Trump’s Sectarian Strategy Will Bring Iran and Hamas Closer

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mohammad Ataie

PhD candidate in history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
June 8, 2017

The split between Iran and Hamas in the aftermath of the Syrian crisis has been the biggest challenge to Tehran’s Palestine strategy since the 1979 Revolution. Internally, it has exposed Iranian policy to questions about supporting an “ungrateful” ally; externally, it has damaged Iran’s “soft” influence in the Middle East. Despite tensions and thinly veiled criticisms of Hamas, in the past few years the doors in Tehran have remained open to Hamas’ leadership.  Now the U.S. policy of creating a Saudi-led “Sunni” coalition to isolate Iran and Trump’s siding with Saudi Arabia against Qatar after linking Hamas to terrorism during his visit to Riyadh are drawing Tehran and Hamas closer. The reason that a country with no shared borders with Israel supports Hamas and has pursued, since 1979, a costly strategy to engage with Palestinians who are neither “Persian” nor “Shia” lies in historical and geopolitical factors that do not figure much in Trump’s sectarian conception of the region.

Along with Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, Hamas has constituted a crucial element of the “Axis of Resistance,” a cross-sectarian coalition that greatly influenced the politics of the Middle East for over three decades. The crisis in Syria, which soured Hamas’s relations with President Assad, and the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt fractured the quadruple Axis. Despite Iranian efforts to mediate between the Palestinian group and Assad, and the continuation of the high-level contacts with the Hamas leadership, Tehran could not prevent the rupture between its allies. The gulf created between Hamas and Syria became deeper when Khaled Meshal raised the flag of the Syrian opposition at a Gaza rally and Hamas militants were caught fighting along with the opposition militias against the Syrian army. In the eyes of Assad, Hamas betrayed him and sided with his archenemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. From this moment on, the Syrian-Hamas split was also an Iranian problem.

This was in many ways reminiscent of the conflict in the mid-1980s between Hafez al-Assad and Yasser Arafat, which immediately spilled over into the PLO’s relationship with Iran. Consequently, the much-hoped-for Arafat-Khomeini axis came to an early end, though not revolutionary Iran’s engagement with the Palestinian struggle. Iran’s alternative to the Palestinian Liberation Organization were the emerging Islamic movements in Palestine: Islamic Jihad and Hamas. As Tehran and Damascus consolidated their partnership in the 1990s, Iran’s support for the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance forces became increasingly linked to its alliance with Syria. After years of tension and conflict between Hezbollah and Damascus and its Lebanese proxies, by the end of the 1980s, through Iranian mediation, Hezbollah accepted Syrian control over Lebanon. Similarly, the Iranian clerics managed to cement the axis further by interceding between Hamas Islamists and the secular Baathists who had crushed the Islamic opposition in Syria.

When, in early 2012, Hamas quietly abandoned its base in Syria, the reaction in Damascus and Tehran was vociferous. Although Iran’s official reaction was subdued, Meshal was the target of sharp criticism in the Iranian media. Some conservative news websites vehemently objected to any normalization with Meshal and — after rumors about his possible visit to Tehran in 2015 — even demanded “banning him from entering Iran.” A few months ago, a general in the Revolutionary Guard, without mentioning Meshal, lambasted his group for cooperating with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and making clandestine deals with Israel.

Inside Iran, tensions with Hamas have brought to the fore an old debate about the raison d’être of engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is why this issue matters, even though Iran does not share borders with Palestine and Palestinians, as some ordinary Iranians say, are neither Persian nor Shia. While such questions are as old as the 1979 revolution, the rift with Hamas has also raised similar questions within the core constituency of the Islamic Republic. In the words of an Iranian official, “Hamas’ position of backing the Syrian opposition has made it difficult to explain our support for Hamas to the Iranian public.”

Making matters worse, a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the leader of the notorious Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq in Paris last year — and Hamas’s new political document recognizing the 1967 borders — caused a strong backlash among Iranian commentators and authors. Some argue that such actions reveal the futility of supporting the Palestinian struggle, while ‎others ridicule the government’s pro-Palestinian rhetoric and see it as a problem for the ‎national interest.

As much as it sounds like an “unnatural” and costly partnership, the enduring bonds between Iran and the Palestinian resistance and the Iranian government’s persistent support for Palestinian movements, should be analyzed against the background of the ideology of the 1979 revolution and Iran’s geostrategic concerns.

The historical context in which the Iranian Revolution unfolded explains the ideological weight of the Palestinian cause for the state, which emerged from the ashes of the imperial regime in 1979. The Revolution’s view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict developed in response to the shah’s alliance with Israel and the close intelligence cooperation between Mossad and Savak, the shah’s notorious secret police. In the 1970s, the PLO and leftists groups assisted Iranian opposition to the shah with intelligence and military training in Lebanon and Syria. Following the fall of the shah, Yasser Arafat was the first foreign leader to visit revolutionary Iran; the Israeli embassy was officially handed over to him as the Palestinian embassy in Tehran. The Palestinian cause became the centerpiece of the export of the Iranian Revolution.

Despite the ubiquitous sectarian narratives of the Iranian revolution and its international ramifications, the ideas of 1979 emphasized the unity among Muslim sects and sought to create a united Islamic front against the common enemies of the umma (the community). The Palestinian issue has been of absolute importance to this strategy. It is of the utmost symbolic significance for all Muslims and the cornerstone for any ecumenical agenda in the Muslim world. If Muslims are divided over Syria, Yemen or Bahrain, the resistance to Israeli occupation is considered a just cause that transcends sect and ethnicity. This has been central to the Iranian pan-Islamic rhetoric of unifying the Muslim community and its “soft” influence across the Islamic world. The sectarian surge in the region further underlines the values of this strategy for the ruling clerics, who seek to legitimize Iranian influence both in the region and in the eyes of Sunni communities in Iran.

Iran’s enduring bonds with the Palestinian resistance should not be reduced to mere ideology and revolutionary zeal. It is also a strategy for overcoming Iran’s ethno-religious isolation in its environment. Iran is predominantly Shia and Persian, two characteristics that have greatly shaped the Iranian identity in the modern period. Both the Pahlavis and the Islamic Republic sought to overcome such ethnic and cultural barriers to its regional influence. In contrast to the shah’s alliance with Israel, post-revolutionary Iran has stood by the Palestinian struggle as a bridge to the Arab and Sunni communities in the Middle East.

From Pakistan to Morocco, revolutionary Iran’s political influence owed greatly to its avant-garde pro-Palestinian position. Iran’s popularity has suffered, however, following its expansion in Iraq and its siding with Alawi minority rule in the wake of the Syrian uprising. Intervention in these countries has highlighted the Shii dimensions of Iran’s policies, rather than its cross-sectarian revolutionary character. Although Hamas is seen as the weakest party in the “Axis of Resistance,” for years it lent a very credible Sunni dimension to Iran’s regional policy. Following the Syrian crisis, the split with the movement has further chipped away at Iran’s soft power in a region increasingly polarized along sectarian lines.

The outgrowth of the pan-Shii dimension of Iran’s foreign policy, at the expense of its wider pan-Islamic approach, is a contradiction that partly reflects internal differences and factionalism between “reformists” and “conservatives,” who pursue a sectarian agenda. The identification of Iran’s regional policy with Shiism hampers its outreach to Sunni movements and its ability to present itself as a champion of resistance for both Sunni and Shii movements. This gives Iran’s enemies the opportunity to depict Iranians as heretic Persians and undermine Tehran’s effort to overcome the ethnic and cultural barriers to its regional influence.

Despite the tension between Iran’s pan-Shii and pan-Islamic foreign policies, the Palestinian cause will remain a cornerstone of its regional perspective. If analyzed in the context of Iran’s ethno-religious solitude in the region, “Sunni” “Arab” Palestinians are far from alien to a predominantly “Persian” and “Shii” Iran, and siding with them is crucial for legitimizing its polices in the region. This is why Tehran, unlike Assad in Syria, did not sever ties with Hamas and now has welcomed the rise of Ismail Hanieh to its leadership.

The insight of this analysis goes against the grain of the sectarian conceptions of many Western policy makers, including those in the Trump administration, who overplay the Sunni-Shii dichotomy in the Middle East. Trump, oblivious to the complexities of this region, seeks to create a “Sunni” coalition to isolate Iran and undermine its “Shii Crescent.” If designed to separate Tehran from forces such as Hamas, this approach will fail to produce the desired effect. The more pressured by the United States to stop backing “terrorists and militias” or threatened by ISIS or Saudi Arabia, the more Iran clings to its Palestinian strategy in order to cast a favorable light on its regional policies and “resistance.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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