This article originally appeared in the Telegraph (UK) on May 18, 2021.
Ever since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, there has been speculation about the precise connection between Hamas and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Israeli disengagement plan was supposed to produce a more stable outcome and not four Israeli-Palestinian wars. After all, the Israel Defense Forces pulled out of the Gaza Strip; all of the 9,000 settlers who lived there abandoned their homes as well. It is hard to find the basis of outstanding grievances that could justify Hamas launching salvo after salvo of rockets at Israeli population centers and devoting scarce resources to an endless war with the Jewish state.
It makes sense then to look elsewhere for Hamas’s motivation. What, for example, is the precise role of its main financial sponsor, Iran, in keeping this conflict raging? Is there an ideological imperative that everyone is missing?
Iran and Hamas are not natural allies. Hamas, according to its own charter, is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a network of Sunni organizations operating in nearly 130 countries. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been a Shiite theocracy, seeking to spread its Shiite doctrine around the Middle East and beyond at the expense of the Sunni world. Hamas had strategic ties with Sunni powers. In the late 1990s, between 50 and 70 percent of the Hamas budget came from Saudi Arabia.
But that all changed after 9/11, when Riyadh insisted that the ideological foundations of the attacks on New York and Washington came out of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today Hamas does not receive a penny from the Saudis, who have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots.
But Iran’s role in Hamas has only grown. Only last week, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau, reportedly spoke on the telephone with Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the man who replaced the notorious General Qassem Suleimani.
It is noteworthy that Hamas and Iran are communicating through individuals at the pinnacle of their power structures. There have also been monetary links. A senior Hamas official described the visit of a Hamas delegation to Tehran in 2006 which left the airport with $22 million stuffed into suitcases, and claimed that Suleimani had agreed that Iran would transfer an even larger sum.
To understand Iran’s importance to Hamas, it is critical to recall the remarks of the Hamas representative in Lebanon that “Iran is the only country that supports the resistance with money and weapons”.
The current Hamas offensive against Israel should be placed in a broader context of Iranian ambitions. It is doubtful that Hamas would launch a war in the Middle East without running the idea by its Iranian sponsors. Undoubtedly, Iran is focused on getting rid of Western sanctions in its Geneva talks with the Western powers. But will Iran moderate its behavior backing its militias across the Middle East?
An illuminating study published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change this February asserted that “the premise that Iran would moderate its commitment to creating and sponsoring militias due to the thaw in US-Iranian relations after the 2015 nuclear deal and sanctions relief for Tehran was false”. The study added that “the number of militias created by the IRGC surged after this period…”
Iran has had a militant militia doctrine for its global ambitions and Hamas fits right into that doctrine, along with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other Sunni groups. And Shiite groups like Hizbullah and the Houthis of Yemen have increased their capabilities as well. Indeed, Houthi missile attacks into the heart of Riyadh in recent years have been strikingly similar to what Israel has been enduring in the Gaza War.
It is imperative that Israel defeat Hamas in this round of conflict. But Israel’s victory would have wider implications. It is important that Iranian expansionism through Middle Eastern militias is halted.
The mistake of the 2015 nuclear deal must not be repeated, with billions of dollars going to Iran, fuelling the next wave of terrorism – including the terror of Hamas. Not only is the security of Israel at stake but the security of the wider Western alliance.