November 25, 2014

With Morsi Gone, Hamas Turns Back to Iran


A number of recent reports have noted the revival of Iranian financial backing for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which rules the Gaza Strip. The Iranian decision appears to follow a series of meetings between officials of the Islamic Republic and senior Hamas members in recent days. It is not yet clear what this apparent Iranian rapprochement with Hamas will mean in practice. Iranian arming and support of Hamas never entirely ended, though its levels were drastically reduced after Hamas departed Damascus in November 2012.

But the reason for the rekindled romance between Tehran and Gaza is very clear — this is the latest fallout from the July coup in Egypt.

As time goes on, it is becoming clear that the military coup was a historic moment. Prior to it, there was a growing sense that the onward march of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Sunni Islamism was unstoppable. Indeed, the “Arab Spring” is best understood as beginning not with the self-immolation of the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, but rather with the Hamas coup against Fatah in Gaza in June 2007, the first political victory of Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamists against their nationalist rivals. The next key event was the toppling of Bin Ali in Tunisia and the subsequent victory of the Islamist al-Nahda party in 2011. The third — and most important — event was the bringing down of the Western-aligned military regime in Egypt in 2011, and its replacement by a Muslim Brotherhood government.

The fourth advance came in Syria, as military groups dedicated to a Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamist ideology came to dominate the rebellion, and for a moment at the beginning of 2013 appeared to be close to victory against the Assad regime.

The fomentor and financier of much of this was a single Middle Eastern state: the Emirate of Qatar. Qatari financial backing for the Muslim Brotherhood in all of these countries was essential to success. Of course, the ceaseless agitation by the enormously influential al-Jazeera channel — maintained by the Qataris — played a vital role in spreading the message.

Hamas, like many others during 2011 and 2012, saw an emergent Brotherhood and Qatari power alliance in the region. The movement’s domination of Egypt would be the jewel in the crown; Qatar would be the financier. The Hamas enclave in Gaza would take its position as an honored member of this alliance. Since it was safe to assume that vilification and hatred of the Jewish state would form an essential element of the new aligned states, Hamas was looking forward to a secure and well-padded future.

In October, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa paid an official visit to Gaza, pledging $400 million to the Hamas administration there.

Some of the militants of the Qassam Brigades objected to the growing ties with Qatar. An alliance headed by Qatar — which ultimately relies on the West for its security — and Egypt — which remained formally committed to a peace deal with Israel — would mean the end of Hamas militancy, they claimed. But they lost the argument. Hamas thought it was part of the force set to redefine the politics of the Arab Middle East.

And anyway, how could Hamas — a Sunni Islamist movement — remain aligned with the Shia sectarian bloc that was slaughtering Sunni Muslims by the tens of thousands in Syria? They couldn’t, and they didn’t.

Unfortunately for Hamas, it has all gone horribly wrong.

In retrospect, it seems that late 2012 represented the high-water mark of the Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood project in the region. Since that time, Qatar and the Brotherhood’s various enemies have hit back hard.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed a coup in Egypt, which with one stroke nullified the main gain of the Brotherhood and Qatar. The new regime in Egypt has adopted a hardline approach, banning the Brotherhood and besieging Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The Emir of Qatar retired under unclear circumstances in June 2013. The new Emir Tamim appears to be pursuing a far more cautious and modest regional policy — Qatar has been largely invisible in recent months.

In Syria, Iran and its allies mobilized and have halted the advance of the rebels. The Saudis meanwhile, with less success, have sought to curtail the influence of Muslim Brotherhood-associated factions within the rebellion.

The waning of the Qatari tide left Hamas stranded. As mentioned above, it never completely severed the link with the Iranians. Now, with Sisi’s security forces pressing against it in northern Sinai, Hamas has little choice but to turn back to the Iran-led regional bloc.

The turn back to Iran will prevent any possible eclipse of the Hamas regime in Gaza, and end any hopes that the Ramallah Palestinian Authority might have had for its return to exclusive control of Palestinian nationalism. Beyond this, it may well presage a turn back to militancy by Hamas, which has been very quiet since the conclusion of Operation Pillar of Defense in early 2013.

Ultimately, Hamas’ turn back to Iran is a testimony to the group’s new weakness. Of course, the setbacks for the Muslim Brotherhood may not be permanent. It is down, but hardly out. But for the moment, its various component parts are in retreat.

For a moment, it looked like Hamas was riding the tide of history. Then the tide turned. 

About Jonathan Spyer

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters' Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His blog can be followed at: http://jonathanspyer.com/.