The Significance of Ismail Haniyeh’s Latest Visit to Tehran

Summary: As Israel’s prosecution of the war in Gaza draws international condemnation and growing isolation from its traditional allies, Iran and Hamas seize the opportunity.

We thank Giorgio Cafiero for today’s newsletter. Giorgio is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Follow him on X @GiorgioCafiero. He is a regular contributor to the Arab Digest podcast. You can find his latest AD podcast “Joe Biden’s war” here.

On 26 March, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh paid a visit to Tehran where he met with the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. This was Haniyeh’s second trip to Iran since the Hamas-led attack of 7 October. In early November, he visited Tehran and met with Khamenei and other Iranian officials.

The importance of Haniyeh’s latest visit to Iran must be understood within the context of recent developments in the Gaza war and on the international stage. One day before the Hamas leader arrived in Tehran, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2728 (2024), which demanded an immediate ceasefire for Ramadan and eventually a permanent ceasefire. That passage was possible due to Washington’s abstention, which upset Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Mr. Ismail Haniyeh, head of the political bureau of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas, and his accompanying delegation, March 26, 2024 [photo credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader]
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Mr. Ismail Haniyeh, head of the political bureau of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas, and his accompanying delegation, March 26, 2024 [photo credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader]
Israel’s International Isolation

Hamas welcomed the resolution and Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani described it as a “positive step” but also said that “a more important step is effective action for its implementation.” While in Iran, Haniyeh asserted that Israel is experiencing “unprecedented political isolation.” The Hamas leader also stated that Israel is “losing political cover and protection even in the Security Council” and that “the US is unable to impose its will on the international community.”

Hamas and Tehran interpret the resolution’s passage as “yet the strongest sign of Israel basically being under immense international pressure and as a result, [Hamas and Iranian officials] see themselves increasingly having the upper hand in this equation,” explained Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in an interview with Arab Digest.

With more countries speaking out against Israel’s high-tech slaughter in Gaza, which has killed roughly 33,000 people over the past six months, Iran has much to gain from Israel’s damaged reputation, especially among non-western countries. “Tehran is trying to capitalise on what it sees as growing condemnation and isolation of Israel for its own regional purposes,” Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, told Arab Digest.

Israel’s isolation has grown even deeper with the killing of seven aid workers in a drone attack on 1 April.

Even before that incident, Haniyeh’s second visit to the Islamic Republic since 7 October had underlined to regional and global audiences, including Tehran’s key enemies Israel and the US that the “unity of fronts” among the different players within the Iran-led “axis of resistance” remains strong in challenging the region’s status quo. As Marina Calculli, a Columbia University research fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies comments the axis is “alive and kicking, despite past crises and current attempts to break it.”

Continued Iranian Support for Hamas

In light of recent initiatives by the US and certain Arab states to implement some form of a ceasefire that would require Hamas to free the remaining hostages held in Gaza, Haniyeh’s latest visit to Iran was critical from the standpoint of letting Arab regimes know that Hamas can always turn to Iran for continued support. By having Haniyeh return to Tehran for a second visit since the 7 October Operation al-Aqsa Flood attack, the Islamic Republic is seeking to demonstrate that its support for the Palestinian resistance is concrete and not just about symbolism and signaling. As Vakil explains, a purpose of Haniyeh’s return to Tehran was to “show that [Iran’s] support for Hamas is not rhetorical but designed to achieve long-term gains for the group against Israel.”

From the Islamic Republic’s perspective, the reactions to Israel’s war on Gaza by Yemen’s Ansarallah (Huthis), Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Iraq’s various Iran-aligned groups highlight how decades of investing in Tehran’s network of non-state actor surrogates has paid off.

Looking ahead, the ways in which Iran-Hamas relations evolve will depend on a host of unknown variables. Whether Hamas remains the dominant political group in Gaza after this war or more of a movement that enjoys support throughout the region is unclear. Other important questions pertain to how Arab states act vis-à-vis Gaza after the war in the besieged enclave ends and whether Israel will have killed off all of Hamas’s leaders and commanders by the time it is over.

Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London noted:

Iran’s control over Hamas is limited. Depending on who is going to come out on top within the organisation—whether the organisation as a network survives, even if they are pushed out of Gaza, is questionable. But whatever survives of that organisation will be led by someone and if it’s led by Haniyeh that means that Iran will have more leverage and more strategic depth through Hamas. But that could at the same time undermine Haniyeh’s ability to secure funding and support from Arab states.

Mehran Kamrava, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar observed:

It is hard to predict how the relationship between Tehran and Hamas will evolve once the Gaza war is over. Much depends on the course of the war itself and its ultimate outcome.

For the last decade or so, we have seen that across the world and especially in the Middle East, relations are based on short-term strategic considerations and have become extremely transactional. It is therefore risky to predict future alliances and friendships based on current trends. Nevertheless, if the war were to end soon, relations between Hamas and Tehran are likely to continue to remain strong.

Other experts Arab Digest spoke with share a similar assessment. “Much will depend on how the dust will settle in Gaza,” said Calculli when asked her expectations for this war’s lasting impact on Tehran’s relationship with Hamas. “As things stand now, Israel is clearly interested in continuing the destruction of Gaza and expanding the war to Lebanon and Syria. This scenario is likely to produce a consolidation of the Hamas-Iran alliance, involving Hezbollah and [Ansarallah] too.”

Irrespective of how Gaza’s political arena evolves throughout the remainder of this war and during its aftermath, Tehran will probably remain focused on empowering Hamas as much as possible by revitalising its institutions in Gaza that have been heavily damaged by Israel’s annihilatory campaign. The past six months of war, Azizi argues, have caused Hamas and Iran to “now appreciate the value of their cooperation even more than before.”

The Berlin-based Iran expert concluded that “what is sure is Hamas is not going to abandon Iran and Iran is not going to abandon Hamas.”

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