In a special Knesset session today called specifically to focus on “the political, economic, and social failures of Netanyahu’s government” the PM asserted that “Gaza is Iran” and blamed those who supported the 2005 disengagement from Gaza for allowing Iran a foothold right on Israel’s border. For those not following terribly closely, the implication is that Hamas is Iran’s close ally and allowing Iranian agents to operate in Gaza with impunity. However, as Jonathan Schanzer makes clear over at Foreign Policy, while Iran is most likely behind the recent spate of rocket fire, the Iranians are working at cross-purposes with Hamas this time around. Schanzer argues that Hamas desperately wants to avoid a war given its leadership’s exit from Syria and newly shaky position, and indeed senior Hamas leaders have explicitly committed themselves to stay out of any war between Israel and Iran. For the first time since joining forces, Iran and Hamas appear to have different interests and it is causing a real split.
This view strikes me as correct, but the interesting question is whether this is only a short-term shift or whether the Hamas-Iran de facto alliance is over for good. Hamas’s relationship with Iran was born out of necessity; it did not have the backing of secular Sunni dictators like Hosni Mubarak, and so it was not going to eschew the backing of an Islamic regime that was a sworn enemy of Israel, even if Iran was a Shia state. Iranian backing allowed Hamas’s leaders to set up shop in Damascus under the protection of Iranian proxy Bashar al-Assad, and Iran has bankrolled Hamas for over a decade. It is unclear whether Hamas can afford to pay any of its employees in Gaza if Iran withdraws its financial support, and so despite the current rift Hamas might eventually have to come to terms with the fact that it can’t live without Iran and go back to being more compliant with its wishes.
On the other hand, the Arab Spring and the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt means that Hamas is no longer as politically isolated as it once was. Hamas leaders have already moved on to Cairo and Doha, and it is no stretch to think that their money problems might soon be solved by more friendly Sunni governments. More importantly, Iran’s pitting of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees against Hamas is destined to drive Hamas farther away from Iran rather than intimidating them into returning to the fold. The same folks who had no problem throwing Fatah members off the roofs of 15 story buildings are unlikely to be squeamish against cracking down on PIJ and PRC fighters when push comes to shove (pun intended). Hamas is in a better position geopolitically than it was when it needed to rely on Iranian largesse, and this spat might signal a permanent split.
My guess is that the latter position is the correct one, and that Hamas is going to permanently move away from Iran, even once events in Syria are sorted out, and into the orbit of similarly minded Sunni Islamist governments. Hamas is no longer so desperate as to accept help from just anyone, and wants to permanently disassociate itself from unpopular governments now that one of the main lessons of the Arab Spring is that Arab public opinion matters. Keep this in mind when hearing Israeli politicians or Middle East analysts link Iran and Hamas together in Gaza. Each presents a unique set of challenges in its own right, and while the connection between the two was strong for a decade, it is likely soon to come to a close.