Hamas Returns to the Resistance Axis
In analyzing the conflict in Gaza, many observers have focused on the role of Hamas's backers, Qatar and Turkey. But this analysis misses a key player. To understand Hamas' strategy, the place to look is Iran.
After the war broke out, senior Iranian officials, including Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, expressed strong support for the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah also phoned the head of Hamas's politburo, Khaled Mashaal, and Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Shallah. Iran's relationship with Hamas has been strained for the past couple of years, so these statements mark a reinvigoration of the "Resistance Alliance." The rebirth of the Iranian-led axis provides the essential ingredient for a new explanation of Hamas's decision to go to war with Israel.
Recent commentary, however, has placed Hamas's decision in the context of the regional rivalry between the camp of states that back the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and Egypt, backed by the camp of anti-Muslim Brotherhood states, on the other. Hamas's primary objective, according to this line of analysis, is to force a change in Egypt's policy toward Gaza. In addition, Hamas is said to have sought to dilute Egypt's role by leveraging Turkish and Qatari support, thereby revitalizing the status of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood camp.
While there's no denying the rivalry between Doha and Cairo, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this dynamic was not the principal driver behind Hamas's decision. Nor is it obvious that either Qatar or Turkey, both secondary actors, could be leveraged against Egypt. In fact, the irrelevance of those two states, especially the Turks, was on display during the Gaza war of 2012, when Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi explicitly kept Ankara out of the ceasefire negotiations. In addition, Hamas attempted and failed to force Egypt's hand on the border crossing restrictions in 2012, when it had an ostensibly sympathetic government in Cairo. One wonders if Hamas, its desperation notwithstanding, actually calculated that it could force concessions from Egypt under Abdel Fattah Sisi's rule.
There's an alternate reading. This was not an attempt to revive the pro-Brotherhood regional camp on which certain factions in Hamas bet the house three years ago. Rather, it was the opposite. Having witnessed its regional gambit hit a catastrophic dead end, Hamas, or perhaps a faction therein, sought to return the movement back to its place within the resistance axis.
A week into Operation Protective Edge, pro-Iranian media was framing the war precisely in those terms. To be sure, this is a move that's been in the making for a while. Certain figures within Hamas, most prominently the Gaza-based Mahmoud Zahar, have consistently maintained that the group cannot squander its ties with Iran. Zahar, along with military commanders from Hamas's Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades - with whom Iran deals directly - like Marwan Issa have been working in the last few months to get the relationship with Tehran back on track.
There were signs in early March that the relationship was on its way to being restored. Ali Larijani, president of Iran's Shura Council, stated back then through the pro-Iranian al-Mayadeen TV that the relationship with Hamas had "returned to what it was in the past." In late May, Mashaal met with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in Doha. The message from the meeting that Abdollahian wanted to put out was that the two sides had buried their differences over Syria. Hamas made it clear that the strategic relationship was on the mend, and there was talk at the time of an impending visit by Mashaal to Tehran. But that didn't materialize, as the circumstances were apparently not yet ripe. A little over a month later, Hamas sparked the conflict with Israel. The war was a necessary gateway for Hamas to resume its place in the resistance axis.
Notwithstanding Larijani's characterization from March, however, there are changes in how Iran will deal now with Hamas. If the Gaza war is the obligatory portal for reconstituting the Iranian bloc and for Hamas's repentant return to the fold, it's not a cost-free homecoming. It carries with it structural and hierarchical modifications in the relationship with Tehran.
A notable detail in the Iranian rhetoric in support of Hamas was how it positioned the group on a par with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad - a wholly owned Iranian subsidiary whose allegiance to Tehran never wavered. In addition to the elevation of Islamic Jihad's stature, the Iranians will now privilege ties with Hamas's military commanders, bypassing the politburo. Mashaal may even now need the mediation of Islamic Jihad's Ramadan Shallah in his dealing with Tehran. A visit might soon be granted to Mashaal, but not before he is made to understand his place and atone for his choices over the last three years.
Hamas has had to pay a steep price in finally deciding to reorient its ship back toward Iran. It has taken a beating and it will have to compete more with Islamic Jihad, whose profile the Iranians will now raise further. After Hamas's unsuccessful attempts to diversify its regional options, Iran's grip over the movement will tighten. Moreover, the prominence of the politburo will be diminished in favor of military commanders who answer directly to Tehran. Still, the war has served to clarify Hamas's mission and place on the regional map. After a period of failed choices, the group will emerge battered, but no longer strategically adrift.