One week of popular protests in Iran has brought into stark focus the country's deep internal divisions, along with widespread resentment towards the mullahs, which have remained relatively dormant since regime forces brutally quashed the Green Revolution in 2009. What started last Thursday in the city of Mashhad as a small economic rally—with participants primarily venting frustration over the lack of trickle-down effect from some $100 billion in sanctions relief granted to Tehran in the 2015 nuclear deal—has morphed into nationwide, deadly demonstrations against the rulership of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Iran protests grow, death toll mounts, January 2, 2018. (REUTERS)
Across Iran chants of "death to the dictator" have become common refrain as pictures of the ayatollah are set on fire. Among the many grievances being aired is anger over the Islamic Republic's deep military, and thus financial, involvement in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, in addition to support for Lebanese-based Hezbollah. Somewhat less pronounced is the regime's bankrolling of the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, although protesters have reportedly recited slogans such as 'Let go of Palestine' and 'Forget Palestine' while invoking the Gaza Strip in particular.
In this respect, relations between Shiite Iran and Sunni Hamas have thawed since the former froze ties with Gaza's rulers after they refused to support the Assad government at the onset of the Syrian war. Now, Tehran's renewed funding of Hamas is part and parcel of the Islamic Republic's attempt to increase its regional influence and, on the micro level, its presence along Israel's borders. The latter entails accelerating Hezbollah's militarization in Lebanon and establishing a permanent presence in Syria, including the entrenchment of Shiite proxies in the Golan Heights.
According to Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser (ret.), former director general of the Israeli Ministry of International Affairs and Strategy, Iran's growing involvement in Gaza is based on a convergence of interests. "On the one hand, Hamas has become weaker as it lost the ability to rely on its usual supporters, while its effort to forge unity with the Palestinian Authority appears to have failed. "On the other hand," he explained to The Media Line, "the Iranians want to increase the strength of the 'resistance' axis that opposes Israel and promotes radical Islamic ideology and Hamas can be a useful ally in this cause."
Brig. Gen. (res.) Eli Ben Meir, who served as the IDF's chief intelligence officer, agrees that Iran is making inroads in the Strip to fill the vacuum created by Hamas' isolation, but also in response to developments in the north. "There is a potential for escalation in Syria," he told The Media Line, "as Israel has repeatedly talked about enforcing its red lines [and reportedly carried out multiple strikes against Iranian assets to uphold them]. So Tehran is sending a message that such action can be met with a response from Gaza."
In fact, there has been a marked uptick in rocket attacks against Israel emanating from the Palestinian enclave since US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the Jewish state's capital. However, in the wake of last week's apparent targeting of a ceremony honoring an IDF soldier whose remains are being held by Hamas, multiple Israeli officials have publicly accused Tehran of deliberately raising tensions.
For his part, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman released a video in which he slammed the Islamic Republic for working to "destroy" Gaza while "hurting Israel as much as possible." Intelligence Minister Israel Katz referred to the Strip as a "ticking time bomb" caused by a "direct Iranian intervention," with Tehran allegedly having supplied some of the mortars fired at southern Israeli towns. Former defense chief Moshe Ya'alon warned that Iran, empowered by military successes throughout the region, is likely to shift some of its attention towards subverting Israel.
On Monday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot revealed that Tehran has increased its funding to Hamas and Islamic Jihad from an estimated $70 million to $100 million annually in order to exert more influence over Gaza. Nevertheless, he described as "irresponsible" those calling for a stronger response to attacks, while confirming that the IDF is "carrying out various covert and open efforts including [the] promotion of restraining factors."
Indeed, there appears to be disagreement within the Israeli political and military establishments over how to deal with the growing threat from Gaza, where the Jewish state has fought three wars over the past decade.
"There are three main courses of action that Israel can take," Ben Meir explained to The Media Line. "The first is a full-scale operation that involves throwing Hamas out of the Strip. The second is conducting low-intensity warfare, a tit-for-tat approach—such as responding to rocket fire with airstrikes—in order to contain the situation. And the third option is finding a way to dramatically change the severe civilian economic conditions."
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Israela Oron, who as a member of Israel’s National Security Council devised strategies to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, highlighted to The Media Line the difficulties of balancing these options. "Israel does not want to appear weak by having no answer to Iranian provocations so at times there is a need to act, especially to prevent the other side from gaining new capabilities that can change the status quo. The difficulty is when to decide to do something serious about preparations to attack Israel."
Meanwhile, Oron believes Jerusalem should take meaningful steps to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza, "including putting pressure on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to provide some of the things he promised to Hamas, like lifting sanctions on the Strip. The more Hamas' back is pushed to the wall," she continued, "the greater the immediate danger and the likelihood it becomes fully dependent on Iran."
As per the chances of a full-blown conflict breaking out, most analysts agree that the prospect is presently unlikely. "Hamas still considers calm in Gaza as a better deal than escalation," Kuperwasser contended to The Media Line. "They tried war three times under much better conditions, when the Muslim Brotherhood was a stronger regional player. But it failed repeatedly, so what is the point of moving towards another conflict?"
As such, Iran is liable to keep fostering instability in Gaza, thereby keeping Israel on edge, until such time the circumstances become more favorable. "Tehran will fan the flames until ultimately there is a confrontation," Ben Meir concluded, "as Israel then pays a price not only in casualties but also in terms of public opinion and diplomatically in the international community. Such a scenario would also widen the gap between Israel and Sunni countries, which have aligned in the fight against Tehran."
For the moment, then, the Iranian regime will likely follow the blueprint of Hezbollah in Lebanon, effectively building up the military capacities of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad with a view to increasing its control over Gaza and, eventually, using that leverage to advance its regional ambitions, including harming Israel.