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Middle East: Iran Unlikely To Prod Hamas Toward Moderation

Hamas's Khalid Mishaal (left) with Iranian Supreme National Security Council head Ali Larijani in Tehran in December (Fars) Tehran reacted enthusiastically to the victory of Hamas -- the Harakat al-Muqawamma al-Islamiya, or Islamic Resistance Movement -- in the 25 January Palestinian elections.

The Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi as saying Iran "congratulates the great Palestinian people, the Hamas movement, all Palestinians combatants, and the great Islamic Ummah" and hopes that "the powerful presence of Hamas on the political scene of Palestine brings significant achievements for the Palestinian nation."

Tehran's reaction reflects its close and long-standing relationship with Hamas. Iran is arguably in a good position to exert a moderating influence over the organization's behavior within a formal political setting. Tehran is unlikely to do so, however.

Early Inspiration And Backing

Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution provided an influential model and a source of emulation for Palestinian militants. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was created in 1980, and from its inception founders regarded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of Islamic revolutions everywhere. The success of the Iranian revolution showed the PIJ founders that "Islam was the solution and that jihad was the way," Ziad Abu-Amr wrote in "Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza" (1994). Not only was the PIJ inspired by Khomeini, but it also cited one of his fatwa declaring the elimination of Israel a religious duty.
Given its hostile stand on Israel, which has grown more belligerent under President Ahmadinejad, Iran is unlikely to press Hamas or Hizballah to tone down their rhetoric or modify their stances on Israel's right to exist.

Hamas was born during the first Palestinian uprising (intifada), the result of a December 1987 meeting of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood at the home of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Its creation reflected dissatisfaction with the secular Palestinian parties, as well as the belief that religious ideology could provide comfort and enhance strength. By 1989, it had a representative in Tehran, Imad al-Alami. The 1987 Hamas charter, furthermore, calls for Israel's destruction.

During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the PIJ backed Iran because it viewed Iran as more committed to the Palestinian cause than any other state. Hamas came to share this view of Iranian support for the Palestinians.

Tehran Radio reported in May 1998, just after a visit by Sheikh Yassin, that he said in his view "the Islamic Republic of Iran supports this ideal [of a Palestinian state] even more than the Palestinians themselves." Yassin later added that Iran seems to be "prepared to extend all kinds of aid to the Palestinian people's struggle for liberation," Beirut's "Al-Shira" reported in August 1998. Yassin had told "Al-Quds" from Jerusalem in July of the same year that he "was not aware that the Iranians are so strongly enthusiastic about Palestine," adding, "I found that the Iranians have an intense desire to liberate Palestine and to endure all the U.S. harassment and difficulties in order to achieve this objective."

Iranian State Support

The U.S. State Department, which lists Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization, asserts that Iran provides the group with "some funding," but most of the organizations' finances are derived from expatriate Palestinian donors and from contributors in the Arab world. This assertion is vague, but the extent to which Yassin was exaggerating about Iranian support is equally unclear.

Allegations that Iran funds Hamas were addressed in a 31 May 1995 speech in Qom by Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, who was deputy speaker of parliament and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council at the time. "When the Westerners themselves started saying we should deprive Hamas of financial power, the Westerners themselves said that Hamas obtains the bulk of its money from Muslims who live in Europe and the United States," state radio quoted Rohani as saying. "Hamas does not need our money. Islamic Jihad does not need our money.... They need our guidance, our ideas, our path, and our line."

Funding aside, a strong formal relationship exists. There is a full-time Hamas representative in Tehran -- Abu-Osama Abd-al-Moti, who was preceded by Abu-Muhammad Mustafa. Moreover, Hamas leaders and their Iranian counterparts interact quite openly. Political bureau chief Khalid Mishaal met President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Damascus in mid-January and in Tehran in December. Mishaal met Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, on several occasions. They met in Damascus in May 1999 and May 2003, and again in Tehran in September 2000, April 2001, and June 2002.

After the 1999 meeting in Damascus, Hamas's Abu Marzuk said, "The [recent] meetings of the Iranian president, Mr. Khatami, with different Palestinian groups in Damascus were the real display of Iran's attitude toward the Zionist regime and Tehran's clear message to Tel Aviv," Iranian state television reported on 23 June 1999.

Lower-level Iranian officials also meet with Hamas representatives with some frequency. In October 2000, for example, Tehran Radio reported, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with Abu Marzuk, as well as with representatives of the PIJ and other rejectionist groups.

Where To Now?

The Hamas victory represents the possibility that in free elections people will elect Islamists. This is a problem for Washington and an opportunity for Tehran. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Davos on 26 January that only a "two-state solution" will meet Palestinians' aspirations, and this requires "a renunciation of violence and turning away from terrorism and accepting the right of Israel to exist and the disarmament of militias," according to the State Department website. She added, "Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed."

The role of another Iranian backed group, Hizballah (Party of God), is similar in Lebanon. There are Hizballah representatives in the national legislature, in the cabinet (although they are currently boycotting it), and in municipal institutions. Yet Washington considers Hizballah a "foreign terrorist organization" as well, and it continues to press for its disarmament.

Iran is in a position to influence and moderate the behavior of Hamas, as well as that of Hizballah. Given its hostile stand on Israel, which has grown more belligerent under President Ahmadinejad, Iran is unlikely to press these organizations to tone down their rhetoric or modify their stances on Israel's right to exist. Indeed, Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi warned "supporters of the Zionist regime" on 26 January that they should "open their eyes" to regional realities. A 26 January state television commentary, furthermore, said that by electing Hamas, Palestinians have rejected any approach other than resistance.

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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