In a rare and highly symbolic July 30 public comment, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, Ghassem Suleimani, called for the Iranian people to stand behind Hamas and pledged his support for their fight against Israel.
Suleimani told Palestinians that the Islamic Republic support them wholeheartedly and that all Muslims should join the fight against Israel. “Martyrdom for Palestine is the wish of any honorable Muslim,” he said in a letter posted on a Arabic language website and later on the website of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) and other Iranian sites.
Suleimani used the rare public address to reject the idea of a demilitarized Gaza as fantasy, echoing remarks made by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei earlier in the week. The West, Suleimani said, was deluded if it believed that the Muslim “resistance” would be disarmed.
In recent weeks, there has been widespread speculations over Suleimani’s whereabouts. It was believed he had left Syria to oversee operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), though this had not been confirmed by the Revolutionary Guards or government officials.
The letter was seen by many as an attempt to quell the escalating sectarian tensions in the region that have been emerged around the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS. “Unity with Palestine will terrorize the enemy—while fighting each other will bring the enemy joy,” Suleimani said. Coming on the heels of similar comments from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah, there has also been speculation whether these sentiments could actually translate into military action.
Using highly emotional rhetoric, Suleimani spoke of the “duty” Iranians had to stand beside Gazans in their battle against Israel. “Before God the Almighty, we make a pact with martyrs,” he said. He said Palestinians should have no doubt that Iran and its leaders stood beside them, and that their eventual victory would be on a grand scale: “We will persist with victory until the land, the sky and the sea turn into hell for Zionists. The murderers and the mercenaries must know that we will not stop defending the resistance, not even for a moment.”
“It wounds our hearts and fills us with grief,” Suleimani continued, referring to the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, “a grief which holds a deep rage. When the time comes, this rage will be poured on the heads of the criminal Zionists.”
He praised the leaders of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine and went to some length to distinguish them from other Palestinian resistance groups.
Suleimani, who seldom gives public addresses, made it clear that it was not only Israel that deserved punishment: “Damn those who have done you injustice and continue to do so,” he said. “Damn any oppressor who has supported and continues to support this criminal regime,” he said, “especially America, which leads this tyranny.”
There were also indirect references to Egypt and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent decision to close tunnels and checkpoints between Gaza and the Sinai desert: “Damn those who have closed the doors of relief to you and take part in Zionist crimes,” he told Palestinians.
A Plan of Action, A PR Campaign or a Wish List?
Suleimani’s call for solidarity comes at a time when Hamas hopes to gain back support lost in recent years, particularly from Iran and Shia Hezbollah, who have both supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Hamas backed the Sunni insurgents in Syria, who have had closer ties to its own political worldview. Without the support of Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic, and with the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas has become increasingly isolated.
Prior to Suleimani’s message, both Ayatollah Khamenei and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah—also not known for making regular public appearances— pledged support for the Palestinians, with Nasrallah expressing a willingness to fight against Israel to protect Gaza, despite existing tensions between Hizbollah and Hamas. However, in the same speech, Nasrallah said he was confident the Palestinians would be victorious against the “Zionists,” suggesting they would not need to call on Hezbollah or any other group—and neatly sidestepping his previous statement.
What remains to be seen is whether these statements really signal a plan of action to help Hamas, are a public relations campaign or simply a wish list. Since the last major confrontation against Gaza in 2008, the situation on the ground has changed substantially. In the current climate, Egypt will be against any support for Gaza—be it man power or equipment—being delivered by way of its territory. Acknowledged as a highly influential figure in the region, Suleimani's comments will be interpreted by many as Iran’s public commitment to anti-Israeli forces, something that would have been downplayed five years ago.
Despite Nasrallah’s pronouncements, the border between Israel and Lebanon remains calm. Hezbollah is well-armed and well-trained, but its focus is on Syria, where many of its fighters are engaged in battle, and it can little afford a fight on two fronts.
And with an economy still suffering enormously from the impact of sanctions, Iran cannot afford military intervention in Gaza, not least because it already has operations in Syria and Iraq, overseen by Suleimani, who is well aware of the costs involved. Both conflicts show few signs of easing off and the pressure on Iran is likely to increase.
In recent years Iran has presented itself as the symbol of resistance in the Middle East, standing up to the United States and Israel, and the Qods Force, with Suleimani at the helm, have been central to this image. But however Iran’s image has been altered, the Islamic Republic still portrays Suleimani as a brilliant commander and diplomat, and this has some influence over any conflict with which Iran becomes involved, whether it’s Iraq and Syria, or in its public support of uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen. So where is he now, and what are his next steps?
As a wish list, Suleimaini’s comments seem genuine: the Islamic Republic would love Sunni extremists to simply evaporate, so that they can concentrate on destroying the “Zionist entity.” But it’s an unlikely prospect, not least because the jihadis of the Islamic State and its compatriots consider the Islamic Republic of Iran to be an evil on par with Israel, if not worse.