Defeating Hamas Will Not Defeat Iran


Jan 14, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on January 14, 2009.

In the absence of clarity of what Israel hopes to leave behind in Gaza, some observers speculate that the offensive against Hamas has a second target: Iran. According to this logic, Hamas serves as Iran's proxy; its fortunes are Iran's in defeat or victory. Some even imagine a domino effect, with Hamas's defeat a defeat for radicalism across the region.

Don't count on it. Although Hamas surely benefits from Iranian support, Iran's regional position has little to do with Hamas. Iranian influence and regional alliances have far deeper roots than the current turmoil in Gaza.

In the first place, Iranian influence, though not unlimited, has expanded throughout the Middle East during the past seven years as a result of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that removed serious adversaries. An unfavorable outcome in Gaza for Israel might enhance this perception of rising influence, but it certainly is not responsible for it. Although Sunni Arabs push back against Iranian influence, Iran's reach has expanded beyond its natural sphere of influence in Shiite Iraq and well into the heart of the Arab Gulf and the Levant. An Israeli win is unlikely to alter that course.

Moreover, a perceived defeat of Hamas will not fundamentally change Arab stances toward Iran or their positions on the nuclear issue. To be sure, Arab regimes are extremely concerned about Iran's rising influence and its nuclear ambitions. Arab rulers despise the way Iranian leaders talk over their heads to "the street" and accuse them of being lackeys of the West, boasting about Iranian support for the Palestinians. Iran has displayed this strategy to great effect during the current Gaza crisis, bitterly attacking Egypt's position on Gaza.

Yet Arab states have not adopted a confrontational stance toward Iran. Nor have they signed up to the U.S. policy of isolation. They have preferred to hedge rather than balance Iranian power. The United States may desire a tight alignment of so-called moderate regional states to contain Iranian power, but such an alignment simply does not exist. A Hamas defeat is unlikely to change that dynamic.

Regional policies toward Iran are based on myriad interests distinct from Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and these positions will not shift merely because of a perceived Hamas defeat. To varying degrees, all of Iran's neighbors engage in regular diplomatic and economic relations with Tehran. In the case of Turkey, the Iraq war has created new reasons for military coordination with Iran, in particular to curb Kurdish militant activity stemming from northern Iraq. Arab states aligned with the United States, such as Egypt and Jordan, will no doubt be pleased if Hamas's power is diminished. But they fear the power of Hamas's example for their own Muslim Brotherhood opposition groups more than they fear Iran benefiting from a Hamas victory.

Finally, Hamas and Iran are not as wedded as some suggest. Hamas is a part of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood movement, not a natural partner with Shiite Iran. To be sure, Iran has shown great flexibility in choosing allies based on interests as much as ideology, which explains Iranian symbolic and material support for Hamas. But Iran has many other nonstate allies in the region with which it is much more closely aligned and in areas of greater strategic concern (such as Iraq and Lebanon).

Iran and Hamas pursue their own agendas and value survival above all, diversifying their portfolios of allies across the region. Thus, a serious setback for Hamas is unlikely to undermine Iranian influence elsewhere in the region. If anything, a different U.S. relationship with Iran is more likely to affect dynamics in Gaza than Gaza changing the equation with Iran. Iran is likely to stop obstructing Arab-Israeli peace efforts only if it sees a larger potential gain. It is conceivable that Tehran might come to see a need to improve relations with Washington and to negotiate with the United States and Europe over a lifting of international sanctions. Discussions about Iran's support for Hamas could be part of that conversation. Absent such a sea change in Iranian policy, however, there is no reason to assume that decimating Hamas would also defeat Iran.

Dalia Dassa Kaye, coauthor of More Freedom, Less Terror?: Liberalization and Political Violence in the Arab World (Santa Monica: RAND, 2008), is a political scientist and associate director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation.

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