Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, the head of World Assembly of Solidarity Among Muslim Sects, announced earlier in December that Iran will seek to sponsor the families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces this year. While not mentioning the exact number of sponsored families, Araki’s statement highlights the Islamic Republic’s desire to expand influence in the Gaza Strip.
This marks a continuation of the Iranian rapprochement since 2017 with Hamas, the Palestinian Sunni-Islamist organization, following a period of tension caused by Hamas’ refusal to back Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
What is even more surprising about this rapprochement is the fact that representatives of Hamas have supported the Syrian opposition, while both Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militant group supported by Iran, continue supporting the Assad regime. Indeed, Iran was quick in resuming its financial backing of Gaza groups, reportedly giving Hamas and other Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad over $100 million in 2018.
Despite the ongoing US sanctions on Iranian financial transactions and oil exports, the Islamic Republic has so far been more than able to exploit loopholes to maintain its financial support.
Although Hamas disagreed with Iranian support of Assad, the Syrian regime serves as an integral part in facilitating financial support to Hamas and other Palestinian groups. These transactions are part of a larger Iranian-Russian network, which transports Iranian oil to Syria in exchange for financial support going to Hamas, as pointed out by the US government, which has targeted 6 individuals and 3 entities that are part of these operations.
Moreover, both Iran and the Syrian regime have been reported to use militant groups in Gaza as proxies against the state of Israel. The latest example in these operations was reported by the Israeli army on October 27th where 39 rockets were fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip by Islamic Jihad. This attack is claimed to have been requested by the Syrian regime with the support of Iran, its key ally.
As the Syrian war has impacted inter-Arab relations, Iran is shaping into a much more influential power in Palestine, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, according to Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Iran currently is the largest financial supporter of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas‘ military wing.
The thaw in relations between Hamas and Iran can be explained through the growth of new disputes in the region, particularly between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Accused of supporting militant groups such as Hamas, the Qatari government is currently being boycotted by Saudi Arabia. While king Salman met with the leaders of Hamas in 2015, relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia has worsened in the past 3 years. As a result, Hamas has lost several of its international supporters. In this sense, Hamas’ rapprochement with Iran represents a way how the group can maintain its hold over the Gaza Strip with foreign support. Owing to the growing tensions with Israel, finding powerful supporters abroad is becoming a pressing matter.
Nevertheless, the ongoing economic crisis in Iran, made worse by U.S. sanctions, presents an immense challenge to the ambitions of the Iranian regime in the region. To improve its chances of partially overcoming its economic isolation, president Hassan Rouhani’s government has proposed legislation to meet the demands of the Financial Action Task Force, an international organization founded by the G7 to monitor money laundering and financing of international terrorist groups. Iran has until February 2019 to pass the bills, which are currently being opposed by hardliners and in limbo.
But if the proposed legislation is adopted it is clear that the future of Iran’s relations with groups designated as terrorist will become more problematic.