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The Race for Iran



Today is the 22nd anniversary of the founding of the Movement of the Islamic Resistance, otherwise known by its Arabic acronym, HAMAS (which is also the Arabic word for “zeal”).  To commemorate the occasion, HAMAS organized a public rally in Gaza that attracted more than 100,000 people. At the rally, Ismail Haniya—the Palestinian Authority’s last elected Prime Minister—pledged that “HAMAS will not retreat from jihad and resistance until it achieves freedom and independence for our people…We will not recognize Israel and we will not abandon resistance”.  More immediately, Haniya made clear that HAMAS will not roll over for a widely anticipated announcement this week by the PLO’s Central Committee extending the term of PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazin) on debatable legal grounds:  “We say to PLO Central Council members who will meet tomorrow in Ramallah that any decision that contradicts the constitution and contradicts the will of the people will not be binding”.

Surrounding the anniversary of HAMAS’s founding, the group’s Damascus-based political leader, Khalid Mishal, has been touring the region, including a stop in Tehran over the weekend, where he was warmly received by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Besides reaffirming the Islamic Republic’s unflinching support for “the Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian people”, the Iranian President cited HAMAS’s accomplishments in standing up to Israel as important cases of the “successive failures” in the region experienced by the enemies of Iran and Palestine.  Indeed, Ahmadinejad extolled HAMAS and Palestine as a “symbol of the global front of freedom-seekers and militants”. 

Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and longstanding Iranian support for HAMAS should not be dismissed as public posturing, for Iran’s ties to HAMAS have been critical to the Islamic Republic’s rising regional standing and influence in recent years

Founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian intifada, HAMAS quickly emerged as both the leading Palestinian Islamist resistance movement and a dedicated provider of educational, health care, and social services to the poorest strata of Palestinian society.  Khalid Mishal became the head of the group’s Political Bureau in 2004, following the killings of HAMAS founders Shaykh Ahmad Yassin and Abd al-Aziz al-Rantissi in Israeli helicopter gunship attacks.  Mishal had come to international prominence in 1997 when he survived an Israei assasination attempt in Jordan, in which two Mossad agents injected him with a lethal nerve toxin.  After the Israeli agents were apprehended by Jordanian security personnel, then-King Hussein threatened to try the Israelis in Jordan unless then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu directed the Mossad to provide the antidote to the toxin with which Mishal had been injected. (As a result of this episode, Mishal is know colloquially in Hamas circles as “the martyr who did not die.”) 

After becoming head of the Political Bureau, Mishal moved purposefully to capitalize on the failure of the United States and Israel to define a credible political horizon for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, HAMAS’s role in forcing Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and the group’s reputation for incorruptibility and dedicated provision of services to the most distressed parts of Palestinian society to take the Islamist movement into Palestinian politics, winning a striking victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.  Later that year, the group’s kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit sparked a large-scale Israeli military incursion into Gaza and Lebanon, which boosted the regional standing of both HAMAS and Hizballah for their resistance to Israeli forces.  In late 2008-early 2009, HAMAS won further regional acclaim for its resistance to another Israeli military incursion into Gaza.  In doing all of this, Mishal has helped HAMAS to become an indispensable player in Palestinian politics and an unavoidable factor in any serious diplomatic process aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The Islamic Republic has provided various types of support to HAMAS since the early 1990s.  Particularly since the initial election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Islamic Republic’s President in 2005, Iran has been able to take advantage of its backing for HAMAS and Hizballah to boost its popular standing on the Arab street and, indeed, throughout the Muslim world.  This has enormous strategic advantages for the Islamic Republic—among other things, it makes it very difficult for Arab governments even to contemplate allowing their territory and resources to be used to attack Iranian interests

But there are even deeper political and strategic implications associated with HAMAS’s recent rise and Iran’s longstanding ties to the group.  Indeed, these ties help to make the Islamic Republic an essential actor in resolving the Middle East’s core conflicts and forging a more stable regional order.  In this regard, it is important to understand that Khalid Mishal has overseen HAMAS’s transformation into an indispensable player in Palestinian politics and an unavoidable factor in any serious diplomatic effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In our own conversations with Mishal and other senior HAMAS officials, we have been impressed by their disciplined focus on a forward-looking political agenda.  For example, in a meeting this summer with Usama Hamdan, a member of HAMAS’s Political Bureau who serves as Mishal’s chief adviser on international affairs, Hamdan observed that, in their prayers, he and his HAMAS colleagues frequently ask God to help them “see facts as they are”.  Hamdan went on to argue that the United States and other Western countries also need to see facts as they are.  In particular, the West “needs to understand that there are two kinds of Islamist movements.” 

  • One type is defined by movements like Al-Qa’ida, which simply want to destroy what is around them, until all who do not share their perspective are eliminated. 
  • The other type, according to Hamdan, is defined by groups like HAMAS, which see violence not as an end in itself but as a means to realizing political goals, and which are prepared to deal with others “on the basis of interests”.  

Mishal, too, has stressed to us the instrumental nature of armed struggle for HAMAS, arguing that Israel will never accept a just and dignified political settlement with Palestinians without the actual, or at least threatened application of coercive violence by Palestinian resistance forces.  In this regard, Mishal compared the Palestinian resistance to the options facing the United States and the international community when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990—to exhort Saddam Husayn through diplomatic means to recognize Kuwait’s national rights, or marshal a multinational coalition of hundreds of thousands of troops to expel Iraqi forces from occupied Kuwait.  Following from this argument about the instrumental utility of resistance, Mishal emphasized HAMAS’s preference for a political settlement over armed struggle, along with its recognition that an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza along Israel’s 1967 borders will be the ultimate basis for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

At this point, the United States cannot achieve any of its high-priority policy goals in the Middle East—including resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict—without a more positive strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic and authentic resistance forces such as HAMAS.  It is disappointing that, at a time when the Obama Administration needs to be “thinking big” about the Middle East, U.S. policy in the region is growing ever narrower and more constrained.     

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



  1. JohnH says:

    Iran has deftly exploited the soft underbelly of American/Israeli intransigence.

    And why wouldn’t they? The strategy is virtually cost free. The US and Israeli position is the same no matter how accommodating or pesky Iran happens to be.

    So, from the Iranian view, why not reap the benefits of being pesky?