kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and its rocket assaults against southern Israel in June 2006 was followed closely by Hizbullah’s kidnapping of two IDF soldiers in northern Israel. These events precipitated the 2006 Lebanon war, which could also be described as the First Israeli-Iranian war.
Iran’s Levant strategy does not end with Israel. Through its growing base in Gaza, Hamas now directly threatens the secular Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas also poses a less direct threat to Egypt, which now fears that a Hamas state on its border could destabilize its population. Indeed, a majority of Egyptians are believed to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which Hamas was founded. Jordan is also concerned about the rise of Hamas. It, too, has a large (Palestinian) population that supports the Muslim Brotherhood, as seen in the popularity of the unofficial Brotherhood party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF).
More broadly, many Sunni Arab regimes fear Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. In 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan expressed concerns about a powerful “Shi’ite Crescent” that would stretch from Iran, into the newly empowered Shi’ite majority in Iraq, through Syria, whose ruling Alawite minority elite is commonly recognized as Shi’ite, and into Lebanon whose Shi’ite population is growing stronger, thanks to Iran and Hizbullah. Echoing Abdullah’s concerns, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak stated in April 2006 that, “Shi’ites are always loyal to Iran and not to the countries in which they live.” Saudi Arabia also appears concerned. The Kingdom recently pledged assistance to the Hamas government, but demanded that Hamas first distance itself from Iran.
By providing financial and military support to traditional Shi’ite clients like Hizbullah in Lebanon, and newer Sunni clients like Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Iran is rapidly expanding its influence in the Middle East and changing the rules of the game. Driven by its desire to achieve the status of a world Islamic power, Iran is now a uniting force between Sunni and Shi’ite radical groups. This new bloc of Iranian allies not only poses a threat to the West, it challenges the moderate states of the Middle East, who used to fear a “Shiite Crescent” spanning from Iran through Lebanon. Threats of a crescent are now replaced by a wider fear of Iran-sponsored radicalism that spans the region. Indeed, the influence of Iranian radicalism knows no boundaries, thanks to Tehran’s increasingly pragmatic approach toward Sunni groups.
The Hamas-Iran relationship, particularly following the coup in Gaza this summer, has also rendered traditional approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict obsolete. Now that Iran has become a primary actor, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer viewed as a battle waged primarily over land. The radical ideologies of Iran and Hamas have now ensured that this bitter battle for land will be eclipsed by the growing struggle between Islamism versus the West.
Meyrav Wurmser is director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.