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Sunni Hamas and Shiite Iran Form a Common Political Theology

In a recent article, Sunni Hamas and Shiite Iran Form a Common Political Theology, the known Israeli journalist and researcher Ehud Yaari analyzes a new Hamas publication which according to him “represents the most important attempt to date to connect the growing cooperation between Hamas and its Iranian mentors to religious affinities, rather than political expediency.”[1]

The Hamas booklet The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Revolution in Iran by Dr. Ahmed Yousef, Foreign Ministry director-general in Gaza’s Hamas government and a “moderate” leader of the movement, “explains that Hamas’s dependence on Iran is not an accidental marriage of convenience…but an inevitable partnership based on the common aspiration for the divine ideal of the ‘Islamic State’.” According to Yousef, “Salafis and Wahhabis in the Gulf’ and ‘Gulf governments,’ are responsible for the long periods of acute tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic” and today Iran’s friendship is more important to Hamas than Saudi backing.[2]

In my monograph Iran–Syria–Hizballah–Hamas: A Coalition against Nature Why Does it Work?I argued that this is an alliance against nature that should hardly function.[3]

I underlined the ideological and strategic contradictions between its four members and specifically about the relationship between Iran and Hamas I claimed it is strange that the Palestinian Hamas, a branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (MB) could be so closely allied with Iran’s Shia theocratic regime.

I indeed mentioned that what makes this strange unnatural alliance work is the strong religious ideologies that shape the strategy of three of the actors: Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas. Hamas, as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Sunni Islamist movement, sees jihad as a general duty of all Muslims and is the only MB group involved in systematic warfare against Israel and “world Zionism.”

However, I stressed that the main considerations that drove these partners together where of a strategic order: Iran’s role as a major strong, determined regional power with huge oil and military resources, the “engine” behind the coalition; the fight against the same enemies (United States, Israel, the Western democracies, Iraq of Saddam Hussein, the moderate Arab regimes); the unrestrained use of terrorism and subversion against their external opponents; and lack of strategic vision and political courage of their Western adversaries.

In the late 1980s, Iran-Hamas relations were only marginal, principally because Iran’s interests were in mobilizing Shiites in the Gulf and its actions annoyed the Sunni Hamas. The relations were put on a more formal basis in October 1992, when a Hamas delegation visited Iran for talks, opened an office in Tehran, where promised lavish financial support and training by Revolutionary Guards of thousands of Hamas activists in Iran and in Hizballah camps in Lebanon.[4]

The cooperation between Iran and Hamas was strengthened in the process of sabotaging the Oslo peace process through a wave of suicide bombings during the middle and end of the 1990s. Since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, Iran holds a central position in granting political, propaganda and material assistance to Hamas. In April 2006, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashemipur, the Secretary General of the Iranian Conference in Support of Palestine’s Intifada, told participants that the creation of a Palestinian state would contribute to Iran’s security.[5]

During a visit to Tehran in December 2005, Hamas leader Meshal said that his group would step up attacks against Israel if the Jewish state took military action against Iran over its disputed nuclear program. “Just as Islamic Iran defends the rights of the Palestinians, we defend the rights of Islamic Iran. We are part of a united front against the enemies of Islam,” Meshal said.[6]

Hamas is the crucial element for Iran in the Arab world, because it is the only Sunni full member of the coalition, an important faction of the broader Muslim Brotherhood movement, and symbolizes the Palestinian cause, so dear to the Arabs and Muslims worldwide. Today Hamas has the advantage to control the Gaza Strip, after a bloody military coup against the Palestinian Authority, thus becoming an advanced post of Iran on the border with Israel and Egypt.

The relationships between Iran and the various Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt, Syria or Jordan have been quite complex since the advent of the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.

According to Elad Altman, the Brotherhood’s basic ideological doctrine is pan-Islamic and religiously inclusive and the organization originally adhered to an ideological outlook for which the “Shiite question” did not exist. Given this ecumenical background, the Brotherhood was initially enthusiastic about the Islamic revolution that took place in Iran in 1979 because it was seen as a model of a popular Islamic movement that toppled a pro-Western secular regime and successfully set up an Islamic state which enjoyed both Islamic and popular political legitimacy.[7]

The two revivalist streams were already exchanging ideas in the early 1950s and in the 1970s Brotherhood representatives were in close contact with exiled Iranian activists who were active for the overthrow of the Shah’s regime. Moreover, senior Brotherhood figures arrived in Tehran right after Khomeini’s triumphal comeback preceded only by PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

However, by mid 1980s the Brotherhood relations with Iran had soured significantly as the Khomeinist revolution was increasingly perceived as Persian nationalist and distinctly Shiite, attempting to export it to Gulf Arab states. Moreover, Iran formed an alliance with the Syrian regime, which decimated the Brotherhoods’ Syrian branch and extended the war with Iraq in the hopes of occupying Iraqi territories.[8]

The oppositionist Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leaders, in exile since 1982, saw the Syria’s loathed Alawi regime alliance with Iran as a stage in a Shiite scheme to take over the Sunni countries, including Syria. On the background of the violent actions committed by Iran against Arab countries the Syrian MB considered that the Iranians, under the cover of Islam, are more dangerous to the Muslim countries than the Zionists or the Americans. By waving the flag of war against the Zionists and the Americans, the genuine aim of Iran is to take over the Arab countries and rebuild the Shiite Safavid empire. The goal of the war with Israel was not to fight in Lebanon’s name, but to take control over this country in accordance with the Iranian scheme.[9]

Mehdi Khalaji rightly remarks that “Iran’s championing of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot in Gaza, is one way in which the largely Persian and Shiite Islamic Republic has sought to curry political favor and prestige within Arab and predominantly Sunni countries.” More importantly, Iran has succeeded to “win the hearts and minds” within the larger Brotherhood movement in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. The new strategic circumstances of the last 4-5 years have thus permitted “ideological convergence and cooperation” between the two Islamist movements.[10]

The strategic circumstances of the last years to which Khalaji refers are the growing pressure of the Mubarak regime against the Brotherhood in Egypt since its success at the 2005 elections, the Hamas rule in Gaza since 2006, the Second Lebanon War the same year, provoked by Hezbollah’s terrorist attack against Israel, and the Israeli operation Cast Lead in Gaza following the rocket war staged by Hamas against Israeli territory. Another significant event has been the discovery of a Hezbollah major terrorist and intelligence network in Egypt in 2009.

On the background of the relentless pressure from the Mubarak regime on the Egyptian Brotherhood since its success at the 2005 elections, Iran has helped delegitimize and embarrass the Mubarak regime by harshly criticizing the Egyptian regime over its policy during the Gaza War (December 2008-January 2009), portraying it as opposing Islamic interests and accommodating toward Israel. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah even urged the Egyptian people and the commanders of its armed forces to disobey their government regarding Gaza.[11]

The Brotherhood’s General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef defended Iran and Hezbollah during the Cast Lead operation in Gaza declaring that while the Egyptian regime and other Arabs unwittingly support Israel, “the Resistance axis” calls for jihad to destroy the Jewish state and “Iran is noble, manly and humane and helps miserable people who are besieged by the Arabs.” [12]

According to Amr Hamzawy the Egyptian MuslimBrotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef dismissed the Hezbollah terrorist activity in Egypt as “media hype” and defended Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah because he is allegedly “working to protect the resistance and advance its victory over the Zionist enemy.” Akef’s position is consistent with “its Islamist, pro-resistance discourse, in accordance with which this ideological imperative transcends principles and prerequisites of the nation state.” In the same way, the Supreme Guide “set the demands of the resistance above the national concerns of Egypt during the war in Gaza in 2008-2009.”[13]
Moreover, the Supreme Guide has called for support of the resistance “by any means necessary.” Hussein Ibrahim, the deputy leader of the MB parliamentary bloc said that the Muslim Brotherhood “are in support of the resistance, in Gaza, and Palestine, and Lebanon [and]…our enemy and Hezbollah’s enemy are the same.”[14]
More recently, in January 2010 Muhammad Mahdi Akef, said in an interview: “The Muslim Brotherhood supports the ideas and thoughts of the founder of Islamic Republic.” He added that “[Ayatollah] Khomeini’s idea, especially with regard to the Palestinian issue, is the continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude toward fighting occupation.”[15]

During the Israeli attack against the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Muslim Brothers decided to suspend their actions against the Syrian regime. During the past year the Syrian MB have changed their strategy, and currently there is a rapprochement between the Brotherhood and Damascus. The Syrian MB attacks against the Asad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah became more moderate as they claim that the Muslim world is under attack and that defending it is more important than fighting the regime in Syria.[16]
Elad Altman considers that the Muslim Brotherhood’s political and ideological support has proven to be an important Iranian asset. By downplaying the religious differences between Shias and Sunnis they counterbalance the Wahhabi/Salafi-led campaign to vilify Shiism and the Arab efforts to contest Iran’s growing political power. In this way, the Brotherhood’s ecumenical approach has helped make it acceptable for Sunni Arabs to align themselves politically with Iran.[17]
Khalaji is more cautious as to the success of modern Islamism’s various ecumenical efforts to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide over the long-term as “problems inevitably arise when one of these branches of Islamism exercises power.” Iran especially has used it to make alliances with Sunni groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to promote its foreign agenda. However, the mistrust between Shiites and Sunnis is not easily resolved.[18]
According to Hamas’ Ahmed Yousef, the historically lukewarm relations between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood – a product of fourteen centuries of Sunni-Shiite rivalry – have reached in recent years a new phase of bridge building because Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood have similar positions on the Palestinian issue, both oppose the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and support Muslim causes elsewhere.[19]

Ehud Yaari concludes that Ahmed Yousef’s booklet is trying to redefine Hamas’s strategic alliance with Iran based on a similar interpretation of contemporary political Islam while seeking a religious justification for the movement’s dependence on the Islamic Republic. As Yousef most probably had the blessing of Hamas’s leadership for his study, Yaari interprets it as a clear signal that the movement is distancing itself from the Saudis in order to strengthen its pact with Iran, thus reinforcing its already radical positions on the peace process and the reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority.[20]

The ideological/religious radicalization in the Sunni radical camp presages badly for the chances of challenging peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which has no control of and practically no influence in Gaza, from where terrorist activity against Israel is again on the rising. Egypt, after legislative elections which nullified the meager electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood of 2005 and ahead of a thorny presidential contest, will probably witness more political and operative cooperation between Iran and the MB. The Muslim Brotherhood movements in Syria and Jordan could also be tempted to enhance their cooperation with the Teheran regime, based on common interests and similar ideological views. The Iranian leadership can thus consider that it is worthwhile to persist in its successful aggressive policy in the Middle East.


[1] See Ehud Yaari, “Sunni Hamas and Shiite Iran Form a Common Political Theology,” PolicyWatch #1716, November 9, 2010, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, at 

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Ely Karmon, “Iran–Syria-Hizballah–Hamas: A Coalition against Nature. Why does it Work?” Proteus Monograph Series, Vol. 1, Issue 5, May 2008, Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA., USA, at 

[4] Kurz, Anat & Tal, Nahman, “Hamas: Radical Islam in a National Struggle,” 76. Jaffee Center for Strategic Center Memorandum, No. 48, July 1997.

[5] See Ely Karmon, “Gaza/Hamastan, plateforme de déstabilisation du monde arabe par l’Iran,” Gaza. La guerre de cent ans? Outre-Terre Revue française de géopolitique, n° 22 –2009/2, pp. 41-53.

[6] Sayyed, Tashbih, “Who is Afraid of Hezbollah?” 208. The Muslim World Today, July 27, 2006, at 

[7] Israel Elad Altman, “The Brotherhood and the Shiite Question,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Hudson Institute, Vol. 9, November 19, 2009.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Yvette Talhamy, “The Syrian Muslim Brothers and the Syrian-Iranian Relationship,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 63, No. 4, 2009, pp. 561-580.

[10] Mehdi Khalaji, “The Dilemmas of Pan-Islamic Unity,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Hudson Institute, Vol. 9, November 27, 2009.

[11] Elad Altman, The Brotherhood and the Shiite Question.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Amr Hamzawi, “Caught in two minds,” Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, Issue No. 944, 23 – 29 April 2009, at 

[14] “Muslim Brotherhood Chief Defends Nasrallah,” London Asharq Al-Awsat, April 13, 2009.

[15] Mehdi Khalaji, “Eypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran,” PolicyWatch #1476, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 12, 2009.

[16] Yvette Talhamy, “The Syrian Muslim Brothers and the Syrian-Iranian Relationship,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 63, No. 4, 2009, pp. 561-580.

[17] Elad Altman, The Brotherhood and the Shiite Question.

[18] Khalaji, The Dilemmas of Pan-Islamic Unity.

[19] Yaari, Sunni Hamas and Shiite Iran Form a Common Political Theology.

[20] Ibid.