A Winter of Discontent for Hamas and Iran

The growing rift between Hamas and Iran indicates a power struggle for Palestinian Jihad.

By NICHOLAS SAIDEL
January 25, 2012 21:02
PRIME MINISTER Erdogan and Hamas leader Haniyeh

PRIME MINISTER Erdogan and Hamas leader Haniyeh 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

¬The political upheaval of the Arab Spring has caused alliances and interests in Gaza to take a dramatic shift. Whereas in the past Hamas was defined by its steadfast ties to, and support from, Iran, we are now witnessing its repositioning away from the Persian Shi'ite state and towards an expanding Turkish-led bloc of Sunni states.

This transition has been especially painful for the rising Shi'ite population in Gaza. Last week, it was reported that masked Hamas militants stormed a house in Gaza where around 30 Shi'ite worshippers were performing a religious ceremony, brutally beating some and taking others in for interrogation. In a statement that ironically brings to mind Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's laughable claim that Iran has no homosexuals, Hamas' Interior Ministry declared that Palestine is a Sunni country in which Shi'ism does not exist. 

As Iran slides further toward conflict with the West and Sunni states–including Saudi Arabia—over its nuclear program, perhaps this barefaced attack on Iran's co-religionists was Hamas' less-than-subtle signal to the Arab world that Hamas no longer considers Iran its primary ally in the region. 

The rift between Hamas and Iran began in earnest around June of last year, when Hamas refused to hold rallies in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria in support of the Assad regime - Iran's chief ally in the region. Based in Damascus since the late 1990s and enjoying the full support of the Assad regime, Hamas made a very difficult and strategic choice - and most likely the correct one. Siding with Assad and his brutal crackdown of protesters calling for democratic reform was siding with a sinking ship. Just as significant, Assad's Alawi regime (Alawi being a heretical sect related to Shi'ite Islam) was massacring Sunni Arabs - the natural allies of the Palestinians and, at around 70 percent, also the majority of the Syrian population.

The battlegrounds of Homs, Daraa, and Hama are all predominantly Sunni towns. The army defectors who joined the 'Free Syrian Army' are also by and large Sunni. Hamas saw the writing on the wall and realized the next Syrian regime would most likely be Sunni. To borrow a phrase from the Obama administration, Hamas decided to be on the "right side of history" - a position that will prove to be advantageous once President Bashar al-Assad is gone and a Sunni-led government takes his place.

Other factors were in play as well. Domestic pressure was exerted on Hamas as reports of Palestinians being killed in Syria exacerbated the anger of Gazans - some of whom still remember the Hama massacre of 1982 in which tens of thousands of Sunnis were killed by Bashar's father, Hafez. Hamas also has an interest in preserving and reaffirming its conservative Sunni identity since its parent, the Muslim Brotherhood, is rapidly gaining traction in places like Egypt, where the group now has new headquarters, and renewed funding and support. 

This tactical shift is already bearing fruits in the Sinai Peninsula, where overwhelmed Egyptian forces are yielding to Hamas sympathizers and Bedouin smugglers - creating a safe haven for terrorist groups and new arms routes to Gaza.

Let’s not forget that Iran's increasing isolation on the world stage was also likely seen as an albatross to Hamas' aspiration to be a globally recognized voice of the Palestinian people. Hamas' Iran ties became an obstacle to international recognition, funding and consolidation of power vis-à-vis its competitor in the West Bank, Fatah. 

Enter Turkey: With Egypt still reeling from its revolution and the painful process of forming a new government basically from scratch, Turkey's courtship of Hamas made the latter's disengagement from Iran that much easier. Under the leadership of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's role in the Middle East is resurging. 

Turkey has taken a surprisingly aggressive position with respect to Israeli policies—and specifically the policies involving Gaza— which came to a head during the Gaza flotilla debacle. It has dismantled the secular republican state that was the legacy of Ataturk. After a long courtship with the Assad regime, it has now denounced it (with the proactive backing of Qatar through al-Jazeera and the influential Qatari-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi).

The new Turkish pledge to give $300 million to Hamas has soothed Hamas' transition to the Sunni bloc and has paved the way for Turkish leadership in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

It could be argued that Iran saw a benefit in cutting funds to Hamas. In doing so, it decreased its foreign financial obligations in light of the new US and impending international sanctions on its central bank and oil sector. Perhaps Iran is bracing itself for a deepening economic crisis and the prospect of all out war.  However, this scenario still remains unlikely: the mullahs' legitimacy and ability to rally the masses depends, in part, on its ability to define crises as Zionist plots to disrupt Iranian "protection" of the Palestinian people. In the past, “protection” was never at the expense of spilling of Persian blood, rather it was meted out in dollars and in training of Arab fighters.  

The more likely reality is that Hamas’ defection was a major blow to Iran, and, as evidenced by another recent headline, Iran will not go down quietly. In what seems to be more than mere coincidence, the Turkish newspaper Zaman reported on Tuesday that Turkish intelligence has sent a warning that Iran's Revolutionary Guard—specifically, a cell of the al-Quds Force that is possibly collaborating with Hezbollah—is planning an attack on US interests both in Ankara and throughout the rest of the country. 

According to Turkish intelligence, Iran's extremely bold move to wage war on Turkish soil has to do with Turkey's decision to house a NATO radar system within its territory and is also due to Ankara's condemnation of the Assad regime in Syria (a condemnation that, in this case, is not just lip service: Turkey has already begun seizing Iranian arms shipments on their way to Syria.)

In summation, even a cursory perusing between the lines seems to indicate that Turkey and Iran are embroiled in a power struggle for the greatest political prize in the Middle East: Namely, command of the Palestinian jihad in Gaza.

The writer is Assistant Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his J.D. from Georgetown University and his M.A. in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. 


Related Content