March 21, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Despite Nuclear Talks, Iran Maintains Support of Palestinian Militants
Seized Iranian Shipment Sparks Outbreak of Violence in Gaza
As of mid-March 2014, Iran continues to attempt delivery of advanced rockets and other conventional weapons to Palestinian militant organizations that operate in the Gaza Strip. On March 5, Israel’s Navy seized a ship off the coast of Eritrea, the Klos-C, which Israel said was carrying rockets bound for Gaza. In the past, Iranian shipments were offloaded in Sudan and then trucked via Egypt to Gaza. Israel subsequently displayed the dozens of Syrian-manufactured M-302 rockets, with a range of over 160 kilometers.
The Israeli military, which had tracked the shipments for months, provided details of the route: the rockets were first flown from Syria to Tehran, transported to Bandar Abbas for shipment to Umm Qasr, Iraq, and then sailed to Port Sudan. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon stated at a news conference that the irregular route represented an attempt by Iran to conceal its involvement.
The shipment did not reach its intended recipients in Gaza, but that did not prevent an escalation of violence in the area. On March 12, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a pro-Iranian Islamist organization, launched approximately 60 rockets at Israel following an Israeli strike on PIJ positions. Israel retaliated immediately by striking 29 sites across Gaza, and hit another nine positions the following day. Subsequently, rockets were fired at Israel by other Palestinian militant groups, including the Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which the US State Department has reported also receives arms and funds from Tehran. Prior to 2012, it was Hamas that was the primary recipient of Iranian support due to Hamas’ size and influence. However, a Tehran-Hamas rift opened over the civil conflict in Syria. Hamas, a Sunni Muslim organization, supported the mostly Sunni rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and a key Hamas leader Khalid Meshal closed the organization’s Damascus office.
Iran remains a staunch supporter of al-Assad—not so much for him and the Baath regime, but for Tehran’s interests in Syria and with its main proxy Hizballah—and has expended significant resources in the conflict. Consequently, Tehran largely cut off funding to Hamas because of the group’s stance against the besieged Syrian president. However, there have been some meetings between the two sides in recent months to try to end the dispute—perhaps in part because Hamas needs all possible support after a key patron, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi, was ousted in July 2013 by the anti-Islamist Egyptian military.
The rift with Hamas has rendered PIJ as the Palestinian favorite of Tehran. PIJ has long been considered the closest to Iran’s leadership of the Palestinian militant groups, but has generally been too small and insufficiently influential to promote Tehran’s interests. The Iran-Hamas falling out has brought Iran and PIJ operationally closer, and many regional watchers believe the arms aboard the ship seized by Israel were bound for PIJ, not Hamas.
Potential for Conflict Escalation
Tehran is arming PIJ in order to pressure Israel, in the context of Hamas' being a currently less than reliable surrogate. At a time when the military leadership of Egypt is pressuring Hamas in Gaza, causing high unemployment and inflation, Hamas is reluctant to provoke a new conflict with Israel, one that could lead to unintended consequences and shifting alliances in the region.
Tehran, though, continues to straddle a bold foreign policy risk vs gain line. While it is apparently sending arms to militants in Gaza, it is also engaged in talks on a comprehensive nuclear deal with the United States and the five other major powers, from which the interim deal of November 2013 eased sanctions on the country’s beleaguered economy. Iran does not want its Palestinian proxies to provoke conflict with Israel, which could potentially lead to a new round of tightened sanctions. Nor does it want to give Israeli leadership an excuse to conduct a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—a scenario that appeared to be less likely during progress in the nuclear negotiations. These factors give Iran common cause with Hamas, and less so with PIJ.
So far, Iran’s continued support of Palestinian militants has yet to draw enough ire from the international community to interfere with the ongoing talks; however, a close Iranian relationship with PIJ risks threatening the progress of the negotiations and drawing Iran into an unwanted conflict should PIJ attacks provoke a more robust response from Israel. That Iran continues to support groups in Gaza, despite moves to reset its relationship with the West and relieve its crippling sanctions burden, indicates Tehran is hedging its bets against the possibility of an Israeli strike.
• Iran and Hamas are likely to rebuild ties in order to improve economic conditions—and Tehran’s influence—in Gaza, and exercise restraint over the more radical competing Palestinian factions
• Iran will likely continue to attempt to deliver arms to Gaza as a form of covert power projection and in order to be positioned for direct retaliation—supplementing its alliance with Hizballah—should Israel strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
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