Iran Responsible for Hamas Attacks on Israel?

Tehran may have orchestrated last week’s strike on Israeli settlers in hopes of derailing Mideast peace talks, according to a chilling new report. Reza Aslan on what Iran wants.

Iran may have orchestrated last week's brutal attacks by Hamas militants against Israeli settlers in the West Bank in an attempt to derail the Middle East peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That is the provocative possibility raised by a recently released report by Strategic Forecasting ( STRATFOR), a global intelligence company that provides news updates and analysis. STRATFOR cites unnamed sources claiming that Iran communicated directly with militants from both Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)—without the consent of the leaders of either organization—and offered a substantial amount of money for attacks on specific targets.

Iran's purpose for orchestrating the attacks was not only to derail the peace talks but also to demonstrate the loyalty of Hamas and the PIJ to Tehran, the STRATFOR sources suggest.

The report has yet to be vetted by U.S. or Israeli intelligence, and STRATFOR’s own analysis raises the possibility that the sources could be spreading disinformation. But if the account is true, it is a sign of just how pervasive Iranian influence has become in the region. According to STRATFOR, Iran's purpose for orchestrating the attacks was not only to derail the peace talks but also to demonstrate the loyalty of Hamas and the PIJ to Tehran. The report further suggests that Iran wanted to send a message to the U.S. that it has greater influence over Hamas than even Syria—which, while it houses the organization's leadership-in-exile, has nevertheless signaled its willingness to cooperate in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

STRATFOR, a highly regarded global intelligence firm that briefs a confidential client list, was once billed “the shadow CIA” by Barron’s. The firm’s report is one indication of the chatter in the intel community in the run-up to the next meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu, slated for Sept. 14. The report is likely to attract attention from foreign policy hawks pressuring the administration to take a harder line in its dealings with Iran.

Iran's relationship with Hamas was solidified in 2006, after the international community cut off aid to Gaza in the wake of the Hamas takeover. Iran’s former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Vilayati, now an international affairs advisor to the Supreme Leader, has proudly admitted that, “Iran is the main supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah and their struggle against Israel.” While the exact nature of this support has never been publicly defined by the Iranian regime, Israeli analysts believe Iran provides Hamas with approximately $3 million per year, while Canadian Intelligence officials estimate the amount could be as high as $18 million.

Iran's support for Hamas is due in large part to its deep-seated hatred for Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, a hatred that extends all the way back to the PA's precursor, the Palestinian Liberation Organization. As Ray Takeyh documents in his book Guardians of the Revolution, when the PLO, under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, signed the Oslo Accords, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, called it “treachery” and described Arafat himself as “that puny ill-reputed blackguard.”

However, over the last few years, the relationship has evolved to the point where many analysts consider Hamas to be essentially a "proxy army" for Iran, an insurance policy (along with Hezbollah, perched on Israel's northern border) against a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's suspected nuclear sites.

To its credit, STRATFOR admits that there is reason to question the claims made by their sources. For one thing, it is doubtful whether Iran has the ability to completely bypass Hamas' leadership—whether it's the Gazan Prime Minister Ismael Haniyah or the leader-in-exile Khaled Mesaal—and communicate directly with Hamas and PIJ militants to coordinate attacks against Israelis in the Occupied Territories. STRATFOR also recognizes that Iran benefits from rumors that exaggerate its power and influence in the region (in fact, STRATFOR suggests that Iran may itself be the source of such rumors). Certainly Hamas does not need orders from Iran to launch the kind of small-scale attacks against Israeli targets that we saw last week. Indeed, Hamas has made no secret of its desire to put a stop the talks between Netanyahu and Abbas, publicly announcing on September 2nd that it had organized thirteen Palestinian militant groups to launch “effective” attacks on Israeli targets with the purpose of derailing the peace talks. Hamas is desperate to demonstrate its relevance in Palestinian politics and, thus, cannot abide being left out of discussions over a future Palestinian state.

It should also be noted that whether or not the Hamas leadership had prior knowledge of the attacks, it has wholeheartedly supported them in public. After a shooting attack in which two Israeli settlers were wounded, Hamas military spokesman Abu Ubaida said, “The attack was a message to those [among the Palestinian Authority] who pledged to the Zionist enemy that there would be no more attacks.

Still, the STRATFOR report is a chilling reminder, if any were needed, that a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and Palestine is impossible without taking into the account the role and influence of the region's other major players, including Hamas and Iran.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.