Historically, Iranian support for Hamas in times of conflict has run quite deep—both in terms of extensive funding and providing weapons. In 2008 and 2012, Iran openly took credit for the rockets Hamas launched throughout Israel. This time around, it is unclear exactly what role Iran is playing.
For almost three years, bilateral relations between Hamas and Iran were considered severed for multiple reasons. First and foremost, Hamas openly supported the Syrian uprising against the Iranian-backed Assad. As a result, Iran cut all funding to Hamas. Second, Hamas found a new source of local support with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood’s success in Egypt. Finally, Hamas turned to Turkey and Qatar and found a new set of benefactors. Not only was Iran infuriated with Hamas’ decision not to support Assad, but also with its decision to partner with predominately Sunni nations.
However with the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas was left without a major patron. Hamas was no longer receiving approximately $23 million a month from Iran and was facing further financial hardship with Egypt’s crackdown on smuggling tunnels.
Amidst rumors of a potential Palestinian unity government swirling around, leaders from Iran and Hamas met in May 2014 for an attempt at rapprochement. Iran and Hamas’ leaders both issued statements shortly thereafter about their intentions to normalize bilateral relations.
As violence in Israel and Palestine has rapidly escalated since the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers, Iran’s relationship with and role in supporting Hamas is murky at best.
While leaders in the top echelon of the Iranian government have openly voiced their support for their Palestinian brethren and their resistance against Israel, there are some who claim Iran has taken a backseat in the recent conflict and that Hamas is weaker as a result
On Monday, Hamas’ office in Tehran issued a statement to Iranian media outlets, religious centers, political leaders, and social activists to aid their brethren in Gaza and to outwardly condemn Israeli military action. Simply put, Hamas wants more from Iran.
One field commander in the al-Qassam Brigades stated that Iran has not provided the significant mobilization capacities and logistical support that it has historically given to Hamas. The same field commander also noted that Iran no longer provides rockets; Hamas can no longer appreciate a “huge difference in the balance of power in favor of Hamas against Israel.”
As a result, there has been a shift to homemade rockets in Gaza. Though significantly less effective than Iranian weaponry and no match for Israel’s Iron Dome, these homemade rockets have kept Israel’s population constantly running to bomb shelters.
Others claim that Iran is still firmly behind Hamas—rockets and all. Some experts place thousands of Iranian rockets in Hamas’ hands left over from the 2012 conflict that are currently being used to reach longer range targets inside Israel.
There is even some evidence to suggest that Iran is providing logistical support in rocket building, training, and intelligence to help Hamas advance in ground operations.
If it has historically linked itself to Hamas in the past and has seemingly repaired its relations, why is Iran mum about the extent of its support? There are two possible answers. First and least likely, Iran has indeed scaled back its material support for Hamas and is only providing rhetorical support. Second, Iran is playing it safe and is learning from its past regarding its weapon transfer to the Palestinian territories.
Take the Karine A Affair: Israeli troop’s discovery of a shipment of Iranian weapons headed for Gaza in 2002 did not sit well with President Bush—making Iran look like an unreliable partner for any potential negotiations. In March 2014, a similar event took place amidst P5+1 nuclear negotiation when Israeli troops discovered another shipment of weapons headed for Gaza.
While the two issues—Iran’s nuclear program and its connection with Hamas—are separate, in lieu of the July 20th deadline for the P5+1 negotiations, it’s is feasible that Iran withheld from publicly acknowledging anything more than its symbolic support for Hamas in order to gain measures of confidence from the Western powers that label Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Thus far, Iran has abided by the terms agreed upon on July 20th regarding its nuclear program. With immense pressure from the international community to adhere to the terms, Iran will have to be strategic about its ties to Hamas.