In the wake of the latest conflict in Gaza, relations between Tehran and Hamas are on the upswing, partly cobbled together through Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iranian ally whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared support for Hamas early in the conflict.
In fact, contrary to some misleading media reports that Iran broke with Hamas more than two years ago, Tehran never completely severed ties but only temporarily reduced its support as a result of Hamas’ backing of Syrian rebels and the relocation of its foreign office from Damascus to Doha, Qatar. Iran is now fully committed to material and moral support for the Palestinian resistance against Israel.
Outraged by Israel’s atrocities in Gaza and critical of Western governments’ vocal support of Israel, Iran’s ruling elite has prioritized giving humanitarian assistance to Gaza by seeking permission from Cairo to make deliveries through the Rafah crossing, which connects the Gaza Strip to Egypt. At the same time, Iranian leaders have gone public about the extent of the country’s support for Hamas, by openly boasting of sharing missile technology with Palestinian militants (principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad), improving Hamas’ ability to hit Israeli cities with its arsenal.
In addition, according to a recent news article in the conservative Tehran daily Kayhan, Iran has provided Hamas with laser-guided anti-tank missiles, which gave serious pause to the Israeli army’s plan for deep incursions into Gaza. There are also unconfirmed reports that the Hamas drone that was hit by the Israelis in early July was modeled after Iran’s drones. Full details of Iranian arms supplies to Hamas have yet to be reported.
What is clear, however, is the Iranian leaders’ rhetorical commitment to the cause of a free state of Palestine and the importance of networking with other Muslim and Arab governments to boost support for Hamas. To that effect, on Aug. 4, Tehran used its current presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement to hold a well-attended emergency meeting of the special Palestine Committee, with representatives from 45 member states. The meeting condemned Israel’s invasion of Gaza and endorsed Algeria’s call for an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly to address the crisis.
From Iran’s vantage point, the weak international response to Israel’s perceived aggression in Gaza reflects a crisis of Arab and Muslim leadership. Tehran consequently saw fit to take the lead in denouncing Israel’s attacks and move beyond Shia-Sunni fault lines. (Rouhani has even compared Zionists to takfiris, Sunni extremists who have boldly proclaimed a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.) Iran is adamantly opposed to the U.S.-Israeli plan for the demilitarization of Gaza, and Gen. Ghasem Soleymani, commander of the Quds Force, has drawn a red line on this subject in a widely circulated message to the Palestinian resistance.
Tehran’s forceful expression of support for Hamas is likely to complicate its interests in the nuclear talks with the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — due to resume in September. Iran is determined to maintain its thousands of uranium-enriching centrifuges, which would give it a latent nuclear potential. But its support for Hamas has given hawkish U.S. lawmakers in Congress, who insist Tehran must sever its ties with the militant group, new ammunition to defeat any hope of rapprochement. Iran’s missile technology transfer to Palestinians is manna from heaven for Israel’s supporters on Capitol Hill and will likely be regarded as a prelude to nuclear sharing that could pose an existential threat to Israel.
Tehran’s renewed pro-Hamas stance, then, is a double-edged sword that could harden Washington’s position in the nuclear talks as the conflicts in Gaza and Iraq influence the parties’ agendas. When negotiations resume, Iran and the world powers need to move beyond the narrow focus on the nuclear issue and discuss regional security issues in Gaza, the West Bank, Iraq and Syria. Provided that the U.S. and its allies are ready to acknowledge Iran’s influence in the region — instead of trying to isolate the country — Tehran could use its influence with Hamas to achieve a durable, sustainable truce with Israel.
Ultimately, much depends on the outcome of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Israel is vulnerable to Hamas’ arsenals and tunnels, and Tehran wants to exploit these vulnerabilities to neutralize Israel’s military threat to Iran. If Hamas maintains its fighting ability and discipline, Iran will take credit for the victory, garner political capital in the turbulent Middle East and use the Hamas card for leverage in the nuclear talks.