Former Hamas PM Ismail Haniyeh gestures as he delivers a speech at a rally in Tehran, Feb 11, 2012 (AP)

By Track Persia

May 24, 2021

The latest clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants that erupted for two weeks this month reflect the advancement of the military capability of the Islamist groups based in Gaza, such as Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Palestinian militant groups fired an estimated 1,600 rockets at Israel. The two-week war also indicates the ability of these groups to struck major Israeli cities and towns inside Israel including Tel Aviv, Lod and Ben Gurion airport.

As Hamas has sought to improve its military capabilities after the defeat it suffered at the hands of Israeli forces during the 2014 war that destroyed Hamas’s infrastructure, the cooperation between these groups and Tehran has intensified in the past five years. This cooperation has resulted in the Palestinian Hamas having advanced and more effective weapons, in terms of range, precision and the extent of the destruction.

According to Western intelligence officials, Iran has played a key role in helping the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas to develop the deadly weapons arsenal that the group used to target deep inside Israel during the recent war between the two parties.

Israeli defence officials estimate that Hamas and other Islamist groups based in Gaza have around 30,000 rockets and missiles. Previously, Hamas relied on short-range Qassam rockets, which have a range of about 6 miles and were used to attack the nearby Israeli seaport of Ashkelon.

Moreover, Hamas leaders are reported to have regularly visited Iran to undergo training in production and use of sophisticated weapons systems controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which is responsible for Iran’s dealings with Hamas.

Before his assassination by a US drone strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020, Qassem Soleimani, the leader of IRGC’s Quds Force, took personal charge of overseeing Hamas’s arming and military training. Subsequently, Tehran’s support to Hamas has resulted in a significant improvement in the latter’s ability to hit targets deep inside Israeli borders including Tel Aviv and Lod as well as Israel’s main airport Ben Gurion, prompting major airliners to cancel flights as a security precaution.

To achieve its ultimate expansionist goal, the Iranian theocratic regime has used Islam as a common ground with the Sunni Islamic movements in the region, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamic transnational party which strives to establish a regime close to the principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Since the success of the Islamic Revolution which was led by Iran’s late Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini in 1979, the one-man-controlled regime has supported Islamic groups such as Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. As the Iranian theocracy, these groups do not support principles of democracy, and they use democratic mechanism, such as elections, to legitimise their pursuit for power.

It is worth noting that the links between Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian radical and fundamental groups go back to the second half of the 20th century when the Iranian terrorist movement, Fadayan-e Islam which was led by Navob Safavi was inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figure Sayyid Qutb, especially because the Muslim Brotherhood supported the principle of unity between the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

Iran and Hamas: The unsteady relationship

The Iranian regime and the Palestinian Brotherhood Hamas share common goals, despite their ideological differences. However, during the so-called Arab Spring, the relationship between the Iranian theocracy and the Sunni Hamas deteriorated.  Some Iranian officials and high-ranking IRGC officers once compared Izz al-Din al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas to Iran’s Basij, a paramilitary force operating under the leadership of IRGC.

Iranian former MP and former Basij commander Javad Karimi Quddusi once stated: “The Brigades of Izz al-Din al-Qassam and Basij are under the command of Iran, not under the command of Khalid Mash’al or Isma’ail Haniya (the most senior Hamas leaders). If some countries wish to bribe the leaders of Palestine, the Brigades are under the order of Iran.”

It is no secret that Hamas receives Iranian military assistance, yet the Qassam brigades were never under the operational command of the IRGC.  Still, as Quddis’s statement indicates, Tehran’s desire is to add the Palestinian Sunni Islamist movement Hamas to its regional proxy military organisations which are predominately Shi’ite radical sectarian militias operating under IRGC.

Nonetheless, following the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising in 2011 that Tehran stands against and supports the dictatorship of Bashar Assad regime to savagely quell the Syrians against this regime, the ties between Hamas and the Iranian regime became strained. The momentum of the Arab and Muslim masses at the height of the Syrian uprising did not give Hamas a choice to stand silent and it sympathised with the Sunni Arab rebellion against Assad regime and declined to support Assad dictatorship, even though Hamas leadership was based in Damascus. This position eventually pushed Hamas leadership to leave Syria to Qatar.

The refusal of Hamas to support Assad against its people also angered the Iranian theocracy, the major regional ally of Assad, prompting it to cut off its financial and military aid to the Gaza-based movement. Khamenei’s circles did not hide their outrage at Hamas because of the movement’s position on the revolt, especially on Aleppo’s battle. It was clearly expressed by Hezbollah’s newspapers and media outlets in Lebanon, as well as by some Iranian newspapers and media sites.

Statements made by the Iranian official confirmed continuous tensions between Hamas and Iran after both sides had denied such thing, despite the conflict between the two parties was deepening. The tip of the tensions was triggered by the support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip for the Syrians during the movement’s anniversary commemoration festival, especially after the steps Hamas took against some new Shia groups in the Gaza Strip – the so-called Al-Sabirin group – which went too far with their insolence when they expressed their joy and celebrated about the occupation of Aleppo by Iranian militias under the cover of Russian aviation.

Why Hamas accepted Iranian support

The failure of Brotherhood in Egypt under President Mursi who was ousted in 2013 further placed Hamas in a dilemma. The Islamic organisation had to choose one of the two options submitted by Tehran: either find a way back to the Iranians or focus on developing relations with the Arab Gulf states. Since suffering from internal struggle and rifts over its ties with Iran, the latter has become the only ally that can supply Hamas with arms.

Iran renewed its support to Hamas in August 2015 and it placed the Islamist Sunni organisation within its ‘Resistance Front’ in the region, according to Iranian officials. The two parties agreed to resume diplomatic relations to the level at which they were before the Syrian civil war.

Finally, It is most likely that Iran will continue its military support to Hamas’s military wing and it may enhance the divide within Hamas to allow itself to have a greater room to manoeuvre. Iran also needs that relationship, not only to use it as a cover-up for its ideological attack on Israel but also to keep promoting the story of resistance and opposition, although it is no longer compelling to anyone, except for a few who wish to convince themselves to justify their positions.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.