“Peace [be] upon my dear brothers, the political leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and all resistance groups,” said Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force (IRGC-QF,) in a recent letter about the Gaza conflict. As expected, the war between Hamas and Israel has provided great ideological fodder for Iran. And it is no surprise that Iran’s revolutionary leadership, best characterized by Ayatollah Khamenei, has been vocal on the issue.
When viewed from Tehran, the war has the added benefit of temporarily occupying the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), while allowing the Islamic Republic’s strategists to watch, wait, and learn from the operations. Moreover, Iran’s political, religious, and military classes are afforded the opportunity to strut their stuff, tying in their respective areas of impact with the conflict.
In his July 31 letter, Suleimani proudly proclaimed: “We tell all that we love martyrdom. Martyrdom in the path of Palestine and martyrdom because of Jerusalem [Quds] is not only a wish that any noble Muslim wishes for ….” The IRGC-QF Commander additionally asked of God to “damn” numerous entities, “especially America, which is at the head of oppression and cruelty in the world.”
Suleimani’s letter has already elicited a positive response from Palestinian groups, specifically from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Ziad al-Nakhla, the Deputy Secretary of PIJ reportedly stated on July 31 that “[t]he message of Qassem Suleimani has much meaning for us,” and that “[i]f the resistance did not have help from Iran, it would not have been able to confront the Zionist enemy at this level.”
Only two weeks earlier, on July 15, another PIJ member, Khalid al-Batash, was mentioned in the Persian media as discussing Iranian support for the PIJ. In his comments, al-Batash made sure to single out Iran’s backing and contribution to the group, amid a host of other “brothers.”
Iran is also seeking to solidify its bonds with Hamas, which were severely strained during the Arab Spring due to differences over the future of Syria and the Assad regime. PIJ on the other hand has long been backed by Iran, and at one point in its history even “received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.” It is thus conceivable that the seized shipment of arms from the Klos-C in March 2014 may have been destined for PIJ.
Political, strategic, and ideological perspectives
In a broader sense, Operation Protective Edge and the wider Hamas-Israel War can be viewed from several perspectives when defining its value to Iran — first, domestic Iranian politics and factional divides; second, strategic considerations that take into account Iran’s regional rivalries; and finally, the notion of ideological purity, which arguably has the greatest effect on Iranian behavior and motivations thus far.
With respect to Iranian internal politics, as was reported by Al Monitor in late June, several established reformist newspapers became the target of conservative news agencies over, as was described in the article title, “lackluster Gaza coverage.”
And in the aftermath of Suleimani’s dispatch, Mohsen Rezaie, the former Commander of the IRGC, penned a letter to President Rouhani, warning him of regional developments and blowback which could be linked to the outcomes of the Gaza conflict. He noted: “It appears that the Zionist regime committed and commits these crimes with two covers.” Rezaie explained that “[t]he first cover, is the political and economic support of European countries and America” and “[t]he second cover, is the presence of illegal and illegitimate nuclear and chemical weapons in the stocks of this occupying regime ….”
While there is no doubt regarding Rezaie’s convictions, his presenting them in this medium helps argue for an amplification of the Islamic Republic’s regional policies. It may be too soon to tell, but there could be a ripple effect by some in Iran (like Rezaie, who campaigned against Rouhani in 2013) who wish to use an intensification of Iran’s regional behavior as a way to limit nuclear concessions at the negotiating table. This would undercut the very-reversible concessions Rouhani has agreed to under the Joint-Plan of Action (JPOA). Hence, it is worth remembering that due to Rouhani’s focus on nuclear diplomacy, Iran’s regional policies have remained in the hands of the hardest of hardliners. Syria is the best example of this.
When considering the Islamic Republic’s regional competition, Iranian news outlets and political personalities have not shied away from poking at the traditional Sunni-Arab bloc’s response to the Gaza crisis. These states are best typified by Saudi Arabia, which has its own strategic, ideological, and economic grievances with Iran. For example, on Aug. 1, Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi of Iran’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution advertised regarding the war, “The Zionists have frankly confessed that this war has been accompanied with the support of all Arab regimes except Syria and Iraq ….” He also proudly proclaimed : “Everyone knows that if it wasn’t for the help of the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad wouldn’t have been able to resist this much in previous wars and this war ….”
In an article from Aug. 1, Fars News Agency ran a headline reading, “The King of Saudi Criticized ‘Silence’ Towards Developments in Gaza!” The article served to highlight the irony of the Saudi leadership, who until recently, had been quiet on the matter. To that effect, The New York Times ran a piece a few days ago noting that “Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip.”
At this juncture, Iran may not simply be imagining things. Indeed, Khamenei’s continued ecumenical appeals, such as the one on July 29, may be aimed at blunting the possibility of a tactical and/or covert Israeli-Saudi alliance if it does not exist already. He stated : “Our clear message to Islamic governments is this, come let’s stand-up [to] help the oppressed and show that the world of Islam will not sit calmly against oppression and cruelty.”
After all, despite Iran’s hostility toward its Sunni-Arab neighbors that are Western-aligned, Israel still reigns supreme in the mind of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Lastly, on an ideological note, Iranian officials have managed to maintain the level of rhetoric bequeathed to them by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, when it comes to anti-Israeli sloganeering. At Friday prayers held in Tehran on Aug. 1, Ayatollah Movahedi-Kermani in referencing Israel by means of a Shiite historical analogy, proclaimed that “these criminals [should] await the day of revenge.” He also threatened that “Israel must know that the conscience of humanity is tolerant unto a limit, and if this tolerance spills over, [these] consciences will move against it, and [at] that time, this occupying regime must wish for death.”
Sentiments such as those unfortunately continue to guide Iran’s policies toward Israel. As the conflict between Hamas and Israel grinds on, it is worth keeping in mind that during the last Gaza War (Operation Pillar of Defense) in 2012, Iran’s Parliamentary Speaker, Ali Larijani, bragged that “[t]he Zionist regime needs to realize that Palestinian military power comes from Iranian military power.” Two years later, it can be seen that Iranian clout is magnified when prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians are at their bleakest.