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PV Vivekanand: Seeking a new foothold
September 12, 2012
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The visit last week of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al Zahar to Iran was closely watched since the Iranian regime and the Palestinian group are seen to have fallen out in the wake of the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant power in post-rebellion Egypt.

Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, attended the Non-Aligned Movement’s summit in Tehran last month for a few hours, but that was not seen as any affirmation of a regional alliance between the Brotherhood and the theocratic regime in Tehran since there are many political imperatives and practical reasons against it.

Mursi’s visit to Tehran surprised many who seemed to have not attached much importance to the Brotherhood’s agenda to project itself as the group which calls the shots in Cairo and criticised him saying that he should have stayed away from the NAM summit in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Iran.

However, the Brotherhood could not be bothered with Iran’s human rights record and its brutal suppression of pro-democracy activists since any criticism of the Tehran regime in this respect would produce results that the Egyptian group wants to avoid at all costs at this juncture in time.

Mursi could even announce a resumption of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran, but that could be seen only as correcting a regional abnormality, given that Iran is a member of the region, and not as the formation of an axis against anyone. However, such a move has to come in co-ordination with Tehran, which severed diplomatic ties with Egypt in protest against Cairo granting asylum to the ousted Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammed Pahlavi, in 1979.

The US influence in Egypt, or whatever is left of it, is playing a significant role in Mursi’s options.

It is clear that Mursi is unlikely to move in any direction that could impede the Brotherhood’s agenda in Egypt. If resumption of formal ties with Iran serves its purpose, then Mursi might do so but, at this point in time, such a move will have an adverse impact on its effort to consolidate its power in Egypt.

With the Brotherhood having asserted its dominance in Egypt through the ballot box, Hamas, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, has been distancing itself from the Iranian regime.

Criticism of the Syrian regime by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh for its violent crackdown against dissidents was seen in Tehran as a signal that the Palestinian group was wavering from what Iran saw as a commitment to be part of collective retaliation for potential Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Iranian-Hamas relationship dates back to 1990, when the group’s leaders visited Tehran and participated in  a conference in support of the first Palestinian intifada. At that time, some reports said Iran had promised an annual aid of $30 million to Hamas as well as  promised weapons and advanced military training at Revolutionary Guard facilities in Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan.

In 1992, Hamas opened an office in Tehran, saying that it shared with Iran an “identical view in the strategic outlook toward the Palestinian cause in its Islamic dimension.”

Hamas cherished the relationship because it could use the support of any government or group at a time when the influence of the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was waning in the wake of its pro-Saddam Hussein position in the 1990-91 crisis over Kuwait.

The relationship with Hamas was nurtured by Tehran because it offered an opportunity for it to project itself as one of the staunchest supporters of the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Indeed, it is difficult to say whether a genuine desire to support the Palestinians or a quest to use the Palestinians as a tool in its dealings with the Arabs was the motivation for the Iranian regime. At the same time, it is also true that Tehran never managed to influence Hamas to any point that would have come at the expense of the Palestinian group’s independence. This became evident when Tehran cut its funding to Hamas several times during the years since 1990 whenever the group baulked at allowing the Iranian leadership to dictate terms to it.

In simple terms, Hamas believed that Iran should not expect it to dance to Iranian tunes simply because Tehran provided funding. On the other hand, the Iranian regime expected Hamas to implement its orders and thus the relationship was often strained.

According to diplomats quoted by Reuters in a report last month, Iran has cut back or even stopped its funding of Hamas after the group failed to show public support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. According to the diplomats, Iran was displeased by Hamas’ refusal to hold rallies in support of Assad in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.

Hamas is also believed to be receiving money from the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, but those payments also may have been reduced because the Brotherhood has diverted funds to support the Arab Spring revolts.

Zahar, who landed in Tehran on Sept.9,  apparently sought to convince the Iranian regime that Hamas remained committed to its anti-Israel alliance with Tehran.

That was why he took along with him a senior Hamas military commander, Marwan Issa, who he introduced to the Iranian leaders as the man in charge of co-ordinating joint military operations in retaliation for a potential Israeli attack against Iran.

Issa, deputy commander of Hamas’s military wing Izzeddine Al Qassem Brigades, attended Zahar’s meetings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and National Security Council Chairman Saeed Jalili. Thereafter, Zahar also took Issa to Beirut for a meeting with Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

He is reported to have reaffirmed to the Iranian leaders that his movement stood fast and firm with Iran and Hizbollah as the Islamic “resistance forces” ranged against Israel.

He is also said to have explained that Haniyeh’s criticism of the Syrian regime, Iran’s staunchest Arab ally, was a political imperative, given the rift between the Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip and those who live in exile led by Khaled Meshaal, who, along with most Hamas leaders in exile, has moved out of his base in Damascus amid the raging anti-regime revolt in Syria.

Zahar is also reported to have explained to the Iranian leaders that his vision of a close relationship was Tehran was not hampered by his quest for better Hamas relations with Cairo.

Have these gestures convinced the Iranian leaders that Hamas has not left the Iranian orbit?

Quite unlikely, given the Iranian media coverage of the Zahar visit.

The Iranian regime does not trust any Sunni group. It has been supporting the Sunni-led Hamas only because of its desire to meddle in Arab affairs and that the Palestinian faction was kept at a distance by by most Arab countries.  Iran’s “influence” with Hamas  also served its purpose of thumbing its nose at the Arabs by asserting that Tehran was more committed to the Palestinian cause than the Arab themselves.

At this point in time, according to reports, Hamas’s relations with  Iran and Hizbollah are at the lowest ebb. The result is a firming up of Iran’s backing for the more militant Jihad Islami of the Gaza Strip. An Israeli report says: “The lion’s share of Iranian-Hizbollah military investment in Palestinian organisations has been diverted from Hamas to the Jihad Islami of the Gaza Strip. That organisation has been built up to three battalions and labelled ‘The Storm Brigades’.”

We do not know how far accurate the assertion is. What we do know is that Iran is determined to keep a firm foothold in Palestinian affairs that it would use to further complicate the efforts for an elusive solution to the Palestinian problem.

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