By Saeid Jafari October 19, 2023
Seyed Ali Alavi is a lecturer in Middle Eastern and Iranian Studies at SOAS University of London. He is also the author of Iran And Palestine: Past, Present, Future, a book released in 2019 that looks at the history of Tehran’s relationship with the Palestinian territories.
Alavi spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda about Iran’s ties to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and the likelihood of Tehran becoming directly involved in the ongoing Israeli-Hamas conflict.
RFE/RL: How can we characterize Iran’s relationship with Hamas? Is the Palestinian group an Iranian proxy force?
Seyed Ali Alavi: There are misunderstandings about Hamas’s relations with Iran. Hamas is ideologically connected to the [Egypt-based] Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Islamic republic of Iran politically supports Hamas, they had major disagreements during the Syrian civil war when Hamas stood against [President Bashar] al-Assad’s Syria and refused to support Iran’s initiative in Syria. Hamas welcomes support from every country that [accepts] it as part of the Palestinian political spectrum. Iran supports Hamas politically as it allows Iran to be seen as the supporter of the Palestinian cause.
RFE/RL: What is the extent of Iran’s support for Hamas? Iranian officials have previously said the country provides extensive support to the group.
Alavi: Iran has no borders with Gaza or with the [Palestinian-run] West Bank. Iranian support seems to be limited to financial support and the transfer of technology. Having said that, Hamas receives more financial and political support from its organic allies, Qatar and Turkey. Since the Syrian war, Iran has reduced its support to Hamas as they have different outlooks when it comes to the region beyond Palestine and Israel.
RFE/RL: You believe that Iran’s support for Hamas is limited. But we know that representatives of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group operating in Gaza, have made frequent trips to Iran. Does Tehran play a role in training these groups and planning their attacks?
Alavi: Hamas officials and their political offices are based in Qatar, and they regularly visit Turkey and Egypt as well as Iran. Diplomatic visits do not necessarily translate to a flood of logistical aid. Gaza has been under a full [Israeli] blockade since 2006 and the only route is through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
Israel has revealed that its forces conducted hundreds of attacks on Iran’s allies in Syria since the beginning of the Arab Spring [uprisings in 2011]. Nevertheless, we did not witness any escalation or Iranian retaliation. It is very unlikely that we will see Iran getting involved in the [Israeli-Hamas] conflict. Iran’s response, like other regional states, will likely remain rhetorical and diplomatic.
RFE/RL: You mentioned Turkey and Qatar’s support for Hamas. What is the Palestinian group’s relationship with these two regional actors?
Alavi: Hamas’s political office is located in Qatar, and Hamas has natural and organic relations with Turkey. Hamas’s leadership has repeatedly praised Turkey as a role model for governance in the region. Unlike Iran, which is under severe [U.S.] sanctions, Doha has the financial power to support the Hamas government in Gaza. Hamas also stood by Turkey in Syria and sees itself [politically] closer to Ankara than Tehran. Hence, Iran’s support seems confined to rhetorical and moral support and limited financial aid.
RFE/RL: Turkey and Qatar’s support for Hamas seems to be mostly political and financial. So, where does Hamas get its weapons from?
Alavi: The most important support that Hamas has is financial. Financial support can be transferred to other sectors, including the military. Iran does not have the capacity or the appetite to provide that on a large scale.
RFE/RL: You mentioned Iran’s disagreements with Hamas, including the Palestinian group’s refusal to support Assad, a key Tehran ally, during the Syrian civil war. Has Iran’s support for Hamas diminished?
Alavi: Hamas is not a homogenous entity. There are differences within Hamas. There is no confirmation about how much aid Hamas has received from Iran in the past few decades. While Qatar and Turkey have access to global financial hubs, Iran doesn’t and its financial support seems to be much more limited. Iran’s loud rhetorical support [for the Palestinian cause] and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s animosity [toward Tehran] puts Iran in the spotlight more than other states in the region.
RFE/RL: Have Hamas and Iran repaired their relationship?
Alavi: Hamas has its own autonomous foreign policy that is based on its ideology and national interest. Politically, Hamas clashed with Iran over Syria and publicly sided with Turkey against President Assad and against Iran. Having said that, Hamas needed political support at the global stage. Hence, its leadership attempted to repair its relations with Iran. Having said that, it is still an open question as to what extent Hamas’s relations with Iran have been fully restored.
RFE/RL: Do you think there is a risk that the Israeli-Hamas conflict will turn into a broader war in the Middle East that could drag in Iran?
Alavi: Iran’s supreme leader in his latest speech rejected the allegations that Iran was involved in the war. Ayatollah Khamenei did not even name Hamas. But he reiterated Iran’s moral support for the Palestinians. Iran is not willing to directly enter any regional conflicts beyond its borders. Tehran maintained this policy when the [Afghan] Taliban took over Kabul [in 2021] and when Azerbaijan and Armenia fought in 2020 and 2023. It is vital to look at the history of the Palestinian conflict and not blame regional or international players for the recent tragedy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Copyright (c) 2023. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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