The eruption of the latest Israel-Hamas conflict highlights the fragility of stability in the Middle East, challenging previous assumptions that a more peaceful period was at hand.
The emerging diplomatic efforts in the Persian Gulf, notably in regard to Tehran, appeared positive, but they always risked diminishing U.S. regional influence and strengthening Iran’s power. We now know the risk was very real. This emphasizes the need for the United States to bolster its security commitments to its Gulf partners, foster closer ties between Gulf states and Israel, and enhance the Gulf states’ self-defense capabilities to prepare for potential future conflicts. All this must be part of a long-term strategic approach.
In the volatile world of geopolitics, certain relationships stand out for their potential to shape and disrupt international stability. One such intricate web of connections exists between the mullahs’ regime in Iran and the terrorist groups Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. This nexus intertwines ideologies and practical cooperation with significant implications for the Middle East, particularly in the Palestinian arena.
Since it seized power in 1979, the Iranian regime has always sought to export its destructive revolutionary ideology, known as Khomeinism, beyond its borders. Initially confined to Shi’ite movements, this ideology’s allure expanded to Sunni-dominated regions, including the Palestinian-ruled territories. PIJ, in particular, has emerged as a Sunni movement inspired by Iran’s revolutionary zeal, despite the predominantly Shi’ite character of the regime’s ideology.
Throughout the 1980s, the relationship between Iran and PIJ remained one-sided, with the Palestinian movement responding to Iran’s spiritual influence. However, the dynamics shifted in the late 1980s after the Iran-Iraq War, when Iran broadened its focus beyond Shi’ite domains. This shift coincided with the eruption of the First Intifada in 1987, an uprising that jumpstarted Islamic militancy among groups like PIJ and, more prominently, Hamas. Following the deportation of the PIJ leadership to Lebanon in 1988, the Iranian regime’s involvement with the terrorist organization significantly escalated.
Concurrently, Iran sought to widen its influence in the Palestinian sphere by strengthening its relations with Hamas, initially with limited success. This changed after the Gulf War and the 1991 Madrid Conference, when Iran’s interests and Hamas’s objectives converged.
For Iran, Hamas offered several advantages: It served as a platform to showcase Iran’s Islamic leadership and enabled Iranian involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hamas, steadfast in its rejection of Israel’s right to exist and dedicated to the use of terrorism, was by nature aligned with the Iranian regime’s doctrines and tactics, encouraging Iranian support.
Iran’s efforts to export its Khomeinist ideology were underscored in a series of moves undertaken from 1990 onwards. Key landmarks included the 1990 Islamic Conference on Palestine in Tehran and the 1991 International Conference to Support the Islamic Revolution of the People of Palestine. These events showcased the growing cooperation and coordination between Iran and the Palestinian Islamic movements, with all parties uniting to thwart the Oslo peace process.
Ideologically, the impact of the Iranian revolt on PIJ was profound. The movement adopted core tenets of Khomeini’s interpretation of Shi’ite Islam, placing a strong emphasis on jihad as a symbol of activism and sacrifice. The Iranian Islamic/Marxist terrorist revolt in 1979 became an ideal model for PIJ to implement on the Palestinian stage, showcasing the immense ideological influence of Iran’s revolutionary Khomeinist vision. In essence, the current Iranian regime initially ascended to power with the aid of a transnational network of Islamic terrorism. Over time, it has sustained its authority by employing terrorism as a strategic tool of the state. This approach positions the core of this influence in Tehran, making it a central hub in this web of control.
In contrast, Hamas, founded as a Sunni movement, maintained an anti-Shiite stance. Despite a growing political affinity with Iran beginning in the early 1990s, Hamas resisted attempts to bridge the Sunni-Shi’ite theological divide. Politically, Hamas remained more independent compared to PIJ, taking an ambivalent stance during the Gulf War.
Practical cooperation between Iran and the Palestinian Islamic movements was political, financial and military. Iran’s financial aid and military training, facilitated through proxies like Hezbollah, significantly bolstered PIJ’s capabilities. Evidence suggests that Iranian support also played a crucial role in shaping PIJ’s tactics and operations.
In the case of Hamas, the extent of military and financial assistance from Iran remains unclear. While Hamas cooperates with Iran politically, especially after the Gulf War and the Madrid Conference, the magnitude of direct military support from Iran is difficult to ascertain. Hamas, with its well-established infrastructure and armed capabilities, may not be reliant on external military aid.
The cooperation between Iran, PIJ and Hamas poses a challenge to the stability of the entire region. The Iranian revolution’s exportation to the Palestinian arena represents a significant threat. PIJ, a fervent and fanatical organization, could be a potent tool for Iran to undermine any potential peace process and exert its influence in the region.
Addressing this challenge is crucial to fostering peace and stability in the Middle East. The Iranian regime may soon activate other terrorist groups in support of Hamas. While there are significant differences between them, Iran, PIJ and Hamas are on parallel paths.