- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Karim Sadjadpour, a leading researcher on Iran, who served in Iran for four years for the International Crisis Group, says that even though Iran is a major funder for Hamas, it does not seem to have direct control over the Palestinian group. "Hamas is certainly not an Iranian puppet," he says. "They weren’t created by Iran but at the same time, if you take Iranian rhetoric at face value, there’s certainly a great deal of Iranian support for Hamas," including funding which Hamas may use to buy rockets and other materials through underground channels. He says that the Iranian revolutionary leadership, including the present leaders, are virulently anti-Israel, and if the Obama administration is seeking a dialogue with Iran, it would be wise to not start with Israeli-Palestinian issues.
With the current conflict between Israel and Hamas now into its second week, there’s much said about Hamas’s relationship with Iran. Israel and its supporters describe Hamas as almost an agent for Iran and some Iran experts, particularly in the West, deny this and say that while Iran may support Hamas rhetorically, it really doesn’t have much control over it. Where is the truth as you see it?
The evidence is incredibly nebulous, and I think the confusion is due in part to Iran’s own policies and rhetoric. Some days Iran likes to claim that Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are indigenous independent forces which merely receive "moral support" from Iran. Then on other days, Iran likes to brag that the road to peace in the Middle East must go through Tehran and that Iran has great leverage over these very same groups. In 2006, when Hamas came into power, and the United States and the EU cut off funding to Hamas, Iran very publicly pledged $50 million aid to Hamas, so I think the truth is somewhere in between. Hamas is certainly not an Iranian puppet; they weren’t created by Iran. But at the same time, if you take Iranian rhetoric at face value, there’s certainly a great deal of Iranian support for Hamas.
The issue that is the crucial one right now is the question of the rockets that Hamas and other groups in Gaza use against Israel. Now some of these rockets are clearly homemade, so to speak, but others apparently have been made in Iran. If that’s the case, how do you think they got the rockets?
Again, I think it’s incredibly nebulous. My own speculation is that if Iran wants to help arm groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it’s easier to simply provide the finances for them to do it themselves. But to actually send arms from Iran and somehow get them into Gaza seems to be a very difficult and costly task.
Where do you think Hamas is getting these arms from?
I can only speculate. I’ve heard that these days, arms are very easily obtained via the black market, whether it’s through Syria, or through Egypt. I am not an arms expert. I can only speculate, but it just seems it would much more efficient for Iran to bankroll Hamas and allow them to purchase their arms from elsewhere.
Hezbollah of course gets arms from Iran through Syria.
And Iran clearly has a close relationship with Hezbollah. Now Hezbollah of course is a Shiite organization. Hamas is an Islamic Muslim organization sort of an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which in fact, is a leading Sunni Islamic group. But Iran clearly doesn’t make a distinction between Shiite and Sunni as long as each group is anti-American, anti-Israel.
Iran’s goal is to be the vanguard of the Islamic world and to be the regional power. The last thing they want to do is project Shiite power. They want the be a pan-Islamic power, so supporting groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad and supporting the Palestinian cause in general is Iran’s best way to transcend this Sunni-Shiite divide. So for Iran, it’s not at all an issue that Hamas is Sunni.
Within Hamas, I think there was initially a great deal of ambivalence about warming up to Iran. Remember, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which has more ideological views of Shiites. And I think within Hamas, it was something that wasn’t initially very popular, this new friendship with Tehran, but I think over time basically, Iran has filled the vacuum as the financial and ideological patron.
That’s particularly since Hamas took power and won the election in 2006, I guess.
Exactly, and Hamas saw that Iran served a useful purpose for them. When U.S. allies like Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia found themselves in a very difficult position in terms of giving money to the Hamas government, and at a time when Iran is pledging 50 million dollars, the issue of Iran being Shiite became far less important to Hamas.
Right now, there’s discussion about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Has Iran said much lately? In the early days of this fighting, there were all sorts of public statements about students volunteering to be martyrs but what has Iran been saying lately?
Well Iranian rhetoric against Israel is consistently vitriolic. There’s always this hateful rhetoric toward Israel and you see symbolic things like young people signing up for martyrdom operations and calling for Jihad against Israel. But in reality, what suits Iran the best is to simply sit on the sidelines; Iran benefits when enmity towards Israel is at its highest. That’s when Iran’s ideology resonates the loudest in the region. So I think that for the moment, they are happy to sit on the sidelines. They don’t want to open another war with Israel on the Lebanese border with Hezbollah [as in 2006]. And I think they realize that what’s transpiring right now in Gaza will provide more fertile ground for their ideology to resonate throughout the region.
The question comes to my mind goes back I suppose to the revolution in Iran in 1978-79. What prompted Iran to become so violently anti-Israel, after years of close cooperation between Iran and Israel under the Shah. I know Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, was very anti-Israel as well. What caused it?
It’s a big question. I mean there are two schools of thought. One school of thought is that Iran’s leadership isn’t actually deeply ideological against Israel but they use the Palestinian card to garner popular support on the Arab street and therefore enhance their regional power. So essentially, they use the Arab-Israel cause for political expediency. While there is some truth to this, I think that Iran’s enmity towards Israel is in fact quite ideological, and it goes back even before the revolution. Many of these revolutionaries who are now in power, namely Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, kind of cut their teeth as revolutionaries on the Palestinian issue. It was something they felt very strongly about. It was one of their main points of contention with the Shah. In the 1960s and 1970s they argued, "How dare the Shah have a relationship with Israel and ignore the plight of the Palestinians?" In my study of Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader, I saw that over the past 20 years the issue which figured most prominently in his speeches was the Palestinian issue. This is really quite remarkable when you think about it: Iran doesn’t have any borders with Israel and there are no Palestinian refugees in Iran. In fact Iran has a long history of contentious relations with the Arab world, and there’s a long history of tolerance within Iran for the Jewish people. So it doesn’t make much sense why this issue has figured so prominently with the revolutionary Iranian leadership. It’s not organic. As someone once said, people waking up in the morning in Shiraz don’t wake up thinking about Palestine. In any case, this is not something that I can see the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, being able to compromise on. When we’re looking at the prospects for some type of a U.S.-Iranian diplomatic accommodation, the Palestine issue is going to be I think a major impediment.
Can you expand on that a bit?
When I look at the U.S.-Iran relationship, there are six issues in which Iran plays an integral role and which are crucial challenges for U.S. foreign policy: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and energy security. There are common interests on many issues, mainly Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorism, given mutual concerns about Sunni radicals like Al Qaeda. The one issue where there really is no common ground and both sides have a very inflexible position is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And I think if we choose to start dialogue or engagement with Iran on that issue, there’s no potential for confidence to be built. At this time at least, the Iranian position on Israel is very inflexible.
Say a Palestinian authority came to power that worked out a deal with Israel. Would Iran accept that?
Well, that’s the important caveat in what I just said. Iran has said it will accept whatever the Palestinians themselves accept. When the Bush administration started the Annapolis project in 2007, they marketed it less as an effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue but more as means to unite the moderate countries in the region against the radicals-Iran, Hamas, Syria, Hezbollah. I think when you market it as such, when Palestinian-Israeli peace talks become a public means to isolate Iran, I think you provide incentives to the Iranians to try to sabotage the peace talks. So I would say that for the Obama team moving forward, it’s not realistic for them to invite Iran to participate in the Arab-Israeli peace process because it’s equivalent to inviting vegetarians to a barbeque-Iran disagrees with the fundamental premise of a two-state solution. But if we want them to refrain from playing a destructive role, in my opinion, the best way to defang them is by offering a bilateral U.S.-Iran dialogue. Otherwise, I don’t see Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who is now 69 year old and who on a weekly or daily basis over the last three decades has repeated the vitriolic rhetoric towards Israel, suddenly reinventing himself and saying, "we’ve decided to change our approach towards Israel."
It’s interesting that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets all the publicity for his vitriolic comments about Israel, but Khameini’s comments don’t get that much attention.
It’s interesting that when you do a Google search for Khamenei, he gets about one-tenth as many hits as Ahmadinejad, but in reality, he’s probably ten times more powerful than Ahmadinejad. When you look at the most powerful institutions within Iran-the Revolutionary Guards, Guardian Council, the parliament, and the presidency-they’re all headed by people who were either directly appointed by Khamenei or unfailingly loyal to him, so he’s more powerful than he’s ever been.
So you’re suggesting that if the United States wants to starts a dialogue with Iran, it should opt for a bilateral dialogue across the board, but inevitably, the Middle East would have to come up wouldn’t it?
The goal should be to try and establish a new tone and context for the U.S.-Iran relationship. We need to build confidence with Iran. Right now, there’s tremendous mutual mistrust. I think the best way to build confidence is to begin talking about issues on which there are a lot of overlapping interests. I would commence the dialogue talking about Iraq and Afghanistan and then gradually expand it to encompass the broader points of contention, like the nuclear issue and Israel-Palestine. I wouldn’t start by issuing Iran ultimatums on Israel-Palestine because it’s not going to bear any fruit.