Many questions have arisen regarding the Islamic Republic's involvement in the October 7 attack on Israel by the Hamas terrorist group.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, evidently concerned about potential Israeli and US reactions, initially denied any involvement of the Iranian government.
However, he later threatened other governments of continued actions by militia groups supported by Iran.
This article delves into the four-decade relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hamas.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is known for its support of organizations like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which are active in the Middle East.
This support includes the supply of weapons and other forms of assistance. While some countries like Qatar and Turkey have offered financial aid to these groups, they typically do not provide them with arms or endorse their activities.
Some Arab countries have advocated for the two-state solution aiming for the recognition of and peace with Israel in exchange for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
It's important to note that Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Sunni groups related to the Muslim Brotherhood, receive support from Iran due to shared anti-Israel sentiments, despite sectarian differences.
This support has raised questions about the nature of their relationship with the Islamic Republic, particularly after Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad Nokhaleh said that Shias are not allowed in the group.
Shia and Sunni Islamist groups have a history of cooperation, despite occasional conflicts, particularly following the Iraq war in 2003 and unrest in Arab countries in 2011.
When the Islamic Republic came to power in Iran, it initially received a warm reception from many Sunni Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Some leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood even traveled to Iran to gain a deeper understanding of Ayatollah Khomeini's ideas.
What hindered the potential for cooperation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic was the strong support the Khomeini government lent to Hafez al-Assad in Syria.
In 1981, Assad initiated a crackdown on the Brotherhood's uprising in Hama, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people.
However, during the Iran-Iraq war, Damascus became Tehran's most important Arab ally. Khomeini's government supported the secular Syrian government against Islamists, causing a distortion in relations between the Brotherhood and the Khomeinists for a considerable period.
On another front, the Islamic Republic began establishing Hezbollah in Lebanon right at the outset of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Over the years, it fortified Iraqi and Shia groups in Afghanistan to establish a foothold there for Shia Islamism in the region.
Importantly, cooperation between Shia and Sunni Islamists, even the most radical factions, was never entirely severed. And during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah even collaborated with Al-Qaeda.
Islamic Jihad, whose formation dates back to the early years following the 1979 revolution, was most influenced by Khomeini. It continued its relationship with Tehran. In fact, it relied on this support to position itself as a competitor to other Palestinian groups.
For a period of time, the Islamic Republic even considered converting this group to Shia Islam and transforming it into a base for the spread of Shiism among Palestinians. However, the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood prevented such a transformation.
What brought the Islamic Republic and many Sunni Islamist groups closer together was their shared strong anti-Israel stance. In fact, the history of the Islamic Republic and its foreign policy is closely intertwined with the conflict between the Arab nations and Israel.
The 1979 revolution occurred shortly after Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Israel and the peace agreement between the two countries. Consequently, Khomeini made hostility toward Sadat a top priority for the Islamic Republic. This is exemplified by the fact that the Islamist assassin of Sadat, Khalid Islambouli, was celebrated as a hero in Iran, and Tehran even renamed one of its streets in his memory.
Egypt was the first Arab country to establish peace with Israel. In the years that followed, the Islamic Republic sought to support groups opposing peace efforts between other Arab nations and Israel, irrespective of their sectarian affiliations.
In November 1991, the Madrid Conference was convened at the behest of the United States and the Soviet Union to facilitate peace talks between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, including Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
The Islamic Republic was willing to support any group opposing these peace efforts.
Initially, Assad's government held a similar stance. However, following the Madrid Conference, secret negotiations in Oslo continued until 1993, resulting in historic agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which culminated in the handshake between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House.
It was during this period that Damascus and Tehran lent their support to a coalition of opposition groups known as the "Palestinian Forces Coalition," which included leftist and Islamist factions.
But Assad's government eventually initiated negotiations with Israel under pressure of and promises made by the Clinton administration.
While Damascus provided substantial support to Palestinian militant groups and opponents of peace, it also moved closer to making peace with Israel. In contrast, during the 1990s, the Islamic Republic increased its support to various groups whose activities included targeting rabbis and attacking markets and buses to harm women and children. These activities escalated, particularly after the failure of peace negotiations and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.
Khamenei's policy was to strengthen Islamist groups and at the same time support any anti-Israel organization.
"Palestinian militant organizations, including Fatah, Hamas, People's Front, Jihad, Hezbollah and others, have put their hands together and made a decision,” he said in March 2002. “Everyone has reached the same conclusion and found a way to sacrifice. They have understood that the way to save Palestine is to prepare for sacrifice."
Events in the following years increased the Islamic Republic’s presence on the Palestinian political scene. In 2003, the US-led invasion of Iran led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was perhaps the most important backer of Palestinian terrorist groups.
In 2004, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was killed in an Israeli attack, and Arafat died a few months later in Paris. The Islamic Republic now tried to influence new leaders such as Khaled Mashaal, who became the main face of Hamas, as no Arab government supported the group anymore.
Nonetheless, following the Iraq war, there was a notable rise in sectarianism and a proliferation of Shia and Sunni extremism in the region.
This complex situation strained relations between the Islamic Republic and Hamas. The Iranian government consistently made efforts to maintain these ties. When Hamas emerged victorious in the 2007 Palestinian elections, Khamenei extended his congratulations to Khaled Mashaal, describing the vote results as one of "God's pleasant surprises and the fulfillment of God's promise."
A year later, the conflict between the PLO and Hamas led to the expulsion of the PLO from Gaza, where Hamas established a government. The Islamic Republic achieved what it had been dreaming of: a group of "Axis of Resistance" was present in the southern borders of Israel, while Hezbollah was also threatening the country from the north.
In 2009, Hamas congratulated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his disputed reelection to the Iranian presidency. Mashaal visited Tehran where he met with both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.
Two years later, amid a new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Ahmadinejad angered the Palestinians by saying that the PLO does not represent the Palestinian people.
In response, Nabil Abu Radineh, the spokesperson for PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, said that "a person who is not a representative of the Iranian people and who rigged the election results and suppresses the Iranian people, has no right to say anything about Palestine, the president or his representatives."
Relations between the PLO and the Islamic Republic were disturbed, while ties between Tehran and Hamas were at their peak.
But the outbreak of the Syrian civil war strained the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic, just as after the 1981 massacre in Hama.
This time, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was one of the main groups supporting the opposition, while the Islamic Republic was the main backer of Bashar al-Assad. Tehran soon sent thousands of forces of the "resistance axis" to Syria on the initiative of Quds commander Qassem Suleimani.
The cooling of relations between the two sides quickly became public. In December 2012, Javad Karimi Qudousi, a former army officer and a member of the parliament’s National Security Commission, publicly expressed his displeasure toward Hamas leaders, even stating, "The Qassam battalions (the military branch of Hamas) are under the command of the Islamic Republic, not under Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh."
Mashaal, who had previously resided in Damascus, left the city for Doha, which was a prominent supporter of the opposition against Assad. Simultaneously, he sought closer ties with Saudi Arabia as he distanced himself from the Islamic Republic.
Another contributing factor to the increase in Hamas's self-confidence was the historic victory of the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring. Mohamad Morsi won the Egyptian presidential election, placing Cairo under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in its decades-long history.
The Muslim Brotherhood was expected to be the main winner of revolutions in the Arab world, and they were about to come to power in Tunisia and Yemen.
The parties aligned with the Brotherhood ideology were active in both Turkey and Morocco. However, the overthrow of Morsi through a coup on one hand, and the failure of the revolution in Syria on the other, pushed Hamas to once again pursue reconciliation with the Islamic Republic.
A year later, there were indications of better ties. Khamenei's Google Plus page shared a photo of Mashaal, and when Iranian cleric Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani died, Meshaal conveyed a message of condolences to Khamenei.
Nonetheless, it appeared that negotiations between Hamas and the Islamic Republic in Beirut and Tehran did not yield success.
In subsequent years, some Iranian media outlets provided neutral or negative coverage of Hamas and Meshaal. In an exclusive interview with France 24 in March 2016, Mashaal stated that "Iran is no longer one of the main supporters of Hamas."
When the Arab League designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, Hamas did not officially declare its opposition.
A year later, two apparently contradictory events occurred, ultimately strengthening the Islamic Republic's influence over Hamas.
During a visit to Doha in May, Mashaal unveiled Hamas’s new charter which for the first time seemed to endorse a governmental solution to the Palestinian issue. This was in contrast to Khamenei's long-standing position that Palestine should extend "from the river to the sea" and that Israel is a "cancerous tumor" that must be destroyed.
However, shortly after the release of this new charter, Ismail Haniyeh, the former Hamas leader in Gaza, became the new head of the group’s political office.
His successor in Gaza was Yahya Sinwar, who had a history of close association with the Islamic Republic. It became evident that Haniyeh and Sinwar intended to improve relations with Tehran and align the group with the "axis of resistance."
Qassem Suleimani congratulated Haniyeh on his election at the helm of hamas’s political office and emphasized the "continuation of the jihadist line until the liberation of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the entire Palestine" – a clear rejection of the manifesto that Mashaal had unveiled in Doha just a few days earlier. Sinwar soon told the media that Hamas’s relations with the Islamic Republic had been fully restored.
In recent years, the Iranian authorities and Hamas have been increasingly open about their relations and Tehran's financial support to this group. In 2012, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the then-commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), mentioned that Iran would send Fajr 5 missile technology to Gaza.
Currently, Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders openly discuss Iran's millions of dollars in aid.
Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, said in a 2019 interview with Al-Alam, the Arabic-language TV channel of the Islamic Republic, that he met Suleimani during a trip to Iran and received $22 million in cash.
In recent years, the Islamic Republic consistently sought to undermine peace initiatives. Khamenei sent a letter to Haniyeh in 2018 stating: "Initiating negotiations with the deceptive, mendacious and oppressive regime would be a grave and irreparable mistake that would ultimately impede the Palestinian people's triumph and lead to further suffering for this oppressed nation."
After Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad in January 2020, efforts to forge closer ties among the forces of the "axis of resistance" continued.
Ismail Qaani, the new commander of the Quds Force, undertook numerous trips to the region in recent years. One significant recent development was the obvious coordination between Hezbollah and Hamas, exemplified by the frequent visits of Qaani and the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to Beirut.
In the aftermath of Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, while the Iranian authorities initially sought to deny their direct involvement in the assault, media affiliated with the IRGC and Khamenei made efforts to highlight the Islamic Republic's role.
The Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, reported that Palestinian militants in Gaza had been able to conduct the "Rokn al-Shadid" exercises over the past years thanks to the significant support from the Islamic Republic.
The Kayhan newspaper asserted that one of the outcomes of the Hamas attack was the "disruption of the project aimed at normalizing relations between certain Arab countries” and Israel.
As a result, it can be argued that the main divide in the Middle East today is not rooted in the dichotomy between Islamism and secularism, or between Shiism and Sunnism.
On one side of this division is the Islamic Republic which, instead of prioritizing Iran's national interests, has pursued the path of Khomeinism and militancy in its interactions with the people and governments of the region.
On the other side, we find all the forces that advocate for peace and positive relations among all countries in the region.