May 1, 2007
by Hillel Frisch - Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies
Since the US invasion of Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran has taken on the behavior of a regional hegemon. Indeed, Ahmadinejad speaks and acts as if he is the new leader of the Third World. Iran is setting itself up as the leader of a Mideast "axis of evil" with radical proxies and allies. An important aspect of the new Iranian "hegemonic" reach is Teheran's growing alliance with Hamas. The marriage between the two dates back to January 2006, when both Iran and the Palestinian Authority (PA) held elections. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has become an active revisionist state guided by radical religious conviction, while Hamas has captured almost complete control of the PA. This paper analyzes the implications of a radical religious coalition between Iran and Hamas.
Development of Iran-Hamas Ties
Iranian-Hamas relations went through three stages. In the late 1980s, relations between the two were only marginal, principally because Iran's attention was focused elsewhere. Iran's interests were in mobilizing Shiites in the Gulf, in supporting international terror, and in building up Hizballah with a sectarian-flavored radicalism. These actions grated on Hamas – a radical Sunni movement. Hamas also viewed Iranian support for the Jihad al-Islami, a different Palestinian faction, as a threat to its standing in the domestic Palestinian arena.
The second stage began with the invasion of Iraq in 1991 and its subsequent containment. Though US policy spoke of dual containment, the containment policy was imposed far more harshly on Iraq. Iran began to view itself as a potential regional hegemon, if not the leader of the Third World. It was the only regional power that was endowed with both a large population and plentiful natural resources. Even Turkey could not compete with that combination at a time when Egypt, the regional power in the 1960s and 1970s and Iran's natural foe, continued its relative decline under Mubarak. Iran began focusing on increasing state power and control over states guided by radical and fanatical conviction.
This change in Iranian self-perception from a religious Bolshevik revolution into a radical state power, or a Stalinization of Iranian politics, ushered in a new era of a warmer Iran-Hamas relationship. Hamas was invited to Teheran for major events. Iran began supporting the organization financially and Hizballah trained some of the 415 Hamas members, expelled by Israel in 1995 to Marj al-Zuhur, in the art of terrorism. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin repeated the egregious mistake of allowing the repatriation of terrorists, which ushered in a new era of terrorism. New heights of lethalness arose: the advent of the suicide bomber.
Yet even in the 1990s, Hamas was still a minor world player – a movement with an estimated 50 million dollar budget. The PLO-controlled Palestinian Authority stole the international limelight. Hamas' star, increasingly luminous before Oslo, began to dim as the PA took root. Hamas was forced to reduce terrorism significantly in the latter half of the 1990s, culminating in its expulsion from Jordan in 1999 and its bifurcation. Part of the organization was located in relatively distant Damascus (a fate that the PLO had also experienced); while the other branch operated in the West Bank and especially in the Gaza Strip.
During this period (1993 to 2000), Hamas also suffered from limited public support. Palestinian pollsters consistently found that a mere 14-18 percent of the respondents supported Hamas, while double the percentage of respondents supported Fatah. For this reason, Hamas refrained from participating in the Palestinian elections of 1996.
Iran found it far more worthwhile to invest in Hizballah, located in post-Taif agreement Lebanon, rather than Hamas. If it adroitly played its cards right, Iran could possibly dominate a state bordering Israel.
The Transformation of the Iran-Hamas Relationship
Changes on the world stage in the new century transformed the Iran-Hamas relationship for a third time. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, coupled with Palestinian violence since 2000, culminated in an electoral victory for Hamas in January 2006. Palestinian violence, but more critically the death of Arafat and Hamas' realization that it had been beaten by Israeli counterterrorism, caused the group to take the political realist route.
The election victory demonstrated that Hamas, in capturing a quasi-state, could help Iran become the power behind the proxies in its quest for regional hegemony. The new Hamas-led government increasingly gravitated towards Iran, as Iran increasingly cooperated with Hamas.
A Prognosis for the Alliance
Hamas, because it is in a more vulnerable position, is playing a more cautious game. Hamas appreciates the importance of Egypt as a lifeline to Gaza, and is being careful not to overly antagonize Cairo. Thus far, Egypt is cooperating with Hamas despite its alliance with Iran, because Egypt still regards Israel as a major threat, in a classical balance of threat calculation. This relationship could change, however, if Iran's power and Palestinian ties to al Qaeda terrorism in the Sinai, increase. The abduction of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston by groups possibly linked to al Qaeda in March 2007, and their involvement in numerous bombings of internet cafes and Christian centers in Gaza, might result in a change of attitude in Egypt towards the Islamic threat in general and towards Hamas in particular.
Hamas cannot disregard the implications of a potential moderate Sunni state alliance between Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As Palestinian political analyst Abdullah Hourani recently noted in an issue of Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, Hamas hardly expressed enthusiasm for the Hizballah victory – partially because the triad between Iran, Hizballah and Hamas is characterized by jealousy, as is the case between most power–proxy relationships. The latter usually vie for the attention and benefits that the power has to offer. It is interesting to note that Iranian-Hizballah involvement in terrorism usually occurred with renegade Fatah groups rather than with Hamas.
Hamas also appreciates the value of its unity government with Fatah. Hamas faced the hostility of the nationalist and more secular Palestinian camp (Abbas and Fatah) combined with the opposition of the US, Jordan and Israel – a formidable array of foes. For these reasons, Hamas is wisely keeping open the exit option from the Iranian-Syrian alliance by avoiding the harming of US citizens and interests in Gaza, by refraining from international terror, and by refraining openly from identifying with al Qaeda.
Iran, by contrast, is heading towards disaster as it treads the same road taken by Muhammad Ali in the first half of the nineteenth century, Jamal Abd al-Nasser a century later, and Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. While Iran might have the motivation, it lacks the capabilities necessary to challenge a vastly uneven international playing field, in which power at the center in the past two centuries has only rotated between "northern" players rather than having diversified or spread more evenly. If the Soviet Union caved in to the United States, albeit after a long challenge, Iran, which is both less endowed with human and natural resources, can hardly challenge this basic fact of international life.
What Can Hamas Do?
Sooner or later, Iran will face the brute power of the United States – under either a Republican or Democratic administration, or before or after Teheran acquires the bomb – and the outcome will be all too apparent. By that time, Hamas might decide it better to join the West in negotiating peace, rather than being part of the attempt to beat it, and suffer defeat in return.
To achieve that peace requires a change in Hamas mindset, from a pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism of conquest, to a pan-Arabism of creative opportunity. The basis of this new pan-Arabism might be some form of Jordanian-Palestinian federation which will allow the Palestinians access to the opportunities they could derive from a more friendly relationship with moderate Jordan and the wealthy Gulf States.
At the present moment, the emergence of a more benign, "creative pan-Arabist" Palestinian orientation appears far-fetched. However, after the failures of successive Fatah-dominated governments, a Hamas-dominated government, and the present unity government, coupled with failures on the terror front, Palestinians, including Hamas, might reconsider a different approach, even though this change is hardly inevitable.
Dr. Hillel Frisch, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University, focuses on Palestinian and Arab politics.