Iran, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad: A marriage of convenience

Iran may not be directly behind the 7 October attacks on Israel, but Tehran has long worked to strengthen groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The broader dynamics within the Middle East have, in turn, limited these groups’ choices, prompting them to turn towards Iran for support

An Iranian cleric stands at a square in Tehran as Lebanon’s Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gives a speech, November 3, 2023. Hassan Nasrallah spoke in Beirut about the Israeli army’s attack on Gaza and warned Israel about a possible attack on Lebanon. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto)
An Iranian cleric stands at a square in Tehran as Lebanon’s Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gives a speech, November 3, 2023. Hassan Nasrallah spoke in Beirut
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Morteza Nikoubazl

Since their inception, Iranian-Palestinian relations have functioned as a marriage of convenience based on Iran’s pursuit of security and the Palestinian need for state sponsorship. Today, Iran provides support to a number of Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) most notably. Yet these groups are not puppets and their relationship with Tehran is constantly evolving.

The Hamas-led attacks against Israel on 7 October reflected their own independent calculations. Although they could not have happened without the provision of long-term Iranian support, the attacks likely came as an unwelcome surprise for Tehran, which over the last two months has avoided giving Palestinian groups full-throated support. Whether Hamas and PIJ remain tightly aligned with Iran, however, will depend on the outcome of the war in Gaza and wider dynamics in the Middle East’s fluctuating geopolitics.

Iran’s support for the Palestinian cause has always been in part ideological, given Jerusalem’s religious significance for Muslims. Iran’s 1979 constitution affirmed its duty to export the Iranian revolution to assist “the dispossessed” around the world. But realpolitik interests have largely taken over since the late 1980s. Iran gradually came to support Palestinian armed groups as an integral part of its regional security policy to contain and preoccupy Israel which, along with the United States, it has long perceived as the greatest threat to its security and domestic stability. From this viewpoint, a group’s Islamic credentials (or lack thereof) mattered less than its willingness to confront Israel. As a result, for many decades Iran, a self-styled Islamic Shia republic, has supported a plethora of secular, leftist, and Sunni Islamist groups.

Iran’s entry into Palestine initially came through the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) headed by Yasser Arafat. The secular-nationalist movement supported Iranian revolutionaries prior to their overthrow of the shah in 1979, even providing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini with bodyguards while he lived in exile in Paris. Many of the central personalities in the early Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps also received training in PLO camps in Lebanon. In a highly symbolic move, Arafat became the first foreign leader to visit Iran following the Islamic revolution.[1]

The gradual moderation of PLO positions during the 1980s – opening back-channel negotiations with Israel, accepting territorial partition of historical Palestine, and renouncing armed violence – was one factor contributing to a rupture in relations. Iran has continued to provide some support to PLO members such as the Marxist-Leninist PFLP. However, in order to maintain its regional security paradigm it shifted the bulk of its support towards Palestinian Islamist groups given the political and military irrelevance of the far smaller Marxist-Leninist groups in the occupied territories.

From the PLO to Palestinian Islamism

Iran’s early cooperation with Hamas and PIJ was inadvertently facilitated by Israel’s own actions. Iranian officials first made contact with PIJ leaders in Beirut in 1987 after Israel expelled them to Lebanon as part of its efforts to suppress the Palestinian national leadership in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank.[2] Iranian-Palestinian relations were further strengthened when Israel exiled hundreds more Hamas and PIJ members to Marj al-Zuhur in Lebanon in 1992.[3]

By this time Palestinian Islamist groups had concluded, like the PLO before them, that they needed a strong state sponsor to succeed in their struggle against Israel. This soon translated into financial and military support from Iran, with Palestinian militants receiving training in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, in camps run by the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hizbullah.[4] By 1993, Fathi al-Shiqaqi, co-founder and the first leader of PIJ, told Newsday: “Iran gives us money and supports us, then we supply the money and arms to the occupied territories and support the families of our people.”

It is unlikely that the 7 October attacks could have happened without Iran’s decades-long support

Since then, these Palestinian groups have grown stronger thanks to Iranian weaponry smuggled via Yemen and Sudan, through the Egyptian desert with the help of Bedouin smugglers, and finally into Gaza via cross-border tunnels built by Hamas. Iran has also trained Palestinian engineers to manufacture weapons locally, which accounts for a large part of Hamas’s total arsenal today. Other Iranian-backed groups in Gaza have likely also benefited from these arrangements. It is unlikely that the 7 October attacks could have happened without this decades-long support.

The Iranian-Palestinian marriage of convenience

The relationship between Sunni Hamas and PIJ and Shia Iran has always been a marriage of convenience produced by shared interests on the ground rather than ideological affinity with Tehran’s political interpretation of Islam. As a result, the groups are constantly adjusting their external relations according to their own strategic calculations. This was most evident in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

The Syrian uprising illustrates how both Iran and Hamas manoeuvred vis-à-vis each other. Hamas’s Damascus-based leaders tried to mediate between the Syrian regime and Sunni insurgents. But the group’s political leadership rejected Iranian demands to provide unconditional support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leading to a rupture in relations. Iran answered by cutting its financial support to Hamas in half – from $150m to less than $75m . Yet Tehran still maintained strong links with hardline Hamas leaders based in Gaza. Marwan Issa, the second in command of Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, travelled regularly to Tehran after 2012.

Iran reportedly redirected some of its funding to PIJ, which had maintained a neutral position and avoided making overt criticisms of the Syrian government. Nevertheless, a few years later PIJ’s relationship with Iran also ran into difficulties, over the Yemeni civil war in 2014. As happened with Hamas before it, PIJ’s refusal to endorse the Iranian-supported Houthis or to denounce Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in the country resulted in Iranian cuts to its funding. This time the money was redirected to the now defunct al-Sabireen movement in Gaza, which Iran sponsored in an attempt to replace Hamas and PIJ with a more pliant proxy.

During this period, both Hamas and PIJ attempted to pivot towards alternative sources of support. After it formally severed relations with the Syrian government, Hamas sought to align itself with the so-called Sunni axis, namely Egypt and Gulf monarchies such as Qatar. As part of this reorientation, key Hamas figures, including its then leader Khaled Mashal, relocated to Doha. In 2017, they unveiled a more flexible policy platform, which was intended toimprove the group’s standing in the Arab world and the West. 

PIJ attempted its own pivot. Muhammad al-Hindi, one of its senior officials, travelled to Turkey and Algeria in a bid to obtain financial support, with some success. In 2015, Algerian authorities began financing “humanitarian projects” affiliated with the group. This, however, never matched PIJ’s previous relationship with Iran and was instead limited to sporadic payments. The group also established direct communication channels with Saudi Arabia and moved closer to Egypt and Jordan to alleviate its financial difficulties.

Then, somewhat unexpectedly, in May 2016 the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps pledged to transfer $70m to PIJ .This appears to have been conditioned on a shift in the group’s position on Yemen: a month later, a PIJ delegation visiting the Yemeni embassy in Damascus announced its support for “the Yemeni people against [foreign] aggression, and that to target Yemen was equal to targeting the Palestinian cause.”

Personal ideological beliefs may also have bolstered the relationship between PIJ and Iran. The group’s leader since 2018, Ziyad al-Nakhala, appears to be closer to Iran than his predecessor, Ramadan Shallah. The renewal of relations may also have reflected the movement’s conclusions that there was no other alternative funding available to it. Since then, PIJ and Iran appear to have drawn even closer together.

Over the past year Hamas too has sought to mend its ties with Iran. This was first signalled by the visit of Khalil al-Hayya, another senior Hamas member, to Damascus in October 2022. This effectively ended nearly a decade of hostility between Hamas and the Syrian regime, demonstrating its return to the Iranian fold and the failure of its previous realignment.

While there has been intense speculation about whether Iran knew in advance about the Hamas-led attacks on Israeli communities on 7 October, Tehran swiftly sidestepped any direct responsibility and informed Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, of its intention to provide only political, not military, support in the conflict. This in part reflects Iran’s desire to avoid a full-scale regional war that would threaten its strategic interests. This is not the first time Iran’s reluctance to provide support during a conflict has disappointed Hamas. Their alliance went briefly cold following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, which was seen as disastrous for Iranian interests. Iran’s decision to distance itself from the 7 October attacks thus aligns with its long-standing strategy of supporting Palestinian groups to bolster its own security.[5]

The failure of moderation

Hamas largely miscalculated when it bet on the Sunni axis, which witnessed the ascendance of the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisa and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But the political tide soon turned against political Islam following the ousting of Egypt’s Islamist president, Muhammad Morsi. A decision by his successor, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to reinforce Egypt’s blockade on Gaza from July 2013 onwards made this short-lived reorientation politically and financially untenable for Hamas. Having received insufficient support from Arab capitals, Hamas was forced to turn back towards Damascus and Tehran to preserve its interests.

Rapprochement with Iran may also partly reflect the failure of Western engagement with Hamas in general and its moderate wing in particular. Hamas has always been the product of the internal discussions between the social change thesis and the armed struggle thesis, between moderates and hardliners, and between those prioritising political work and those prioritising violence.[6] Hamas’s decisions to participate in the Palestinian electoral process in 2006, and opening up for a two-state solution in its 2017 platform, were all made possible by the weakening of hardliners following the end of the second intifada, which eroded support within Hamas for armed violence.

The international boycott of Hamas that followed its victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections seems to have only succeeded in weakening the moderate wing, which sought to establish diplomatic ties with Western capitals. Sixteen years following the end of the second intifada, the moderates have few, if any, victories to show. This once again strengthened the hardliners who push for closer ties to Iran and argue that armed violence is the only way forward. The Hamas-led attacks on Israel on 7 October were the culmination of these shifting dynamics. As the past shows, though, the positioning of Hamas and PIJ is constantly in flux. Their future orientation will depend in part on whether Arab and Western states can strengthen moderate voices in these groups who have long wanted to move away from Iran’s orbit by presenting a realistic political pathway towards Palestinian independence.

Dr Erik Skare is a historian and researcher at the University of Oslo and an associate researcher at Sciences Po in Paris, France. He specialises on Palestinian history with a particular focus on religion and secular politics. Skare is the author of several books such as A History of Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Faith, Awareness, and Revolution in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2021), for which he was awarded the Palestine Book Awards, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Islamist Writings on Resistance and Religion (I.B. Tauris, 2021).

[1] Jørgen Jensehaugen, “A Palestinian Window of Opportunity? The PLO, the US and the Iranian Hostage Crisis,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 48:4 (2021), p. 602.

[2] Erik Skare, A History of Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Faith, Awareness, and Revolution in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), p. 107.

[3] Muhammad Muslih, “The Foreign Policy of Hamas,” Council on Foreign Relations (1999), p. 23.

[4] Skare, A History of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, p. 107.

[5] Leila Seurat, The Foreign Policy of Hamas (London: I.B. Tauris, 2021), p. 95.

[6] Khaled Hroub, Hamas: Political Thought and Ideology (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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