A senior Hamas delegation that visited Iran in October and met with Supreme Leader Khamenei is the latest sign of the close partnership between the Sunni Palestinian terror organization and the Shi'ite Islamic Republic.
Hamas has an important role in Iran's scheme to surround Israel with Islamist, heavily armed forces, said Col. (res.) David Hacham, a former Arab-affairs adviser to seven Israeli defense ministers, and a senior research associate at the Miryam Institute. However, Hacham told the Investigative Project on Terrorism, there isn't a clear consensus within Hamas over just how far it should align with Tehran's play book.
"There is no doubt that in the recent years, there has been an improvement in Hamas-Iran ties," Hacham said. In 2011, a rift developed over the Syrian civil war, with Hamas backing Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated rebels against Iran's ally, the Assad regime.
Following that split, the former head of Hamas's political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, was expelled from Damascus. He moved to Qatar, where he re-established an overseas Hamas headquarters. Iran suspended military and economic ties to Hamas.
In 2017, new attempts were made to bridge the gap between the two sides, and Iran renewed its financial aid to Hamas. "Since 2017, the money has been flowing in without stop, and the sum is estimated to be many tens of millions of dollars per year," Hacham added.
The reconciliation was enabled partly because Hamas's current head of the political bureau, Ismael Haniyeh, who is based in Qatar, and the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, have a positive view of Iran. Sinwar, whose roots lie in Hamas's military wing, represents a more pro-Iranian attitude to Hamas than the one that exists in Hamas's political wing, Hacham stated.
"The military wing is more aware of the military and economic significance of Iran's assistance to Hamas," he said. The political wing, meanwhile, has taken a more cautious view of Iran, and is more concerned about how the alliance could affect Hamas's Sunni Arab credentials.
It appears as if the military wing has won the argument. "The recent years have seen many Hamas delegations visiting Iran," Hacham said. Haniyeh was a prominent guest at the funeral of the late Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. There, he dubbed Soleimani "the martyr of Jerusalem" and said he "provided to Palestine, and the resistance has brought them to the position they are in today in terms of power and steadfastness."
Within Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas is using Iranian technical know-how to enhance its rocket arsenal's range, Hacham said. Hamas routinely fires rockets into the Mediterranean Sea to test their ranges and performance.
"Iran has taught Hamas how to build its own domestic rocket manufacturing industry," Hacham said. "In the past, Iranian weapons were smuggled from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza; though the Egyptian campaign to destroy smuggling tunnels appears to have largely stopped this activity, it is fair to assume that a small number of tunnels remain," which can serve the movement of armed operatives and weapons. Before Egypt launched its initiative to destroy the tunnels, several hundred of them had connected Gaza to Sinai.
Despite the disruption in smuggling, Iran continues to play an invaluable role in Hamas's military-terrorist build-up. Iran provides training for Hamas operatives, shares offensive and defensive operational plans and battle doctrines, and passes along scientific and engineering information needed for producing ever-improving rockets, explosives, and other weapons in Gaza.
"This is all continuing at full speed," said Hacham. "Around a decade ago, according to Palestinian reports, Iranian military experts were on Gazan soil, and were killed in an Israeli attack," he added.
The latest Hamas delegation to Tehran, which was reported by the Al-Quds Palestinian newspaper Oct. 26, included Khalil Al-Hayya, Sinwar's deputy, who leads Hamas's Arab-Islamic relations portfolio.
The delegation was welcomed in Iran by Hamas's representative to the Islamic Republic, Khaled Al-Kadumi.
The delegation took part in activities organized by Iran's Center for Islamic Unity to mark the birthday of Islam's Prophet, Muhammad, Al-Quds reported. The center has a goal of uniting various Islamic sects and schools.
During his visit to the center, Al-Hayya called for all Islamic schools of thought to unite "against the Zionist occupation and against American imperialism," while spreading false details about supposed Israeli plots against the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
He vowed that the "resistance will continue until the liberation of Palestine and its return to its owners," or in other words, the destruction of Israel.
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, released a statement calling for "the unity of Muslims" as a precondition for solving "the Palestinian problem in the best manner."
The jihadist rhetoric coming out of Tehran and the Gaza Strip is a reflection of real-world practical cooperation. "Iran's financial assistance to Hamas is highly significant for it. Hamas faces acute economic issues, which can be seen through its demands for Qatari funding for its 30,000 government employees in Gaza. This is evidence that Hamas is struggling with financial problems," said Hacham. "It does not have endless funds at its disposal."
Iran's financial aid to the military wing therefore solves a major headache for Gaza's ruling regime. The benefits run both ways.
"Iran has an interest in relations with Hamas, because it wants to surround Israel from all sides," said Hacham. "By establishing strongholds in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria, it is surrounding Israel, effectively putting it under a blockade. This motivates Iran to continue investing in its relations with Hamas, in addition to propping up their direct puppet, Palestinian Islamic Jihad [Gaza's second largest armed faction]."
United by their war against Israel, Iran viewed May's armed conflict between Palestinian terror factions in Gaza and Israel as a 'victory' for its cause, said Hacham. "The relationship between Iran and Hamas goes back to the early 1990s, after Israel expelled Hamas operatives to Lebanon in 1992, and Iranian operatives there began providing the organization with economic support."
After Hamas's violent coup in Gaza in 2007, Iran expanded its support, based on the vision of turning Gaza into an escalation front against Israel. "Assistance grew from tens of millions of dollars per year in 2007 to $200 million per year a few years later, according to reliable assessments," said Hacham. Meanwhile, the Quds Force began smuggling in earnest rockets, mortar shells, and other weapons via Sinai into Gaza, until the Egyptian program to demolish the tunnels.
At the same time, Iran has been careful not "to put all of its eggs in Hamas's basket," Hacham said, noting that it provides supports to "all variants of radical Islamic organizations in Gaza, with an emphasis on Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is a central Iranian proxy."
Hamas activities in other parts of the Middle East, such as Lebanon, also receive Iranian support, he added. "The financial and military assistance isn't slowing down. Iran has a need to exert its influence over all radical Islamist forces in the region."
All of this is happening as Iran faces an ongoing, deep economic crisis, which has not deterred its leadership from investing significant treasure in its regional long-range influence program. That fact alone is testament to the depth of the regime's dedication to its radical hegemony objective, irrespective of the troubles faced by everyday Iranians back home.
IPT Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
Copyright © 2021. Investigative Project on Terrorism. All rights reserved.