The Tower, by Arik Agassi, January 2016:
Most people assume that the Sunni terrorist group ISIS is the natural and mortal enemy of Shia Iran, but this is not always the case. In fact, in at least one part of the Middle East, Iran has become a crucial, if indirect, sponsor of its supposed enemy.
As the world’s eyes are focused on ISIS terrorism in Europe, the Middle East, and even the U.S., the group’s branch in the Sinai has become one of the most powerful, dangerous, and effective in the region. Recent reports indicate that Iran, through the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, is primarily responsible for this.
The Iran-Hamas-ISIS axis is part of Iran’s strategy of using proxy forces against U.S. allies like Egypt and Israel as part of a larger strategy to achieve hegemony over the Middle East. This has resulted in one of the region’s best kept secrets: An intensive cooperation mechanism between Iran, Hamas, and ISIS, based on money, weapons, military equipment, and training.
Iran’s foreign policy goal of hegemony over the Middle East is based on its primary ideological pillar – exporting the Islamic Revolution to other countries using terrorism and political subversion. In pursuing its ambitions, Iran has often put aside its religious differences with radical Sunni groups like ISIS and Hamas. The Islamic Republic is more than willing to cooperate with these groups as long as doing so helps promote its larger interests.
“By directly supporting Hamas in Gaza and indirectly supporting ISIS in the Sinai, Iran is able to gain foothold against Israel and Egypt to destabilize them, undermine America’s regional influence, create another Iranian power base in a Sunni-dominated region, and project its power and influence in its pursuit of regional hegemony,” Major (res.) Dan Feferman, a former senior IDF intelligence officer and Iran specialist, told the Tower. When asked why Iran would indirectly fund a serious rival such as ISIS, Feferman said that Lebanon, Iraq, and especially Syria are more important to Iran than the Sinai, as Iran wants to preserve its influence in states affected by the Syrian civil war – so Iran fights ISIS in those counties. In places where Iran does not have a strong influence, such as Egypt, it feels comfortable supporting ISIS, albeit indirectly.
“Just like Iran needs ISIS in Syria and Iraq to maintain its relevance among world powers such as Russia and the United States, it has no problem with ISIS gaining strength in Sinai for the time being,” added Brigadier General (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and former head of Israeli intelligence’s Research and Assessment Division added. “If ISIS gains more power in the Sinai and Iran is able to help demean that power in the future, it will once again position itself as an address to world powers and thus demand something in return. Moreover, as long as Iran is able to weaken the moderate Sunni Arab state alliance of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan by indirectly supporting ISIS Sinai through Hamas, it won’t stop doing so.”
But Iran’s support of ISIS via Hamas goes deeper than mere strategic considerations. Despite the deep ideological rifts between Iran, Hamas, and ISIS in Sinai, as well as the traditional animosity between Shias, Sunnis, and Salafists, all three groups see each other as temporary partners in
1. The destruction of the state of Israel.
2. Undermining the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ authority.
3. Opposing and destabilizing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Western-oriented regime, especially in regard to its peace treaty with Israel.
4. Harming U.S. interests in the region and undermining its presence in the Middle East as a whole.
5. Bridging the Sunni-Shia divide and reconstituting a Muslim caliphate.
For Iran, Hamas and ISIS serve different aspects of these ambitions. Iran uses Hamas to deepen the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by supporting Palestinian terror and a rejectionist approach to the peace process. It uses ISIS in the Sinai against al-Sisi and to further its vision of a caliphate dominated by Iran.
Iran could not support ISIS in Sinai or pursue its ambitions against Israel and Egypt without Hamas. The relationship between the terrorist organization and Iran is deep and of long standing. Indeed, Iran has provided funding, weapons, training, technology, and political support to Hamas for decades.
This relationship began almost simultaneously with the founding of Hamas, and has intensified every time the peace process appeared to be gaining momentum. In October 1991, Iran convened a conference in Tehran whose purpose was to unite various radical organizations led by Hamas who were hostile to the PLO’s negotiations with Israel at the Madrid peace summit. The groups gathered in Tehran called for the destruction of Israel and pledged to make every possible effort to sabotage the newborn peace process, which was seen as a direct threat to their strategic goals.
Iran-Hamas relations were officially formalized in October 1992, when a Hamas delegation led by then-Secretary General Mousa Abu-Marzuq visited Tehran for talks. Iran permitted Hamas to open an office in Tehran, provided it with millions of dollars in cash, and agreed to have the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps train thousands of Hamas members in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon.
This initially lukewarm relationship became a full-blown alliance when the second intifada began in 2000. Iran began funding, recruiting, directing, training, and supporting Palestinian terrorists and building the infrastructure to support them. This included carrying out suicide bombings, paying the families of terrorists, and providing monthly salaries to terrorists in Israeli jails.
The Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 created a new reality. Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006, which resulted in a significant increase in Iranian funding. Immediately following the elections, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited Iran and secured an estimated $20 million per month from the Islamic Republic – enough to cover Hamas’ entire budget. This was followed by a visit from Hamas’ former Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, in which Iran pledged $250 million in aid. The funds were earmarked to pay the wages of civil servants, bankroll Hamas security forces, and compensate Palestinian families that lost their homes during Israeli military operations.
In June 2007, Hamas carried out a putsch in the Gaza Strip, neutralized Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s military and political power, and set up a radical Islamic government. Following the takeover, Iran became a patron of the new Gaza regime, providing Hamas with military, financial, political, and media support. Iran saw the establishment of Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip as a way to wage an armed campaign against Israel and advance its influence in the Palestinian arena. The exposure of the Israeli home front to rocket fire during three rounds of armed confrontation between Israel and Hamas showed the Iranians the great benefits they could reap by constructing a military infrastructure for Hamas.
As a result, Iranian money, equipment, and military expertise keep flowing to Hamas and then to ISIS.
Despite some rifts between Iran and Hamas’ political wing since 2012 (stemming from Hamas moving its headquarters from Syria and refusing to follow the Iranian line by supporting President Bashar al-Assad), the Times of Israel reported in September that, boosted by the nuclear deal, Iran has increased its funding to Hamas’ military wing with literally “suitcases of cash” sent directly to leaders in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Telegraph quoted top senior Western intelligence officials in April saying that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have transferred tens of millions of dollars to Hamas.
Listen to Kyle Shideler, Director of the Center for Security Policy’s Threat Information Office, discuss the relationship between ISIS and Hamas in this Secure Freedom Podcast:
- IRAN AND THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IN THE ARABIC-SPEAKING WORLD: THE BEST OF ENEMIES? (rubincenter.org)
Israel Sees Short and Long-term Repercussions in Iranian Sanctions Relief (investigativeproject.org)