Iran wants Hamas to help, but not win
DAMASCUS - Mahmud Dahlan, the ex-head of Preventive Security in Palestine and a former confidant to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been appearing on the pages of the Saudi daily al-Hayat, speaking about his political role in the Palestinian territories since 1993.
Dahlan is known to be a loud critic of both Hamas and Iran, and the feeling is reciprocated in both countries. Most recently, the two countries accused him of conspiracy in the "murder of Yasser Arafat". Reportedly, after taking Gaza, Hamas said it found a letter, dated July 13, 2003, from Dahlan to Shaul Mofaz, the ex-Israeli minister of defense, in which Dahlan wrote, "Let us slaughter him our way, not yours."
Arafat died in a Paris hospital on November 11, 2004, amid rumors he had been poisoned.
One of the major obstacles to internal Palestinian peace, Dahlan now claims, is Hamas and its relationship with Iran. Last year, speaking to thousands of his supporters in Palestine at a public rally, when he mentioned Hamas (a Sunni group) the crowds shouted back, "Shi'ite! Shi'ite!" He smiled, "They are not Shi'ites, they are murderers."
Last week, Dahlan even refused to draw parallels between Syria and Iran when it came to Palestine, arguing that Syria was, despite its historical tension with Arafat, never in favor of internal Palestinian strife. Iran doesn't mind it, he added, pointing to Syria's reaction to the seizure of Gaza in 2007, and that of the Iranians.
Although Hamas was a Sunni party, and the Tehran government wanted to spread a Shi'ite Islamic revolution, the two parties were working together, each for personal reasons. Hamas wanted a regional heavyweight to supply it with arms. Iran wanted a military group to lean on in Palestine, just like it had Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Badr Brigade in Iran.
Dahlan drew parallels between Saudi and Gulf money streaming into Palestine, and that of Iran. The former was used to provide for day-to-day Palestinians, he said, and invested in infrastructure, schools and projects, while the latter went to purchasing arms for Hamas.
Hamas was created in December 1987 by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, under the watchful eye of the mullahs of Tehran. When it established a wide power base for operations against Israel during the first intifada (which started in 1987 and produced the Oslo Accords in 1993) the Iranians became interested in Hamas.
The first manifesto published by Hamas had called for a "Holy War" against Israel and pledged to create an Islamic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. On April 6, 1994, Hamas carried out its first car-bomb operation, allegedly using technical advice from the Iranians, and killed eight Israelis in Afula. One week later, it carried out its first human-bomb operation, using the same skills that had been mastered in South Lebanon, and killed five in Hadera.
When Hamas was first elected to power in 2006, the United States led an international embargo, refusing to channel any money to a Hamas-led government. The first country to defy the sanctions was Iran. Then-senior security official (now parliament speaker) Ali Larijani met with Khaled Meshaal, the head of the political bureau of Hamas and noted, "We shall definitely help them financially."
Speaking from Tehran at the time, with comments that made word headlines and angered many within Palestine, Meshaal noted, "Iran's role in the future of Palestine should continue and increase." Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Muslims around the world to support the Hamas-led government in Palestine.
But very little help did come from the Iranians to day-to-day Palestinians. Defending Hamas' position during a tour of the US in 2006, ex-Iranian president Mohammad Khatami said, "I think Hamas itself, which has come to power today in a democratic process, is ready to live alongside Israel if its rights are met and it is dealt with like a democratic state and as the Palestinian government, and pressures are removed from Hamas."
Its always been common speculation in the regional and international media that Iran funds the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas that spearheaded the Palestinian uprising (intifada) of 2000. Once, the head of Israeli internal security Yuval Diskin even said, "Hamas has started to dispatch people to Iran, tens and a promise of hundreds."
These Hamas members were reportedly being sent for training in military tactics and guerilla warfare since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Some members of the Qassam Brigade have confirmed military links with Iran (described by one militant as "seven-course training") and this has troubled members of Fatah, the ruling party in Palestine. Training takes place for between 45 days to six months at a special military base supervised by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Hamas does not have tanks or planes, but boasts of a military force of approximately 15,000 fighters. The Iranians were the ones who instructed Hamas on how to build the Qassam rocket, and its second generation, the Shawas 4 rocket.
One Hamas commander was quoted as saying, "We send our best brains to Tehran. It would be a waste of money to send them and have them come back with nothing." Many analysts claim that a less-sophisticated militia, inspired by the Hezbollah model, is what the Iranians have in mind, when it comes to Hamas.
Judging from the military performance of Hamas since the intifada broke out in 2000, that statement is flawed, because the Palestinian group has been unable to score a single tactical military victory against its opponents. Its strategy deals mainly with surprise attacks, carried out by bomb-strapped individuals who infiltrate civilian pockets within Israel.
Iran uses Hamas to advance its regional interests, but does not plan for Hamas to win. Otherwise, simply more money and more logistics would have been pumped into Palestine to achieve that end result, as was the case with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas was never treated by Iran the way they treated Hezbollah. There are limits to what Iran offers Hamas, and one of the reasons is that Hamas is a Sunni group, officially not fully eligible for the "full honors" of grand ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution in 1979.
Arafat never liked Hamas or Iran. Still, on the first day of the 1979 revolution, Khomeini ordered that the Israeli Embassy in Tehran be transferred to Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to show his break with the pro-Israeli policies of the Shah.
During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, however, Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein. During the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he also sided with Saddam, an old friend of the Palestinians. This explains why the Iranians were never too fond of him, and why they supported Hamas, furnishing its leaders with arms and money, since the 1990s. In December 2001, Arafat accused Israel of creating Hamas (an implication that both the Israelis and Iranians were out to destroy him).
Speaking to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, he said, "Hamas is a creature of Israel which, at the time of prime minister [Yitzhak] Shamir [in the late 1980s], gave them money and more than 700 institutions ... Even [former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin ended up admitting it, when I charged him with it, in the presence of [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak."
One week later, in an interview with another Italian newspaper L'Espresso, Arafat added: "Hamas was constituted with the support of Israel. The aim was to create an organization antagonistic to the PLO." Supporters of Arafat cited his words, although he never had a reputation for honesty, in 2007 when Hamas launched a coup in Gaza and claimed that Gaza had been "liberated" from Fatah.
During the violence that ensured, Hamas stalwarts stormed Arafat's home in Gaza and that of his slain top lieutenant Abu Jihad. The attackers tore down photos and all symbols of the ruling Fatah Party. Rafi Eitan, a former commander in the Mossad, said: "The Israelis must not worry. All that is happening in Gaza is in the interest of Israel. All of it proves what we have been saying for a long time; that the Palestinians are still far from being able to administer their own affairs. Nobody can say that they appreciate democracy or have leadership. The world will no longer demand that we give them statehood."
Is there much truth to the words of Dahlan in al-Hayat, or Arafat's words to the Italian daily? And is the Iran-Hamas connection really that strong? It is not as strong as the case with Hezbollah, to be sure, but they do have a common foreign policy agenda.
Both were opposed to the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, accusing Arafat of having sold out the Palestinians. Both were opposed to the Madrid Peace Conference after the Gulf War, and more recently to the Annapolis Peace Conference, called for by George W Bush last November.
But the relationship becomes fragile when it comes to Iran's own national interest. According to several sources, the Iranians sent a proposal to the US in 2003, right after the occupation of Baghdad, through the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Tim Guldimann. It proposed dialogue with the US, and suggested that everything was up for discussion, including Iran's support for Palestinian groups, like Hamas.
Dahlan probably magnified his role in the pages of al-Hayat, and deliberately downplayed that of Hamas. The Islamic group was never an "agent" of the Iranians. Hamas, too, has its own national agenda, and does not take orders from Tehran. It uses Iran, in as much as Iran uses it, to achieve its objectives in Palestine.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.