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What is behind the Hamas-Iran rapprochement?

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Then-Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh giving a speech at a rally in Tehran on February 11, 2012. Iran-Hamas relations have been strained since 2012 [AP Photo/Vahid Salemi]

On July 16, Qassem Sulaimani, the commander of the Quds Force within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was scheduled to address a conference in Gaza via a satellite link from Tehran. At the last moment his speech was cancelled and instead, his deputy, Gholamhossein Gheybparvar, spoke in Arabic from Tehran despite technical difficulties, which the event organisers said were due to Israel jamming the signal.

Leaders of  Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who were supposed to attend, cancelled ahead of the event. The highest-ranking Hamas official who showed at the conference was Ismail Radwan, minister of religious endowments. Jamil Mazhar of the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was also in attendance.

The conference is the latest of a series of recent developments which have signalled Hamas’ rapprochement with Iran after years of disagreements over the Syrian uprising. In 2012, Hamas decided to back the Syrian opposition, effectively breaking relations with Damascus and Tehran.

Now, six years later, changing regional dynamics have pushed the two former allies to revive their ties. But going back to the warm relations the two enjoyed pre-2011 would be difficult for a number of reasons.

Why is the rapprochement happening?

One of the reasons why Hamas is seeking to mend ties with Iran is because it is strapped for cash. Its decision to support the Syrian opposition cost Hamas the steady flow of funding coming from Tehran.

That, combined with the Egyptian army destroying its smuggling tunnels to Sinai, which had become one of its main sources of income, the increasing pressure from the Israeli blockade on the strip and the decision of the Palestinian Authority to cut funding for state employee salaries and services provision precipitated a debilitating financial crisis in Gaza. As a result, public anger is growing and Hamas is desperately trying to find an alternative source of funding.

Since the rapprochement started in mid-2017, there has been increasing talk of Iran resuming its financial support for the movement, though at a much lower rate than pre-2012. There are no official figures of how much this financial support amounts to, but Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in March that most of the $260m Hamas invested in 2017 in making tunnels and weapons came from Tehran.

Iran, however, is facing a financial crisis itself, with its currency suffering under high inflation rates, international investors withdrawing as a result of US sanctions and its oil sales potentially collapsing in the coming months. At the same time, Tehran is already supporting financially its allies in Lebanon and Iraq and waging a costly war in Syria, where Israel is constantly bombing its positions and military bases. As a result, the Islamic Republic is facing a growing wave of public anger that could threaten domestic stability. Whatever financial support it is able to provide to Hamas would be, therefore, limited.

Apart from funding, Hamas is also reaching out to Iran because it is finding itself increasingly isolated. The armed resistance movement has lost some of its regional standing since 2013 when President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power in a military coup in Egypt and relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated.

Iran is also finding itself under increasing international isolation after the Saudi-Israeli-US axis stepped up pressure on Tehran regionally and internationally. After its disastrous involvement in the Syrian war, the Islamic Republic also alienated many Sunni Arabs. Rapprochement with Hamas and attempts to engage other Islamist organisations in the region are part of Iran’s crisis management and its efforts to improve its image in the Arab world by re-emphasising its commitment to the Palestinian cause.

What are the challenges?

Although both Hamas and Iran feel it is time to mend ties, there are a number of impediments that could limit their rapprochement.

First, the Syrian regime is against Hamas rejoining the so-called “axis of resistance” led by Iran, even though Hamas has expressed a genuine interest in turning the page on previous disagreements with Damascus. Efforts by Iran and Hezbollah to reconcile the two have not made much progress.

At the same time, Hamas cannot go too far on that front, as it risks losing support in the Arab streets. The Assad regime continues to be perceived overwhelmingly negatively in the Arab world, just like Iran, which is regularly denounced for its disruptive interference and sectarian incitement in Arab countries. These circumstances are holding back Hamas officials from publicly and directly engaging with Damascus or even rushing to embrace Iran again.

Another problem is Israel, which has been escalating its rhetoric against Hamas and threatening military action on Gaza for a while now. Given their weaker international standing, Hamas officials worry about the label “terrorist organisation” that Israel has been throwing around in international decision-making circles. Its open engagement with Iran could boost Israel’s arguments against the armed organisation.

Egypt is also not too happy about Hamas returning to Iran’s embrace. On a number of occasions, the Egyptian regime prevented Hamas officials from travelling to Iran through Cairo. Egypt wants to keep Gaza as its exclusive diplomatic file. Therefore, it is excessively sensitive towards any other party that tries to get involved in Gaza, and especially one like Iran, whose increasing influence in a number of Arab capitals worries the Egyptian regime.

Despite all these challenges, it doesn’t seem like Hamas will stop its effort to mend relations with Iran. The current regional dynamics and increasing polarisation are making these efforts that more urgent. The July 16 event is a sign that these efforts are continuing, albeit cautiously (which explains why top Hamas officials cancelled their attendance at the last moment). And as pressure from regional and international actors on Hamas and Iran mounts, the engagement between the two is likely to intensify.