Following five years of strained relations between the two allies over the Syrian crisis, the latest visits by Hamas leaders to the Iranian capital and their warm remarks indicate that the two parties have reset their ties.
Hamas had voluntarily withdrawn from Syria months after the outbreak of the uprising there as the Damascus-based leadership at the time rejected embracing a supportive position toward the Syrian regime. Furthermore, it implicitly criticized the Iranian intervention in the country and the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime there. Not only in Syria, Hamas issued a statement supporting the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen in 2015 that aimed to attack the Iran-backed Houthis who'd overrun the capital Sanaa a year before.
Following 2013's coup in Egypt and the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood's project in the region, Hamas had been suffering from Egyptian-led Arab isolation that badly affected the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip since the Egyptian regime, along with Israel, strangled the coastal enclave by shutting the Rafah crossing, the one and only border crossing linking Gaza with the world.
Regional developments didn't favor Hamas, which was left alone in Israel's crazy war in 2014 against the Strip in which dozens of thousands of Palestinians were killed and injured and almost the same number of houses completely destroyed.
Following that war, Hamas' armed wing – the al-Qassam Brigades – sent thanks for what they termed the "non-limited" Iranian support for Hamas in that war, which meant that Iran maintained relations with the military wing of Hamas, while its relations with the political bureau deteriorated.
Knocking on Iran's door
Hamas said on various occasions that its desire to normalize ties with Iran came after Arab doors were shut on the group's leaders who were desperate for financial and military support, pushing them to knock on Iran's door again with a view to, at least, safeguard the only breather for its military wing.
Iran, for its part, sought to punish Hamas for its position in the Syrian crisis by cutting financial support to the group, which was estimated at $250 million a year. Tehran also unleashed many of its officials to attack Hamas' position, saying that it was merely a bid by a stream in Hamas looking to get closer to the Saudi axis.
It's clear what changed on the Hamas side. However, big developments occurred on the Iranian side that made its need for Hamas much bigger and prompted its policy makers to fully restore ties with the Palestinian resistance group.
First is the danger of the Trump administration's uncertainty. Since assuming power two years ago, U.S. President Donald Trump had been threatening to annul the nuclear agreement former President Barack Obama's administration reached with Iran in 2015 before doing so in May this year. Trump's threats and moves coincided with Israeli ongoing intimidations to launch a war on the Iran-backed Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria. Amid this, Iran found itself in urgent need to repair its "Axis of Resistance," which was totally solid before the outbreak of the Syrian uprising. Iran's keenness to restore that axis was aimed not only at defending a probable threat by the U.S. and Israel but to challenge the newly-manifested rapprochement between Israel and some Gulf countries, which were allegedly caused by Iranian expansionist policies in the region.
Cairo's position in Gaza
Second is Egypt's increasing influence in the Gaza Strip. The latest months experienced Egyptian shuttle diplomacy between Gaza, Ramallah and Tel Aviv to reach a truce between Hamas and Israel on one side and to broker national reconciliation between the Palestinian rivals. Tehran knows very well that any increase in Egyptian influence in the Palestinian territories would be at its expense. Iran used to be keen on not losing the Hamas and Islamic Jihad card that it benefits from, while justifying its interventions in many Arab states, particularly Syria and Lebanon, under the guise of protecting the Axis of Resistance.
Calmness on the Syrian front is the third dynamic that prompted Iran to restore relations with Hamas. Since the war the U.S. launched on Iraq in 2003, Iran has been receiving a big wave of sectarian hatred in the Arab and Muslim region due to its support for forces – mostly Shiite – that allied with the Anglo-American occupation of Baghdad. Iran's behavior first in Iraq and then in its intervention in Syria and Yemen and its backing for the Shia powers there drove Arab and Islamic publics, mostly Sunni communities, to reconsider the sectarian dynamic driving Iran's policies in the region that had not been considered on a sectarian basis in the past.
The annual Arab Opinion Index released by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, which examines Arab opinions at the end of each year, indicated that at least 63 percent of the respondents saw Iranian policies in the region as negative at the end of 2015 compared with 52 percent in the same period of 2014. Accordingly, Iran sought to restore relations with a Sunni ally that enjoys a good reputation in the Arab region with a view to washing its image, which was tarnished by the latest sectarian trends, since such merits to a great extent exist only in Hamas as a Palestinian resistance group that has overwhelming popularity among Sunni Arab and Muslim peoples.
* Ph.D. student in Yıldırım Beyazıt University's Department of International Relations
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