Cairo wary of Hamas reviving ties with Tehran

In Tehran, the Hamas delegation members met with a host of Iranian officials, including Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Rising concerns. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with Hamas Politburo Deputy Chairman Saleh Arouri (2nd R) and other members of a Hamas delegation in Tehran, July 22.  (Reuters)
Rising concerns. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with Hamas Politburo Deputy Chairman Saleh Arouri (2nd R) and other members of a Hamas delegation in Tehran, July 22. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egyptian political analysts warned of an increase of Iranian influence in the Gaza Strip, referring to potential instability in the region and deterioration of relations between Hamas and Egypt.

“The return of Iranian influence to the Gaza Strip will adversely affect the region,” political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan said. “Apart from potentially ending the calm between Hamas and Israel, this influence will harm Egypt’s relations with Hamas.”

Egypt watched closely as a delegation from Hamas visited Tehran on July 20, the first such trip since December 2017. The delegation was led by Hamas Politburo Deputy Chairman Saleh al-Arouri.

Egypt reportedly prevented Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh from leaving Gaza, which shares borders with Egypt and depends heavily on its airports for the travel of its residents, to lead the Hamas delegation to Tehran. This was why Arouri, who lives in Beirut, led the delegation.

In Tehran, the Hamas delegation met with several senior officials, including Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on July 22. They gave Khamenei a letter from Haniyeh, in which he thanked Iran’s supreme leader for supporting Hamas politically and militarily.

Khamenei praised what he described as “resistance” by Hamas and other Palestinian factions to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. “Victory can only be achieved by resistance and struggle,” he said.

The visit of the delegation followed a freeze in relations with Tehran, one that was induced by Hamas’s failure to stand by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad when the Syrian war erupted in 2011.

Hamas further angered Tehran when it cracked down on pro-Iran groups in Gaza, including the Sabireen Movement, which is also aligned with the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. Hamas accuses the Sabireen Movement of spreading the Shia faith in predominantly Sunni Gaza.

In December 2016, Hamas police raided the homes of Hezbollah and arrested one of them. In February this year, Hamas police arrested Hezbollah official Hisham Salem and other leaders.

Before the Hamas delegation left for Tehran, Haniyeh said Hamas’s decision not to get involved in internal Syrian politics was correct at the time.

“The return of Hamas’s relations with Syria would be on the table during the visit of the Hamas delegation to Tehran,” Haniyeh told Turkish journalists via video conference

Hamas, analysts said, is reaching out to Iran now that the United States had tightened control on financing to it and monetary support from regional states slowing down.

The visit of the Hamas delegation to Iran came at a time of high tension in the region.

The United States has been increasing sanctions on Iran, which responded by reducing its commitment to the uranium-enrichment levels stipulated in the 2015 nuclear deal with major powers and threatening navigation in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.

Iran wants to use Hamas so it can influence any settlement of the Middle East conflict, especially when it comes to the so-called Deal of the Century, a blueprint for settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict propagated by US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, analysts said.

“This will give Iran the chance to start dialogue with the United States, using the influence it has over Palestinian decision-making, especially in an important Palestinian territory, namely the Gaza Strip,” wrote Khaled Okasha, a member of the Supreme Anti-Terrorism Council, an advisory body of the Egyptian presidency, in an article in the Egyptian newspaper al-Dustour.

This is very worrying to Egypt, which looks with suspicion at Iranian attempts to expand its influence in the region, especially in Egypt’s immediate vicinity.

Egypt is the most populous Sunni state in the region. Although Cairo does not view the region through a sectarian prism, it does considerer itself a counterpole to Tehran, both at the cultural and political levels.

Hamas, an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most hated Islamist organisation to the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, used to harbour hostility to Sisi.

Relations between the two sides improved in the last four years, with the Palestinian faction promising tighter control of Gaza’s border with Egypt’s Sinai and Egypt taking measures to loosen the siege on Gaza, including by sending fuel to power Gaza’s electricity plants.

However, the involvement of Gaza militants in attacks by an Islamic State branch against Egyptian troops in Sinai also leads Egypt to distrust Hamas.

“Egypt has to use the cards in its hands to pressure Hamas to stop reaching out to Iran,” said Samir Ghattas, a member of the Egyptian parliament. “Iran’s influence in Gaza is a real threat to Egypt’s national security.”