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Iran’s political factions aren't united on Hamas, or the Middle East

Iran’s political factions aren't united on Hamas, or the Middle East

But most favor a policy of restraint in reaction to the Gaza war.

Analysis | Middle East

After Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, the U.S. far right and supporters of Israel pointed to Iran as the main behind-the-scenes culprit, hoping that their message would spur a military attack on Iran.

It is well known that the Islamic Republic has supported Hamas for decades, but Hamas is not a puppet of Iran. During the civil war in Syria, Hamas supported the armed opposition, angering both Iran’s leadership and Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. And in the current war, Hamas appears to be angry that Iran and its allies have not provided it with direct assistance or intervened on its behalf.

Tehran’s leadership, as well as that of the Lebanese Hezbollah, was as surprised as anyone when the attacks took place, with Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, asserting in a speech that his group was not given advance notice about Hamas’ plans. So did Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who flatly denied that Iran had participated in planning or executing the attacks, or had advance notice. U.S. and Israeli officials also stated that there is no evidence that Iran participated directly in planning the attacks.

Khamenei has also stated that Iran will not enter the war on behalf of Hamas. In his recent meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, the chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, Khamenei reportedly criticized Hamas for attacking Israel, calling it a strategic mistake that resulted in the redeployment of a large U.S. force to the Middle East and threw Washington’s full support behind Israel.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict began 30 years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran and will continue indefinitely even if the Islamic Republic disappears tomorrow, so long as Palestinians are denied their own independent state. At the same time, the fact is that Iran’s internal political dynamics are complex, and various political factions are not unified about Iran’s policy toward the Middle East, in general, and the Palestinians and Israel and the current war, in particular. There are deep fissures within Iran when it comes to debating foreign policy, particularly Middle East policy.

To begin with, all Iranian political factions agree on, (1) forcing the U.S. military to leave the Middle East; (2) raising the costs of the “maximum pressure” policy that began with the Trump administration and continued under the Biden administration; (3) the importance of having a strong deterrent against possible military attacks by the U.S. and/or Israel, and (4) supporting the rights of the Palestinian people.

But there is no agreement on how to put such policies into effect. The hardliners believe that to punish the U.S. for its “maximum pressure” policy and force its military to leave the Middle East, the best approach is to forge alliances with China, Russia and other nations that oppose the U.S. interventions around the world and to create problems for the U.S. in the region. Moderates and pragmatists, on the other hand, advocate close relations with Iran’s neighbors and the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf, as well as with Europe, to reduce tensions.

The hardliners believe that the most effective deterrent is arming the country and its proxies with advanced weapons, whereas moderates, while supporting arming the nation, also believe that regaining the confidence of the Iranian people by opening up political space, holding free elections, and taking deep and irreversible reforms would be the most effective deterrent. As former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif put it recently, “what has preserved Iran is not its weapons, but its people.”

While the hardliners equate supporting the Palestinian people with arming them, moderates and pragmatists believe that Iran should limit its assistance to diplomatic support and humanitarian aid.

What these factions do not agree on are (1) a foreign policy based on ideology, which is supported by the hardliners, rather than one generally preferred by moderates, reformists, and pragmatic conservatives that gives highest priority to Iran’s true national – rather than ideological -- interests; (2) rapprochement with the United States, which is rejected by the hardliners but supported by all other factions; and (3) how to punish Israel for its campaign of assassinations and sabotage in Iran and its support for Iran’s small separatist groups. The hardliners view arming Iran’s proxies as the “best” option because it forces Israel to spend its resources on its own borders, whereas all other factions believe that diplomacy is the best possible approach.

In the current war between Hamas and Israel, all factions have condemned Israel’s attacks on civilians in Gaza, with the moderates having also condemned the October 7 attacks on Israeli civilians. But the similarities end there.

At the beginning of the war, some of the hardliners declared that Iran should join the fighting. But this was hollow posturing whose purpose was to outmaneuver competitors within their own faction. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who has always been close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, even warned that Iran’s proxies have “their fingers on the trigger” and may enter the war.

While there have indeed been skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, they appear to be carefully calibrated, and viewed in Tehran as a way of lessening the pressure on Hamas, and not a prelude to a full-blown war, unless, of course, the carnage in Gaza escalates to much worse levels.Thus, Amir-Abdollahian’s declaration should be viewed as his attempt to elevate himself within the hardline camp since he has been an utterly ineffective foreign minister who even Khamenei does not seem to trust completely.

And while President Ebrahim Raisi has adopted a hard line regarding the war in Gaza, his stance should be best seen as an attempt to distract attention from his administration’s failure to improve the economy and reduce inflation.

Similarly, the IRGC’s Quds Force commander, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, declared, “We will do anything required in this historic battle.” This, however, is only bluster, as Qaani is trying to use the war to elevate himself to the level of his predecessor, Major General Qasem Soleimani [promoted posthumously to lieutenant general], who played a key role in organizing Iran’s proxies in the region and was assassinated by the United States in January 2020. As noted above, Khamenei, Qaani’s boss, has already ruled out Iran entering the war.

Qaani and the IRGC are simply trying to use the war to regain full control of Iran’s Middle East policy and suppress voices of dissent protesting their hardline posturing.

But, even within the IRGC, there are voices of reason that oppose Iran’s entry into a a war with the U.S. and Israel. Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of IRGC’s aerospace force, which oversees its missile program, recently said that after the Trump Administration assassinated General Soleimani, Iran did not attack all the U.S. military bases in the Middle East because “ten, fifteen thousand civilians would have been killed, and the country’s development would have been set back by 20 years.”

At the same time, moderates and pragmatists have called for restraint, fearing a wider war in the Middle East that could engulf Iran. As Zarif put it a few days ago,

Supporting the Palestinian people does not imply that we should fight for them. The best defense of the Palestinian people is [creating the conditions] to prevent Israel from calling them [Iran’s] proxy. The [Iranian] people are tired of paying the price [for arming the Palestinians].”

Former President Mohammed Khatami has also spoken out in favor of restraint. “The era of occupying other people’s lands has ended,” he said recently, stressing that Tehran should rely more on diplomatic initiatives based on Iran’s national interests and its leaders should avoid taking positions based on factional politics.

It thus appears that the most important political factions in Iran reject war with the U.S. or Israel and favor a policy of restraint in the current war, however much this may disappoint Iran hawks in the United States.

But so long as Palestinians are denied their aspirations for an independent state, Iran’s hardliners and other non-state actors, including radical Islamists like Hamas, will seek to take political advantage of their plight. The most effective way to neutralize Iran’s hawks — and thus reduce a chronic contributor to regional instability and tension — is for the U.S., the West, the Arab world and Israel itself to finally grasp the nettle and work seriously to help Palestinians realize their goal as expeditiously as possible.

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei looks at an Iranian drone during his visit to the IRGC Aerospace Force Achievements exhibition in Tehran, Iran November 19, 2023.

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