IRAN’S SUPREME LEADER Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The West needs to be careful not to let Iran gain from the crisis with Qatar.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The decision taken last week by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates to sever ties with Qatar over its support for Islamist organizations and proximity to Iran is the latest episode in the long-running game of thrones between Riyadh and Tehran. It also illustrates what Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy has identified as a new geopolitical divide in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab uprisings, between countries which “advance their foreign interests through support of Islamists, and those whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists.”
With Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir urging Doha to terminate its financial backing of the Hamas regime in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, this diplomatic furor also threatens the political and economic stability of the Gaza Strip. This in turn risks a military escalation with Israel as in 2014, where deteriorating material conditions incentivized armed confrontation. In this respect, the financial diminution of Hamas constitutes a double-edged sword which will require astute political management.
Doha’s eviction of Hamas officials earlier this week also disrupts the organization’s strategic orientation, depriving it of Arab sponsorship.
Qatar’s impending exit from the Palestinian arena, however, creates an opportunity for the re-entry of Iran. In May, the London-based Asharq al-Awsat reported that a deal – coordinated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah – was reached in principle to restore Tehran’s financial support for the Hamas government. This would end the protracted tensions which emerged after Hamas backed the opposition to the Assad regime in 2012. (Though in January 2016 a leaked telephone conversation of Hamas’s former deputy head, Moussa Abu Marzouk, suggested the group’s political wing had received no assistance from Iran since 2009.) Central to this renewed fraternity has been the election of Ismail Haniyeh as the director of Hamas’ political bureau.
Indeed, Asharq al-Awsat reported in September 2016 that Iran actively sought the election of Haniyeh. The Islamic Republic’s factional preferences extend within the Hamas movement itself, transcending its enmities with the Palestinian Authority.
On May 29 Ali Larijani, head of the Iranian Islamic Consultative Assembly, congratulated Haniyeh. This was preceded by warm felicitations from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Gen.
Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards. In this context, President Donald Trump’s public denunciation of Hamas as a terrorist organization at the Riyadh Summit polished the path to rapprochement, potentially transforming the organization once again into an Iranian proxy.
Iran’s upcoming re-entry into the Palestinian arena should be considered alongside its wider strategic projection across the Levant. The concentration of IRGC-backed militias in the Syrian Golan is critical to the contiguous territorial corridor Iran is developing from Tehran to Beirut. As Jerusalem Post columnist Seth Frantzman has reported, the recent advances of the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) on the Syria-Iraq border solidify this military reality and enhance Iran’s strategic maneuverability. Indeed, Soleimani’s message welcomed Hamas’s partnership in the “resistance axis.” This is politically significant because renewed sponsorship of Sunni Islamists enables Iran to revive its pre-Arab Spring position of having a cross-sectarian agenda against Israel, shifting international perceptions away from its current Shi’ite proxy operations.
Assuming Iran compensated Gaza’s rulers for the inevitable diplomatic fallout with Egypt (Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar was summoned to Cairo on June 4), Hamas would conceivably emerge as a potent unit in Iran’s incipient efforts to strategically encircle the Jewish state and upset American and Gulf efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the PA. Normalization of ties with Tehran would likely harden the group’s political positions, where Qatar had previously served as a moderating force.
The re-entry of Iran into the Palestinian arena coincides with the financial ascendancy of the IRGC in the aftermath of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Despite the platitudes of the European Union’s foreign affairs high representative, Federica Mogherini, about Hassan Rouhani’s alleged commitment to “regional peace,” the “re-elected” Iranian president is complicit in this agenda of aggression.
In the aftermath of his victory, Rouhani said the strength of the IRGC is “a guarantee for peace and stability in the region [and] the well-being of our people.” The shallowness of his and Zarif’s integrationist discourse is further exposed by the fact that Rouhani’s 2017-2018 budget allocated $7.4 billion to the IRGC. This amounts to 53% of the overall defense budget and constitutes a 24% increase on 2016. This was accompanied by a new five-year development plan to allocate at least 5% of government spending to the military (particularly missile production, which is controlled by the IRGC), enhancing the institution’s stranglehold over foreign policy making.
Unlike Qatar, moreover, Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups faces few external constraints due to its relative financial and political isolation. As Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institution has observed, Iran’s support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or sectarian militias in Iraq-Syria has never been driven primarily or even substantially by resource availability.
With renewed support for Hamas’s political and military wings, Iranian sponsorship could radicalize Hamas as it did during the second intifada, bolstering its ambitions to usurp the authority of the PLO.
The constantly changing geopolitical puzzle in the Middle East has seemingly provided endless opportunities for Iranian expansionism. For the sake of strategic containment, regional stability and Israeli- Palestinian peace, it is imperative the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is not permitted to establish a military foothold in yet another arena.The author is a postgraduate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He previously graduated from Oxford University. You can follow him @SapanMaini.