By Mohammad Ataie
Since the advent of the Iranian revolution, the Palestinian issue has been at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. For ideological and strategic reasons, supporting the Palestinian cause and resistance against Israel has been an integral part of the Islamic Republic’s identity and international approach. However, Iran’s Palestinian policy has, to a great extent, been forged under the influence of its alliance with Syria. That is why the tensions between Damascus and Hamas, brought about by the latter’s equivocal stance on Syrian crisis, have spilled over into the Palestinian movement’s relationship with Tehran.
Last February, on the thirty third anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Hamas’ Prime Minister in Gaza paid a visit to Tehran and met with the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenehi. Given the rumors and reports of tensions between Iran and Hamas over the Syrian crisis, Ismail Haniyeh’s official trip was important and timely for the Islamic Republic. The visit conveyed a clear message that, in the words of Haniyeh, Iran’s support for Palestinian issue has “remained unchanged and unconditional” and that their ties are “as strong as before”. But some remarks that Iranian officials made during Haniyeh’s visit revealed how concerned Tehran is with a changing Hamas in the wake of the “Arab Spring”.
In the meeting between Haniyeh and the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenehi warned him that “compromisers’ infiltration into a resistance organization would gradually weaken it”. He reminded Haniyeh that a once very popular Arafat lost his credibility when he distanced himself from resistance. Iran is obviously concerned with the recent signs of pragmatism in Hamas and reports of it reconsidering its strategy in the wake of the ascendance of its sister Islamic movements to power across the Arab world. But a graver concern for Tehran has been Hamas’ position regarding Syria. More than a year into the Syrian crisis, Hamas has refused to take sides in the conflict and has not concealed its intention to turn to new patrons in the region.
Tehran believes that Syria has fallen victim to a foreign plot. While Bashar al-Assad is carrying out reforms, Tehran says, there are foreign parties solely concerned with Assad’s alliance with the axis of resistance, that wreak havoc in Syria. This was what Iranian officials told Haniyeh in Tehran. Similar remarks were made by Ayatollah Khamenei earlier, in January, when he received the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and warned about an American plan against Syria that aims to undermine the “line of resistance”, which is a reference to the alliance of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah vis-à-vis the US and Israel.
In the past several months, the Islamic Republic has sought to convince the Hamas leadership to adopt its own reading of the Syrian crisis and at the same time cement the cracks that are appearing in Damascus-Hamas ties. Haniyeh’s visit to Iran and his statement that the movement would not abandon its long time base in Syria left an impression in Tehran and Damascus that the movement would not “stoop to pressures” and turn its back on Bashar al-Assad. However a mere two weeks after his visit, Haniyeh made unprecedented remarks in Cairo in support of the uprising in Syria which was interpreted as “Hamas’s first public break with its longtime patron”. During the Friday prayer at al-Azhar Mosque Haniyeh said “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.” This was disturbing for Iranian officials. Hossein Shikholeslam, a veteran Iranian diplomat, expressed his dismay at Haniyeh’s speech by saying that “this was not the position of those who struggle against Israel”. The former Iranian ambassador to Syria stated that “if Hamas abandons armed resistance, it will be no different from other Palestinian factions”. Again, in the latest sign of cooling in the Iranian-Hamas relationship, a member of the group’s political wing in Gaza said “Hamas will not do Iran’s bidding in any war with Israel”.
Hamas Syrian position is still quiet nebulous as the movement’s leadership in Gaza and abroad remain divided over the Syrian crisis. But it is clear that the shadow of tensions between the movement and President Assad has already fallen over Hamas’ relationship with Tehran. For Iran, supporting Hamas is linked to its alliance with President Assad. In other words, despite the Iranian commitment to the Palestinian resistance, the Islamic Republic saw its relationship with the Palestinian as well as the Lebanese resistance from a Syrian perspective. This is well understood in the light of the three decades of Iran’s Levant policy and partnership with Syria.
Thirty three years ago, after the fall of the Shah, Yasser Arafat was the first foreign leader who arrived to revolutionary Iran. When the PLO leader, who was indeed a long time ally of many anti-Shah revolutionaries who had just risen to power in Tehran, delivered a zealous speech in front of thousands of Iranians in Tehran, the prospect of a strong Iranian-PLO axis could not have been brighter. In that speech he proclaimed “we will march to Jerusalem under a united Islamic flag”. But as developments began to unravel in Iran and Middle East, things changed between Tehran and the PLO.
From the very beginning, Hafez al-Assad carefully watched the PLO courting of Khomaini’s Iran. The B’ath regime kept a wide open eye on the extent of Iranian relations with Yasser Arafat, who was a challenge to President Assad’s initiatives both in Lebanon and on the Arab-Israeli front. Syrians were eager to make the new regime in Iran adopt its Palestinian vision and ensure that the Islamic Republic did not go too far with the PLO. Initially Tehran was oblivious to Assad’s concerns on both the Lebanese and Palestinian fronts. When in late 1979, radical factions in Iran endeavored, in coordination with al-Fatah, to dispatch volunteer corps to Southern Lebanon, Syrians thwarted the initiative. From the perspective of President Assad, the translation of an emerging Iranian-PLO alliance into creating an independent axis in Lebanon could have undermined his grand strategy in Lebanon which was contingent on eliminating al-Fatah autonomy and Arafat’s state-within-a-state in his backyard.
Iran learnt greatly from that early failed experience; that it could not ignore Syria’s regional weight nor Assad’s calculations in the Levant. Yet, it took a decade before Tehran and Damascus reached a modus vivendi. During the formative years of Syrian-Iranian relations throughout the 1980s, their disagreements ranged from the Palestinian issue to the Iraq-Iran war, to Hezbollah and Amal in Lebanon. In the mid 1980s, the Camp Wars and Assad’s policy to oust Arafat from Lebanon strained their bilateral relationship. The shelling of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon by pro-Syrian Amal forces shocked the Iranian leadership and led to a period of friction with Damascus and even military confrontation with the Shi’i Amal movement which fought the PLO forces in Beirut and the Southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, over time, Tehran’s line steadily converged with Assad’s “Palestinian vision” which became a factor in the deterioration of the once much hoped for Iran-Arafat partnership. Indeed, Tehran realized that without Assad’s approval, making inroads into the Levant and their goal of “exporting the Islamic revolution” would not succeed.
No doubt that Arafat’s close ties with Saddam Hussein, a nemesis of both Assad and Khomeini, and his concession to recognize Israel also widened the chasm between the PLO and the Islamic Republic. From Assad’s standpoint, Arafat’s relationship with Iraq, Jordan and Egypt was to side-step Damascus and give other Arab parties decisive influence within the PLO at Syria’s expense. When in 1985 Arafat announced his acceptance of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian peace initiative, Syria and Iran alike lambasted the PLO chief. “Disillusioned” with Yasser Arafat and his moderation toward Israel, revolutionary Iran began to acknowledge Assad’s standpoint toward the PLO leader: that they had initially been, against all the advice of Assad, too optimistic about Arafat.
Since the early 1990s, Syrian-Iranian relations have turned into an enduring and strategic partnership with considerable achievements in keeping their common adversaries in check. In the Palestinian arena, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were the fruits of the convergence and cooperation between Islamist Iran and the Ba’thist Syria. Inspired by the 1979 revolution and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas rose from the first intifada that Iran rallied strongly to it. Unlike Arafat’s PLO, Syria and Iran had a great deal in common in collaborating with Palestinian Islamists to derail grand US plans in the Middle East. Hamas emerged as the main Palestinian opponent of the Oslo accords, the US-sponsored peace process. It challenged a secular-Nationalist PLO that “betrayed Palestine” and defied Arafat’s authority who had once been the epitome of anti-Israel struggle for many Iranian revolutionaries.
The senior Assad wanted tractable leadership at the head of the PLO that would act according to his strategy in Lebanon and on the Arab-Israeli front. It was Hamas that inserted itself into his strategy and won exceptional support from Damascus. Now Hamas, reorienting itself in the wake of the “Arab Spring”, has turned into an ungrateful ally for Bashar al-Assad, who sees the movement’s leaders dealing with Arab states without consulting Syria and lauding the protests against his rule. Before the dust settles in Syria, Hamas is unlikely to shift from its equivocal position.
The movement’s cold shoulder to Damascus has posed a serious challenge to the integrity of the “axis of resistance”. Iran, for “the good of resistance”, is making every effort to prevent a break between the two key parties of the resistance camp. This is no easy position for Tehran, which has found itself locked between two pillars of its foreign policy; that of backing the Palestinian resistance and safeguarding its unique alliance with Syria.
Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and documentary film maker who writes on Iranian foreign and regional policy and on Arab affairs. He contributes to Diplomacy-e-Irani and other publications.