With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal refused to take the side of President Bashar Assad, and Hamas’ political leadership found itself at loggerheads with Iran.
As a result, Hamas was forced to transfer its headquarters from Damascus to Doha, Qatar. Since then Hamas’ political leadership has kept a distance from Iran, claiming that it is “neutral” in the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites and that it does not take a side in the Iranian-Saudi conflict over Middle Eastern hegemony, including Saudi Arabia’s attempts to check Iranian expansion.
Notwithstanding the deep-seated dispute between Mashal and the Iranian leadership, Iran has continued to support the Hamas military wing, Izaddin al-Qassam – also at loggerheads with Mashal since Operation Protective Edge two years ago – with money and weapons.
Iran, however, is not sitting on its hands. It is now resuming its courtship of Hamas in an attempt to add it to the Shiite camp and restore its former ties with the movement.
The courtship of Hamas is part of Iran’s attempt to divide the Sunni world, improve its relations with the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood in the context of improving its relations with Turkey, and also to promote the possibility of a temporary political settlement in Syria with U.S.-Russian consent.
Iran, it is worth recalling, was among the first countries to express support for Turkish President Erdogan’s government once it turned out there had been a coup attempt against him.
Iran is also trying to build ties with Qatar. Recently Ali Larijani, head of the Iranian Shura Council, paid a visit to Doha.
According to a September 2, 2016, report in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Iran initiated a meeting between a senior Iranian official and a Hamas representative in Lebanon.
The participants were Muhammad Majidi, senior adviser at the Iranian embassy in Lebanon, and Ali Baraka, who represents Hamas in that country.
The Iranian message conveyed at the parley was that Iran has not ceased its support for Hamas and for the Palestinian problem, to which Iran assigns the utmost importance.
According to Iranian sources, a large Hamas delegation is supposed to visit Tehran soon. The Iranians are prepared for the fact that it will include Mashal, but they insist that it also include Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a member of the Hamas Political Bureau.
Mahmoud al-Zahar: Iran’s Representative in Hamas
Al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official who was one of the founders of the movement along with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is in the full sense of the word Iran’s representative in the Hamas political leadership. Al-Zahar does not try to hide this fact and is indeed proud of it.
He takes every possible opportunity to praise Iran in the media. In total contrast to Mashal, who is chairman of the Political Bureau, al-Zahar thinks the Hamas leadership should clearly side with Shiite Iran despite the fact that Hamas is a Sunni movement, because Iran, not the Arab states, is the main supporter of the Palestinians.
About a month and a half ago, al-Zahar harshly berated Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas after Abbas met in Paris with Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi. Al-Zahar called Abbas “an agent of the West,” exactly as senior Iranian officials have dubbed him.
Al-Zahar’s views reflect the Iranian stance, which, because of Iran’s opposition to the Oslo agreements, rejects any reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Iran also supports Hamas’ attempts to expand into the West Bank.
On September 4, the website karamapress.com reported that al-Zahar had recently met secretly with commanders of the Hamas military wing, and had expressed his staunch opposition to a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation that would entail Abbas’ return to Gaza.
“If such a thing happens,” al-Zahar reportedly vowed, “I will resign from the Hamas movement and form a new movement.”
It is highly probable that despite Iran’s courtship, Hamas will continue its current cautious policy of not taking a side in the Shiite-Sunni conflict – or, in other words, the Iranian-Saudi struggle.
At the end of this year, Hamas is supposed to hold internal elections for the chairmanship of the Political Bureau. The movement’s regulations prohibit Mashal from serving more than two terms. According to Hamas sources, he will be given a respectable position in the movement’s leadership but will have to allow someone else to replace him in his current post.
On September 5 the newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, citing a knowledgeable person in Hamas, reported that an agreement exists in Hamas to choose Ismail Haniyeh as Mashal’s successor and that Haniyeh will soon travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj; there he will deal with the issue of the upcoming elections for Political Bureau chairman. However, others in Hamas claim that this report is tendentious, noting that the paper is seen as Saudi Arabia’s mouthpiece.
One of the main contestants for the post is Yahya Sinwar, who along with Muhammad Deif, heads Hamas’ military wing. Deif was seriously injured in IDF bombardments during Operation Protective Edge.
If Sinwar is elected chairman of the Political Bureau it will be a great victory for Iran, since he is one of its main backers in the movement’s leadership.
But until the verdict is reached on who will be the next Political Bureau chairman, the movement’s current policy is likely to continue without a renewed warming of ties with Iran.