By Banafsheh Keynoush
As the fighting in Gaza continues to rage, Iran’s influence with Hamas, hitherto limited, could expand further, extending beyond the Middle East. Tehran is looking to contain Israel not just in the region but in Africa and Latin America as well. Although there are ideological differences between these two members of the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” the Israel-Hamas war may bring them closer together and strengthen their partnership.
While in the past Hamas has set aside its allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhoodand its core Sunni teachings to reach out to Shi’a Iran for tactical support, it may now turn to Tehran to help ensure its very survival in the face of an Israeli military campaign aimed at wiping the group out. Tehran would welcome a stronger partnership with Hamas for utilitarian reasons, as it has long depended on its network in the Arab world to export a distinctly Iranian Islamic revolutionary agenda abroad.
If the Israel-Hamas war continues to escalate going forward, potentially turning into a wider regional conflict, the impact could stretch across continents, given a decades-long joint Iranian and Hamas effort to contain Israeli power when and where possible.
Iran and Hamas have long supported an anti-Israel front in North Africa in countries like Algeria and Tunisia, where pro-Palestinian sentiment is strong. Indeed, Tehran had initially embraced Hamas in part to help undermine the popularity of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in North Africa when its leader, Yasser Arafat, sided with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime in the course of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.
During the Iran-Iraq conflict, Tehran sabotaged pro-PLO leaders in Africa, including Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. It also organized gatherings over the decades for Palestinian groups like the pro-Iranian Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to align their positions with the Palestinian armed movement linked to Hamas. In addition, Iran backed African anti-colonial resistance groups and leaders loyal to the Palestinian cause while promoting anti-Israel, anti-PLO, and anti-Ba’ath propaganda and literature.
The threads of Iran’s cooperation with Hamas emerged more clearly in later years. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Gadhafi supported Hezbollah against Israel. But when he was ousted from power in the 2011 Libyan Arab Spring, Tehran confirmed it had secretly forged ties with his opponents to help overthrow him through connections with the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the Syrian Arab Spring of 2011, Hamas and Tehran parted ways due to the group’s opposition to Iranian-backed President Bashar al-Assad, who was fighting Sunni rebels; and a year later, Hamas relocated its headquarters from Syria to Qatar. But that decision was not final, and for some time, the Palestinian militant group seemingly vacillated on whether to embrace fresh ties with Iran, particularly while most Sunni Arab governments remained opposed to Assad. Illustratively, Hamas political bureau head Ismail Haniyeh traveled to Tehran in early 2012 to meet with Iranian leaders, who insisted on aligning the interests of Palestinian and non-Palestinian militant groups such as Hezbollah.
And that same year, evidence of persistent ties emerged after Israel reportedly bombed a munitions factory in Sudan with links to Iran and allegedly involved in supplying weapons to Hamas. By 2015, Iran-based websites confirmed that Iran was building wider support in North Africa for anti-Israeli policies, which also involved backing for Axis of Resistance groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
In 2016, Hamas members, including the group’s first political bureau chief, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzouk, held unofficial talks in Tehran with Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani to discuss rebuilding more balanced ties. By 2018, Marzouk reportedly said Hamas-Iran relations were once again close, and that with Assad having largely defeated rebel Sunni forces, no one could question the group for once again seeking aid from Tehran.
Iran’s backing for Africa’s anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements, especially in South Africa, may have encouraged Pretoria to engage with Hamas in the following years. In 2020, for example, Haniyeh reached out to Iran and African leaders with strong ties to South Africa to seek support to end Gaza’s isolation. In October 2023, South Africa confirmed that it had contacted Hamas to facilitate discussions about getting aid into Gaza and other Palestinian territories, but denied reports that it was offering support to the group in its fight against Israel. Iran meanwhile continues to encourage South Africa’s leaders to draw parallels between their anti-apartheid movement and the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation.
In recent diplomatic talks with South Africa, Iran said that the U.S. has engaged in a proxy war by siding with Israel in the Gaza conflict. This particular narrative fits neatly with Iranian predictions about fiercer battles to come. In mid-October the Shi’a cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaki, who leads the Islamic Movement of Nigeriawith a reported membership of 3 million and hundreds of centers and schools in Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Ghana, arrived in Tehran shortly after he was released from prison and only days after the Israel-Hamas war broke out. He spoke publicly of his dismay over events in Gaza and prayed that Tehran will hasten the return of the Mahdi, a hidden saint-like figure whom Shi’as say will reappear to bring justice to earth as wars rage across the globe between Muslims and so-called infidels. Zakzaki’s statement implied that Iran should get involved in the Gaza war as Hamas vows to fight for justice.
In addition to the above, potentially stronger joint Iranian-Hamas activities in Africa may not be visible because of a tendency by both sides to resort to soft power influence and asymmetrical hard power operations that are not always easy to detect, as well as an inclination to demonstrate that influence publicly only when tactically necessary. Overall policies do suggest a level of coordination, however.
In Latin America, Iran has supported the “Pink Tide” — a political shift toward left-wing governments across the region — to contain U.S. and Israeli influence and sought to work with leftist leaders and the sizable Arab diaspora. Over the years companies and entities linked to fellow Axis of Resistance member Hezbollah and its finance networks have been repeatedly identified in South America.
In Bolivia, a country that just broke off ties with Israel over the war in Gaza, and where Iran backed former President Evo Morales and later the socialist party of President Luis Arce, Tehran links the South American country’s struggle against class and ethnic oppression of its indigenous communities with its own revolutionary teachings to promote an anti-imperialistic and pro-Palestinian worldview.
Colombia and Chile, both of which are home to significant Arab populations (including the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Middle East) and have reportedly experienced Hezbollah activity over the past decade, recently recalled their ambassadors from Israel as well. Colombia’s pro-Israeli stance under President Ivan Duque led to the expulsion of Hezbollah members and the listing of the organization as a terrorist group by 2021, but the country has shifted leftward under President Gustavo Petro, elected in 2022, who has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
Even prior to the latest war in the Middle East, several Latin American leaders, including Paraguay’s Foreign Minister Alejandro Hamed Franco in 2008-09, were viewed by the United States as Hamas sympathizers. Although countries such as Cuba have constrained Hamas and Hezbollah activities, they previously supported anti-Israeli positions at the United Nations. During the last major Gaza War in 2008-09, Iran pressed countries in Latin America to suspend ties with Israel and condemn its operations in Gaza.
When the Pink Tide briefly receded in 2019, Paraguay designated Hamas as a terrorist group. But the Tri-Border area between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, a hotspot for Muslim extremist and organized crime groups, continued to attract Hamas sympathizers. By 2021, the 35-member Organization of American Statesdesignated Hamas as a terrorist organization, but Iran continued to build up networks through local Arab communities in the region.
Iran undoubtedly works with Hamas to contain Israel, although to date their cooperation has been limited or constrained. But if Israel fails to contain or eliminate Hamas as it says it will, the current war could end up pushing the group to embrace Tehran unconditionally and indefinitely. Iran meanwhile continues to try to more seamlessly align Hamas’ interests with those of the PIJ. As recently as June 2023, Tehran invited the two groups for an exchange of views. On Oct. 25, its allies Hezbollah and Hamas met in Lebanon. Before the outbreak of the war, Hamas and PIJ had met in Beirut to stress joint cooperation in strengthening the resistance axis in the occupied West Bank.
With no end in sight to the fighting in Gaza and the risk of wider escalation growing by the day, coordination between Iran and other members of the Axis of Resistance, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and PIJ, is only likely to increase going forward. This will have a significant impact first and foremost within the Middle East, but the ripple effects may well extend far beyond the region. Unsurprisingly, Iranian government-linked media is already touting this potential outcome as a reality, trumpeting that the Axis of Resistance has “changed the geopolitical map of the world.”
Banafsheh Keynoush is a scholar of international affairs, a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Iran Program, and a fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies.
Photo from the Office of the Supreme Leader
Second publication by courtesy of Middle East Institute, Original-Text