The reconciliation accord reached between Hamas and Fatah earlier this month has raised hopes of lasting Palestinian unity in the face of an increasingly belligerent Israeli government. This is despite the United States government’s decidedly ambivalent attitude toward the accord.
The US government’s insistence that Hamas must “disarm” and “recognise” Israel in order to join a Palestinian unity government points to a near total convergence of US and Israeli positions on this issue. Besides making lasting reconciliation harder, these maximalist demands by the US administration encourage the Israeli government to pursue destructive policies, notably the settlement expansions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In terms of the repercussions of the accord, what has been less discussed is Iran’s position on the apparent breakthrough in Hamas-Fatah relations. Officially the Islamic Republic is committed to Palestinian unity and Iranian officials have consistently bemoaned the rift between the two factions.
However, the terms of the latest accord, and a fear of potentially excessive Hamas compromises, has given Tehran pause for thought. Moreover, from Tehran’s perspective, the broader geopolitical picture requires confrontation with Israel, not endless peace talks which fail to deliver positive outcomes.
Keeping Hamas on side
The timing of the reconciliation accord is awkward for Iran at a time when the Islamic Republic is trying hard to return its relations with Hamas on a stable footing. These relations were severely upset by the onset of the Syrian conflict as Hamas turned its back on the Syrian government to support the rebellion.
However, relations have been improving of late, in part because the Syrian conflict is winding down. Iran and Hamas may not be natural allies but they have sufficient ideological, political and strategic interests in common to maintain a strong bond. Therefore, the priority for Hamas leaders and their Iranian interlocutors has been to restore the status quo ante, in other words to forget about the Syrian disagreement.
The fear in Tehran is that the reconciliation accord will push Hamas to adopt positions which will create more distance between its policies and those of Iran. And these are the biggest issues on the table, namely Hamas’ status as a “resistance” organisation (and hence its right to carry arms) and its refusal to recognise the state of Israel.
It is not surprising therefore that immediately after the accord a high-level Hamas delegation visited Tehran, clearly with the intention of addressing Iranian concerns. Iranian media has run many interviews with members of the delegation which appear to suggest that Hamas will not compromise on its core principles. For example, senior Gaza-based Hamas leader, Mahmoud Al-Zahar told Iran’s Tasnim news agency that Hamas would refrain from recognising Israel under any conditions.
Speaking to Tasnim on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Al-Zahar ruled out ideological-political convergence with key Fatah positions, instead underlining the accord’s procedural clauses which call for the restoration of Palestine-wide parliamentary elections and the subsequent creation of a unified government.
Another member of the visiting delegation, Hamas’ leader in Lebanon and member of the politburo, Osama Hamdan, told the Fars News Agency that the resistance’s “weapons” are a “red line” that can never be breached. By drawing attention to Israel’s extreme concern at the Hamas delegation’s visit to Tehran, Hamdan confirmed that relations with Iran are on the upswing.
Meanwhile, the head of the visiting delegation, Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri gave an interview to the specialised Iranian Diplomacy website in which he argued that far from creating a rift between Iran and Hezbollah, the reconciliation accord should bring Hamas closer to the Iranian-led “resistance” axis. Predictably, Al-Arouri denied that the accord reflects a shift in Hamas’ strategic calculus, and in keeping with the rhetoric of the rest of the delegation he confirmed that Hamas would not be coerced or induced to recognise Israel.
The geopolitical picture
The tough talking by Hamas leaders in Tehran is unlikely to alleviate the Iranians’ concerns. Hamas officials have a tendency to talk tough when speaking to Iranian media, and appear at pains to paint a picture of convergence with Iranian views and positions. Conversely, when they discuss Iran in the Arab media they tend to mention differences, and failing that they rarely paint a picture of near-perfect convergence with Iranian positions.
While Iran is not opposed to Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in principle, it is the broader political and strategic dynamics which worry the Iranians. The reconciliation accord is being seen as a diplomatic triumph for Egypt, a regional rival of Iran. The momentum of the accord is likely to propel Egypt into the centre stage of Palestinian national life – and by extension Palestinian engagement with Israel – following a period of relative Egyptian estrangement from Palestinian affairs.
More worryingly for Iran, the accord is likely to intensify US and Israeli engagement with the Palestinians, American and Israeli objections to the accord notwithstanding. It is not inconceivable that the accord could create the conditions for yet another round of “peace” talks, especially if the mercurial Trump administration decides to invest in the project with a view to achieving broader diplomatic objectives.
In the final analysis, the timing of the accord is problematic for Iran, in so far as Iranian-Israeli tensions are escalating in the wake of the partial resolution of the Syrian conflict, which is concluding on Iran’s terms.
Iran needs to mobilise its regional allies and friends to confront Israel, not to talk with it, albeit indirectly. As recently as February the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei was calling on the Palestinians to initiate a new intifada against Israeli occupation. At minimum, the reconciliation accord puts a damper on those plans.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.