Fatal attraction: the Hamas-Iran alliance

The Iranian regime and Hamas are currently upgrading their alliance, which is over a decade long. It is an alliance across the great Islamic divide, between a Sunni group and a Shiite regional power. Radical religious movements do not easily form alliances; they tend to fight each other, at times over small details of doctrine. On the rare occasions they do unite, it is generally to jointly suppress other schools of thought.

The contemporary strife between Sunnis and Shiites can be traced back to the 1979 revolution in Iran, a revolution that, once it was commandeered by the clergy, aspired to embrace the entire Islamic world. The huge surge of pride in, and support for, the revolution in the Muslim world, threatened Sunni religious hegemony, led by the Saudi custodians of the two holy places in Mecca and Medina.

The Saudi and Sunni reaction was not long in coming, and it led to two great victories that restored Sunni predominance in the Islamic world: a 10-year effort, where Saudi Arabia used a great deal of its resources to support the jihad in Afghanistan, leading to the defeat of the Soviet empire; and an equally substantial effort by the kingdom to spread Sunni, albeit Wahhabi, Islam through its funding of Islamic centers and mosques worldwide, and through the formation of a network of alliances. More recently, however, the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the start of a second Islamic Revolution, and with it a revival of radical aspirations dating back to the days of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the second Intifada it was assisted by the Iranian-supported Lebanese Shiite group, Hizbullah. This evolved into significant military support and financial assistance. These ties were sponsored by the Iranian regime and strengthened the relationship between Hamas and Iran. This alliance was further reinforced by the fact that senior Hamas official Khaled Meshaal is headquartered in Syria, so that the movement effectively became part of the Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah axis. However, Hamas has never submitted to the directives of its Shiite-supported benefactors.

Western states decided to freeze financial aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) after Hamas’ victory in the January Palestinian legislative elections. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, also chose to politically confront the movement, in an attempt to force Hamas to honor prior agreements between the PA and Israel. However, for Hamas changing its strategy effectively means ceasing to exist. Survival also means securing new funding, which is why Hamas’ only real option was to turn to Iran, the one government that officially and fully shares its goals. Improving the alliance was exactly what Hamas needed at that critical juncture.

Iran, for its own part, needs Hamas too – maybe even more than Hamas needs Iran. But while the Islamic Republic, in supporting the Sunni militant movement, is pursuing its own interests, Hamas, by aligning itself with Iran, is pursuing its own destruction.

The alliance with Iran will increase Hamas’ isolation from the West. But Hamas does not want to transform itself from a resistance movement into a political party. The extent of the financial aid it will receive from Tehran is also unclear: Reports range from $50 million to $100 million. But even the higher sum is hardly enough to sustain the PA, considering its yawning deficit. Hamas still hasn’t realized the difference between governing a country and supporting poor Palestinian refugees. Moreover, the alliance with Iran will cost Hamas the support of its Sunni hinterland: Saudi Arabia has already delayed the $92 million it promised the PA, releasing only $20 million at the personal request of Abbas. Thus, Hamas’ only gain from its alliance with Iran will be support for its resistance against Israel. 

The Hamas-Iran alliance is a fatal attraction. Hamas and Ahmadinejad are true “holy” warriors. As the Arabic saying goes, they are the type who fight in the khanadiq (trenches), not the fanadiq (hotels). The Hamas leadership identifies more with Ahmadinejad, the popular leader who wears second-hand jackets like they do, than with the Muslim Brotherhood sheikhs who wear expensive robes and own shares in American chain-stores, like Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradhawi. Hamas and the Iranian president share not only religious ideals and positions on Israel, but also, and especially, their social outlook. Both came to power on the basis of platforms in which they vowed, among other things, to fight corruption and respond to the needs of the poor.

At the Al-Quds conference in Tehran in mid-April, Meshaal publicly thanked the Iranian regime for its help, confirming the tighter alliance with Iran. The summit took place a few days after Ahmadinejad’s speech about progress in the Iranian nuclear program. Tehran needed the conference to demonstrate that it was not alone, and to show its deterrence capabilities. By saying that Iran was building an army of suicide bombers, Ahmadinejad wanted to make clear to the United States and Israel that it they decided to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, Hizbullah and Hamas were ready to retaliate.

As in the Persian “Shahnameh” epic, Ahmadinejad is leading the battle of the forces of good against the forces of evil – the West and Israel. In joining this battle, Hamas is entering a long dark tunnel with no way out. Now, with Fatah split and virtually dying, maybe it’s time for the Palestinian people to think about building a new national movement.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a Tunis-based Moroccan-Italian journalist. She was correspondent in the Occupied Territories during the second Intifada. Her commentaries are regularly published in the Italian daily Il Foglio. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR