Tehran is hosting, on April 14-16, a conference entitled "Support for the Palestinian Intifada conference." This is the third time it has organized the conference -- and with talk that Iran may face a military strike against its nuclear facilities, Tehran's association with the new Hamas government in Palestine and other Palestinian rejectionist groups is even more relevant to global affairs than it was when it held the conference in 2001 and 2002.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to Iran, during a March 9 roundtable in Washington, as "a kind of central banker for terrorism in important regions, like Lebanon, through Hizballah in the Middle East, in the Palestinian territories, and we have deep concern about what Iran is doing in the south of Iraq." The U.S. State Department has classified Iran as a "state sponsor" of terrorism since 1984, and it lists a number of the groups that participated in previous conferences -- such as Hamas, Hizballah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- as "terrorist organizations" backed by Iran.
Iran's frame of reference is a requirement in the country's constitution that calls on the government to support "the just struggles of the oppressed against the oppressors in every corner of the globe." The secretary-general of the conference series, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, referred to this requirement in an interview that appeared in the April 6 issue of "Iran" newspaper. He went on to speak of the ways in which Palestinians will benefit from the weekend's event. The more than 500 participants, he said, "will discuss the dangers of the anti-human activities and policies of Israel, which have the backing of America, and they will think of some ways of countering those policies."
The Hamas Factor
It is not just ideology or charity that motivates Iran. Mohtashami-Pur suggested that the creation of a Palestinian state would contribute to Iranian security. "Naturally, if the Palestinian nation restores its legitimate right, even the threats [against] the Islamic Republic of Iran, which come from abroad, will be reduced substantially," he said.
Security interests, furthermore, explain meetings held in Damascus on April 13 between one of Iran's top officials and leaders of Hizballah and the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad. Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the head of the Expediency Council, which oversees the workings of government, met with the secretary-general Hizballah, Hassan Nasrallah, and told him that unity is a key factor in ensuring survival, IRNA reported. He repeated that message in a meeting with Ramadan Abdallah al-Shallah, the head of Islamic Jihad.
Given this perspective, one would expect success for the Hamas delegation that came to Tehran on April 11 to secure funding. Hamas needs to compensate for the refusal of Israel, the European Union, and the United States to sponsor the Palestinians until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Indeed, Tehran welcomed the Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections earlier this year. At that time, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei encouraged the Muslim community to come forward with funding, and the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khalid Mish'al, reportedly secured a pledge of financial assistance when he visited Tehran in February. More recently, on April 12, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who now serves as a foreign affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei, urged Muslim countries to fulfill their promises to fund a Hamas-led government, IRNA reported.
Superficially, then, it would appear that Iranian support for Hamas will be overwhelming. But there are indications that Hamas would not be similarly supportive of Iran. When Khalid Mish'al spoke at Tehran University on February 21, he was asked how Hamas would react if Israel attacked Iran, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. "Have no fear," he responded, "we will pray for you." When one of the students retorted that Israel would be destroyed if it attacked Iran, Mish'al laughed and said, "if you destroy Israel, you will be doing so over our heads." He went on to criticize U.S. polices, but added that this disapproval does not mean Hamas should go to war with the United States. This level of commitment is likely to give decision-makers in Tehran pause when it comes to aiding Hamas.
There may be another reason to wonder about the level of Iranian support for Hamas. U.S. Secretary of State Rice questioned Iran's willingness to fund the $1.9 billion that the Palestinian Authority needs annually, "Al-Hayah" reported on February 18. "We will wait and see whether Iran will provide aid of this magnitude," she said.
Hizballah, A Better Return On Investment?
When it comes to return on investment, Iran's relationship with Hizballah may be more likely to pay off. Iran was once Hizballah's main sponsor, and Mohtashami-Pur, the secretary-general of the Intifada conference, was instrumental in Hizballah's creation when he served as ambassador to Syria in the 1980s. Iran's Martyrs Foundation (Bonyad-i Shahid), a semi-governmental charity, continues to openly fund Hizballah activities, such as schools and hospitals. Hizballah, furthermore, seeks to recreate the Iranian model of a theocratic state and continues to regard Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei as a leader. The importance of the relationship was made clear when Hamas's Hassan Nasrallah visited Tehran in August 2005 to meet with the newly inaugurated President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and the two met again in Damascus on January 20.
In Lebanon, a number of political actors are expressing concern about an Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis. The Supreme Leader's representative in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Mujtaba Zolnur, referred to potential Hizballah support when discussing the possibility a U.S. attack. He said, "Iran has a lot of supporters in other countries and once our interests are endangered, the enemy's [interests] in other countries will also be endangered," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 23.
Aside from strategic interests and constitutional requirements, Iran probably has another reason for hosting Support for the Palestinian Intifada conferences. It is a Shi'ite state, whereas Sunnism is the predominant school of Islam in the world. Moreover, the Persians are a distinct minority in the predominantly Arab Middle East. Through its activism on this issue, Iran is portraying itself as a committed leader -- more Palestinian than the Arabs, and more Muslim than the Sunnis.