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Middle East: Analyst Discusses Relations Between Iran And Hamas

Hamas leader Sheikh Ismail Haniyah on 26 January (epa) Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections was welcomed today by Iran. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said the results show that Palestinians are keen to continue with their struggle against "the occupiers." Iran and Hamas share a close ideological vision of the Middle East but Hamas has always denied having receiving financial aid from Iran. Assefi stressed that "the powerful presence of Hamas in Palestinian politics is a huge victory for the people of Palestine." What will be the consequences of the Hamas victory for Iran and other countries in the region and how close is Tehran and the Palestinian party? RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to George Joffee, professor at Cambridge University's Centre of International Studies to find out more.

RFE/RL: How close [are the ties between] Iran and Hamas?

Iran...and other countries in the Middle East are bound to feel a much greater closeness to supporting Hamas that might not have been the case in the past.

George Joffee: There's long been a link, in fact, between Iran and Hamas -- although not necessarily at a particularly high level. It goes back to the 1990s when Iran invited representatives of Hamas to attend IPS, the Foreign Ministry's institute that studies international and political affairs. There, of course, their presence was noted; they engaged in the activities of the institute but I don't think it went to the point of being a formal relationship between the movement and the Iranian government. There is, however, I think other relationships or at least they're alleged. The Israeli government has alleged that indirectly through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran is engaged in trying to control the events inside the Occupied Territories and there have been allegations with, no proof at all, of involvement in some of the more violent activities there. Those links I suspect are largely Israeli propaganda and don't really carry water.

RFE/RL: Are Hamas and Iran getting closer following the election of [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad? President Ahmadinejad met with the Hamas leader during his trip last week to Damascus and there were reports that both sides have announced that they represent a united front against Israel.

Joffee: Yes and No. I think the Iranian position on that are a reflection of some of the tensions inside the regime, inside Iran at the moment because President Ahmadinejad's views are not necessarily shared by some of the older politicians, such as Ayatollah [Ali] Rafsanjani. It is also the case that Hamas's views have also changed, even though its charter calls for the destruction of Israel, in fact two years ago the head of the movement made it clear at the time that he was prepared to consider some kind of accommodation of political purposes. This [during] a time when Hamas itself was beginning to change its policies and Sheikh Yassin, shortly before his death, made it clear that Hamas would have to accept the realities in Israel, even if it didn't agree with it on a theoretical basis. Now that position is going to become a dominant position inside the movement. That does suggest that there is a growing gap between the position of Iran and those of Hamas.

RFE/RL: But last December, Hamas political chief Khalid Mish'al reportedly said during a visit to Tehran that his group would step up attacks against Israel if Israel takes military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Joffee: Yes, that's correct but again that's a view that's very widely held throughout the Middle East and don't forget Hamas has not renounced yet the option of violent action against Israel or armed attack, that runs along side its willingness to participate in the political process. If there would be attacks on Iran then understandably Hamas, together with other movements such as Hezbollah and others, are bound to see Israel as a legitimate target, so I don't think that's particularly surprising, but again we just don't know what's going to happen now; I don't even think Hamas expected this size of a victory that they appear to have won and given that they are going to have to reconsider very carefully their position.... the participation in the democratic process may force the movement to begin to consider ways in which it doesn't act simply through violence and that could have some very surprising outcomes. The final point there is: it by no means clear now that Israel believes it has an option to use force against Iran over the nuclear issue and, in fact, many Israeli commentators have come to the conclusion that will not be a viable option.

RFE/RL: It's probably too early to say but what do you think will be the implications of a Hamas victory for Iran and other countries in the region?

Joffee: The implications are twofold. They are first of all that Israel, the United States, and Europe are going to have to profoundly rethink their policies. They can no longer argue, as they have, simply because Hamas is a movement that cannot be part of the normal political process. On the other hand, countries such as Iran, and not just Iran, other countries in the Middle East, are bound to feel a much greater closeness to supporting Hamas that might not have been the case in the past. International organizations connected to the Muslim world will feel the same, their attention will be drawn much more to what has occurred inside Palestine. The implications through Iraq are also interesting because they are twofold and both aspects, in a sense, contradict each other. On the one hand the movement inside Iraq opposed to the Iraqi occupation is bound to feel a certain [connection to] Hamas, on the other hand Hamas has demonstrated the virtues of democratic participation and that, of course, goes directly against [the Iraqi insurgents] views. That could have had some interesting consequences; we are, in short, standing at a completely unexpected and unknown juncture in the Middle East and the way this plays out is really not going to become clear for several months, if not years.

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