(August 18, 2015 / JNS) By Sean Savage and Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org
While Iran’s funding of the Palestinian terror group Hamas is well-documented, the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA) is less frequently discussed. But that pattern may start to shift after the recent announcement of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s planned trip to Iran in November.
Abbas last visited Iran in 2012, when he attended a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran. His upcoming visit, announced by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee member Ahmed Majdalani, comes just weeks after the signing of a nuclear deal between world powers and Iran. Majdalani himself recently visited Tehran and met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Majdalani said Iran and the PA have agreed to work together on holding an international conference with the goal of bringing about the nuclear disarmament of Israel. (The Jewish state has never confirmed or denied possessing nuclear weapons.)
“The visit now by a PA emissary, Ahmad Majdalani, is an advance visit and will likely not generate headlines. But Abbas’s visit could be historic. Depending on how it goes, it may be a sign that he has fully gravitated away from diplomacy with Israel if he invests in his ties to the Islamic Republic,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS.org.
The relationship between Iran and the PA’s precursor, the PLO—which was founded in 1964 and was recognized as the Palestinians’ representative organization following the signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993—“go back a long time, all the way to the Islamic Revolution,” said Kyle Shideler, director of the Threat Information Office at the Center for Security Policy.
“That said, the PLO-Iran relationship has always been bumpy,” he told JNS.org.
According to the United States Institute of Peace, during Iran’s Shah period, the PLO had close ties with the Iranian opposition and even provided training to dissidents. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, “PLO forces trained the original Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on terrorism techniques,” Shideler said. But the PLO would later support Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
As a result of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accords, “ties have been rather horrible between Iran and the PA,” Schanzer said.
“The PA was created as an interim government as part of the Oslo process, which Iran utterly rejected. This is, in part, what drove Iran to embrace Hamas,” he said.
Shideler pointed to the ship Karine-A as an example of collaboration between the PA and Iran. The ship was captured by the Israel Defense Forces in 2002 in the Red Sea and found to be carrying 50 tons of weaponry supplied by Iran and Hezbollah, and intended to reach PA hands.
But in 2010, then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stirred a controversy at a rally in Tehran by saying that year’s re-launched U.S.-brokered peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was going to fail, while criticizing Abbas as an Israeli puppet.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh responded by referencing Ahmadinejad’s controversial win in Iran’s 2009 presidential election, saying that “he who does not represent the Iranian people, who forged elections and who suppresses the Iranian people and stole the authority, is not entitled to talk about Palestine, or the president of Palestine.”
Further, Iran’s ties with Hamas have particularly alienated the Islamic Republic from the PA over the years, given the tense Hamas-PA relationship. According to Shideler, the PA even sought to recruit Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional rival nation, to “help in crushing Hamas back in April , effectively offering to bring the Saudi-Iran proxy fight to the [Palestinian] territories. The PA’s bid “seems to have failed, with the Saudi king meeting with Hamas leadership in July,” Shideler told JNS.org.
At the same time, however, the relationship between Hamas and Iran has also been bumpy in recent years. Iran’s ties with Hamas frayed at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011 because Hamas backed—and potentially also trained—Syrian rebels militarily. More recently, Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal visited Saudi Arabia for a series of high-level meetings. Reports indicate that Iran was outraged by the visit and cancelled a planned visit to Tehran by Mashaal. Additionally, senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk has said that Hamas’s relationship with Iran is now virtually nonexistent.
Yet Iranian ties with Hamas “are not dead,” Schanzer told JNS.org.
“The Qassam Brigades (Hamas’s armed wing) still maintains close ties [to Iran],” he said. “The disagreement is with the Hamas political types. Iran is likely to exploit how fractured Hamas is, and ultimately find a way back to being a major patron.”
Then there is Islamic Jihad, the other prominent Palestinian terrorist organization in Hamas-ruled Gaza. Iran has “had recent trouble” with Islamic Jihad, which is reportedly almost bankrupt due to Iran pulling its funding for the terror group after the latter announced support for forces opposing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shideler noted.
But ultimately, Iran has a vested interest in improving its relations with all of the various Palestinian factions in order to “be recognized as the chief leader and architect to resistance to Israel,” Shideler added.
“That may mean they want to work at ending schisms among the Palestinian leadership and reorienting all factions back towards focusing on Israel. This [upcoming visit by Abbas to Iran] may be intended to convince the PA that Iran wants to be the patron of Palestinian resistance at large, and not just of one or two groups,” he said.
While the Israeli Foreign Ministry has not yet released an official reaction to Abbas’s planned Iran visit, ministry spokesman Alon Melchior told JNS.org that the trip is “a bit peculiar.”
“The logic behind this visit is not really clear. Iran is financing their rivals (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) and terrorizing the region,” Melchior said.
But if one thing is certain, it is that the Abbas visit “won’t make the peace process any easier,” added Melchior.
The Iran nuclear deal also factors into Iranian-Palestinian relations because the Islamic Republic wants to use the agreement to solidify its place as a major Middle East power. It might be no coincidence that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released anew book titled “Palestine” around the time that the nuclear deal was reached.
Abbas “knows he is driving a wedge between Hamas and Iran” by engaging with the Islamic Republic, but the PA leader’s calculus is “bigger than that,” according to Schanzer.
“He also sees Iran as an emerging regional power after the nuclear deal. He is making sure that he is on the right side of Iran when that happens. Also, Iran is about to come into $100 billion in sanctions relief. The PA is broke. Do the math,” Schanzer said.
The PA might also believe that “better relations with Iran are the only way to keep Hamas at bay, since the gambit with the Saudis seemed to have failed,” added Shideler.
In recent years, beyond its military support for Hamas, Iran has had an increased interest in arming the PA-controlled disputed territories. In a 2014 speech, Khamenei said he believes that “the West Bank should be armed just like Gaza,” according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute.
Shideler believes that while the interests of Iran and the PA might not always align, they do have some common ground.
“Iran is invested in Hamas and needs Hamas as a proxy to initiate conflicts with Israel… But Iran and the PA can cooperate on diplomatic efforts to publicly embarrass and hamper Israel, such as over the nuclear issue—for example by using the nuclear deal to portray Iran as once again within international consensus on nuclear proliferation and casting Israel as the nuclear rogue,” he said.