United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Marriage and Divorce of Hamas and Hezbollah

Hanin Ghaddar

            Iran has always been the element that tied Sunni Hamas and Shiite Hezbollah together. The Islamic Republic’s priority was to foster organizations that would be part of the “resistance” against Israel and the West. Hanin Ghaddar analyzes the split between the two organizations and Iran’s role in their relationship.

Hamas and Hezbollah have been allies since the 1980s, when they were both founded. How is their relationship today?

      Hamas and Hezbollah have had a dramatic breakup after the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. Part of the breakup is due to sectarian differences; another part is due to rival regional alliances. Hamas is a predominantly Sunni group. Hezbollah is overwhelmingly Shiite. The split has played out between their forces on the ground as well as between their political leaders.
      Both movements—which are political parties as well as militias—have been allied with Syria and Iran since they were both founded in the 1980s. The rupture is one of the most profound shifts in Islamist politics over the past three decades.
            Relations have steadily soured between the two organizations since protesters took to the streets against the regime of President Bashar Assad in March 2011. Hezbollah remained loyal to the Damascus regime, while Hamas relations with Assad eroded.
            Sectarian differences began to redefine their relationship in later 2011, as the Syrian conflict devolved into a confrontation between Sunni rebels and a government led by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot. In January 2012, Hamas moved its headquarters from Syria to Qatar, which is a Sunni sheikhdom. Within weeks, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh formally announced support for Sunni rebels.
            In early 2013, Hezbollah increased its presence in the conflict, dispatching troops to fight alongside Syrian forces. By mid-2013, Hezbollah and Hamas were reportedly fighting each other in the Syrian town of Qusayr, which is near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah fought side-by-side with the Syrian Army against rebels boosted by Hamas operatives.
           In June 2013, the two organizations tried to patch things up at a high-level meeting in Beirut. They reportedly agreed to disagree about the Syrian crisis and not allow political differences to affect their bilateral ties. But relations are almost certain to remain strained as long as they are both on the ground in Syria.
           For the wider Middle East, the Hamas-Hezbollah split is a dangerous microcosm of a growing trend. The Sunni-Shiite rivalry is now the main fault line on the ground and in politics, and it may impact the Syrian crisis most of all.

How has their relationship changed? What role has Iran played?
           Iran has always been the element that tied (Sunni) Hamas and (Shiite) Hezbollah together. The Islamic Republic’s priority was to foster organizations that would be part of “resistance” against Israel and the West. Tehran’s elite Revolutionary Guards basically created Hezbollah soon after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Iran has reportedly provided the organization with millions of dollars in funding and advanced weapons as a frontline resistance in Lebanon against Israel.
            Tehran was not involved in the creation of Hamas, which grew out Muslim Brotherhood remnants in the Gaza Stip. Hamas formally announced its formation when the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, erupted against Israeli occupation in 1987. Tehran reportedly started providing Hamas financial aid and military training in the early 1990s. Thousands of Hamas militants have reportedly trained at Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran and Lebanon, while Hamas opened an office in Tehran.
            Iran continued support for Hamas during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. It increased aid to Hamas after Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004 and Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. It also helped bail out Hamas after it took control of Gaza in 2007. Tehran also allegedly provided Hamas military equipment used in the 2008 and 2012 conflicts with Israel.
            Hezbollah developed close ties to Hamas as a result of Tehran’s sponsorship. In Lebanon, Hezbollah hosted Hamas leaders for years. But in mid-2013, Hezbollah reportedly asked Hamas leaders to leave Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs of Beirut.
            Tehran reportedly reduced its funding for Hamas over its involvement in Syria. “For supporting the Syrian revolution, we lost very much,” Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’ deputy foreign minister, said in May 2013.
            But Hamas may be reconsidering its strained relationship with Hezbollah and Tehran. Hamas may feel its position has weakened since the July 3, 2013 toppling of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader. A few weeks later, Hamas official Ahmad Youssef told the press that the movement had met with Iranian and Hezbollah representatives in Beirut. “Both sides stressed that their common enemy is Israel, with the understanding that each side understands the other’s position regarding areas of difference,” Youssef said, “particularly when it comes to the situation in Syria.”
What are the similarities and differences in their agendas? How have their goals and strategies changed since the 1980s?
      Hezbollah have Hamas have both undergone profound transformations since they were founded. In their early years, both were considered underground movements associated with violence and suicide bombings. But they later gained reputations for delivering social services. Hamas and Hezbollah built bases of support that allowed them to establish influential political parties.
      Since its inception, Hezbollah has been committed to resisting Israel. The Party of God has also been loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Its agenda has almost always aligned with Tehran’s interests. But it has accepted that Lebanon’s diverse population may necessitate a multi-sectarian state rather than an Islamic government.
            Hamas has had parallel goals to Hezbollah. It has been committed to the destruction of Israel and creating an Islamic state in Palestine, although some leaders have indicated in recent years that they might accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders—next to a Jewish state. But the organization has retained its right to resist Israel with violence.
            Hamas and Hezbollah had similar goals and objectives as long as they considered Israel the main enemy. But the Syrian uprising changed everything. Hezbollah shifted its primary focus to defending the Assad regime rather than confronting Israel.
What countries influence, army and train Hamas and Hezbollah funds?
           Qatar stepped in to provide Hamas with money and arms once Iran reduced for support for Hamas. Qatar’s influence over Hamas also increased after Khaled Mashaal moved to Doha in 2012. He reportedly had a close relationship with the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. In October 2012, Sheikh Hamad became the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007. He pledged $400 million to build homes and rehabilitate roads. But Qatar’s relationship with Hamas has been merely political, not military.
            Hezbollah’s main benefactor is still Iran. But their relationship runs much deeper than any relationship Hamas has ever had with a sponsor. Hezbollah is significantly dependent on Iranian support, particularly the Revolutionary Guards.
            Hezbollah initially resisted getting involved in Syria because of the potential costs. But Iran’s needs have trumped Hezbollah’s interests. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has visited Iran twice since the Syrian uprising began. Hezbollah eventually entered Syria on the side of Assad, almost certainly under Iranian pressure.
What have Hamas and Hezbollah achieved politically?
            Hezbollah entered electoral politics in 1992, winning eight parliamentary seats. It gradually gained more influence as a member of coalition governments but did not play a major role until Syria’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon. Hezbollah effectively inherited the Syrian role, including influence over state institutions. By 2010, it was powerful enough to force the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri by pulling out of the coalition government, although the move cost it some support.
            Hezbollah is now entrenched in the Lebanese state. It has sufficient clout to prevent the creation of any government that would try to exclude it. Its hold extends into some branches of the Lebanese Army and intelligence services.
            Hamas entered politics much later than Hezbollah. In 2006, it won a stunning victory against the long-dominant Fatah Party of Yasser Arafat in parliamentary elections--and quickly had to learn how to govern. In 2007, clashes between Hamas and Fatah left Hamas in uncontested control of Gaza, which it still held six years later.
            The electoral victories of Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco boosted Hamas’ status after the 2011 uprisings. Two years later, however, its popular support may be ebbing. Ironically, Hamas now faces challenges from other Islamists, notably ultraconservative Salafis and jihadi groups in Gaza.
For more information on Hezbollah's interests in Syria, watch Ghaddar's July 25 presentation at the Wilson Center.
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW Lebanon and was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars Middle East Program in 2012.
Photo credits: Khaled Meshaal by Trango (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


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Rouhani Tweets: On Chemical Weapons, Syria

            In a flurry of tweets, President Hassan Rouhani took a firm stand against use of chemical weapons in Syria. Damascus is Tehran’s closest ally in the region. But chemical weapons are a particularly sensitive issue in Iran because of repeated use by Iraq during the 1980-1988 war. During the war, Rouhani served as a Supreme Defense Council member and chief of Iran’s air defenses, which gave him first-hand exposure to the issue of chemical weapons. The following tweets are from August 27.

               Rouhani then cautioned against jumping to conclusions regarding Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons. He argued that military intervention without U.N. approval would be a "blatant violation" of international law. The following tweets are from August 28 and 29.

            Rouhani also tweeted on the broader Syrian crisis after the first reports of nerve gas usage surfaced on August 21. He encouraged outside powers to help facilitate dialogue between the regime and the opposition instead of arming the rebels



Sign of Changing Times?

            In unusual coverage of a diplomatic visit, the Iranian press issued several pictures of new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcoming U.N. Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who is also a former senior U.S. official. As Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from August 2009 to June 2012, he was in charge of U.S. Iran policy. The Iranian press has traditionally issued standard photographs of officials formally sitting next to each other in chairs or across a table. But Mehr News Agency issued a series of candid shots of Zarif’s warm welcome, including the one below on August 26.

The following photograph is from Feltman’s August 2012 trip to Iran with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
Photo Credits: Mehr News Agency and official website of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

Report: Iran-Turkey Rivalry

            Turkish and Iranian interests in the Middle East are increasingly at odds, especially in Syria and Iraq, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation. Turkish energy needs and massive Iranian oil and natural gas resources heightened levels of cooperation between the two countries during the last decade. But F. Stephen Larrabee and Alireza Nader argue that Tehran and Ankara are “rivals rather than close partners.” Ankara’s “main fear” is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a regional arms race, according to the report. Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition has especially strained relations with Iran, which has aided President Bashar Assad against the rebels. The following are excerpts from the report with a link to the full text at the end.

            The Arab Spring has given the political and ideological rivalry between Turkey and Iran greater impetus. The fall of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, in addition to uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, has undermined the political order in the Middle East. Turkey and Iran both have sought to exploit the emerging “new order” in the region to achieve their respective interests in the Middle East.
            Relations have been strained by a number of issues. The most important factor contributing to the growing strains in relations has been Turkey’s support for the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is Iran’s only true state ally in the Middle East. Since 1979, the secular, Alawite-dominated, Baathist Syrian regime and Iran’s Shi’a theocracy have strongly supported each other. Assad’s downfall would be a serious strategic blow to Iran and could result in the growth of Turkey’s influence. It could also have a demonstration effect on Iran, strengthening internal opposition to the Iranian regime and deepening the current divisions within the Iranian leadership.
            Iraq has also become a field of growing competition between Turkey and Iran. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has created a power vacuum that Iran has attempted to fill. The sectarian conflict between the Shi’a and Sunni has drawn Turkey and Iran into the Iraqi conflict on opposing sides. While the Turkish-Iranian competition in Iraq is not as significant as the tensions over Syria, it could gain new strength with Assad’s downfall, leading to wide-spread sectarian violence that could be highly destabilizing.
            The Kurdish issue has also emerged as a source of tension between Ankara and Tehran. The Turkish government suspects Syria and Iran of providing support to the main Kurdish insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. As the unrest in Syria has spread, the Assad regime’s control over the Kurdish areas along the Turkish-Syrian border has eroded, deepening Turkish anxieties that this will strengthen calls for greater autonomy among Turkey’s own Kurdish population and that Syria and, to some extent, Iran may use Turkey’s vulnerabilities on the Kurdish issue in an attempt to reshape Turkey’s policy toward the Syrian regime.
            The Palestinian issue provides yet another area of rivalry between the two countries. Iran views its opposition to Israel as enhancing its popularity in the Arab world. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assertive support for the Palestinians has stolen Iran’s thunder and has been an important factor contributing to the deterioration of Ankara’s relations with Israel.
            Turkey and Iran are also potential rivals for influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, competition between Turkey and Iran in these regions has been muted. Iranian influence has been constrained in Central Asia and the Caucasus due to a number of factors, including Russia’s dominant role as a regional power broker.
            Iran’s nuclear program has been a source of strain and divergence in U.S.-Turkish relations, especially as Turkey has attempted to play the role of mediator between Iran and P5+1 (the United Nations Security Council plus Germany). However, the differences between the United States and Turkey regarding Iran’s nuclear program are largely over tactics, not strategic goals. Turkey’s main fear is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This, in turn, could increase pressure on the Turkish government to consider developing its own nuclear weapon capability.
            Turkey’s approach to the nuclear issue will heavily depend on U.S. policy and the credibility of the commitment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to Article V of the Washington Treaty on collective defense. As long as Turkey feels that NATO takes seriously Turkish security concerns, Ankara is unlikely to rethink its nuclear policy. However, if Turkish confidence in the U.S. and NATO commitment to its security weakens, Ankara could begin to explore other options for ensuring its security, including the possible acquisition of its own nuclear deterrent. Thus, maintaining the credibility of the commitment of alliance members to Article V remains critical.
Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of “Iran After the Bomb.”

Read Alireza Nader's chapter on the Revolutionary Guards in "The Iran Primer"

Youth in Iran Part 4: Crazy for Sports

Garrett Nada

            Faced with few social options or outlets to let off steam, Iran’s young have turned almost fanatically to sports. The first post-revolution generation now includes some world-class athletes—both male and femaleas well as millions of diehard sports fans. Iran’s youth claimed 12 medals at the 2012 London Olympics—more than any other Middle Eastern country.
            But sports are not limited to top achievers. Street sports are just as popular. The concrete jungle of Tehran now has dedicated skate parks where amateur bikers and skaters hold impromptu competitions. And the girls are into as many athletics as the boys.

       The Iranian passion for sport was reflected in the street celebrations after Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup by defeating South Korea. The celebrations on June 18 were similar to the outpouring after Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election three days earlier. Soccer reigns supreme among youth. But skateboarding, taekwondo, snowboarding and other sports are also gaining ground.
      Youth and sport are so intertwined that the government created a Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport in 2011, which has even allowed women to participate. Nine female athletes represented Iran in the 2012 London Olympics in archery, rowing, shooting, shot put, table tennis and taekwondo. At the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, skier Marjan Kalhor became the first Iranian female to compete in the Winter Olympics. But finding uniforms that conform to both international standards and Iran’s strict dress code has often posed a challenge. Many now complete in sports wearing long pants and hijab (headscarf).
            Elham Asghari wore an extra 13 pounds of clothing when she set a new women’s breaststroke record for swimming 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in the Caspian Sea. She wore a full diving suit, long cape and headscarf. But Iran’s sport ministry would not recognize the record set on June 11 because her “feminine features” were showing when she got out of the water. Asghari explained the controversy in a YouTube video subtitled in English. 
Skateboarding, BMX
            In athletics, young Iranians are no longer isolated. They keep up with the latest global trends through Facebook and YouTube. Skateboarding, rollerblading and BMXbicycle motocross are increasingly popular, especially in Tehran and other major cities. Security guards usually do not allow skaters to perform stunts in parks or public places, either for safety concerns or because they are a nuisance to some. So MJ Rahimi, a skateboard coach, built a skate park several years ago at Tehran’s Enghelab Sports Complex.
            Red Bull, an Austrian energy drink producer, then hosted Iran’s first major skateboard competition. Local newspapers, magazines and television stations covered the event. The government took interest and invested in additional skate parks. The T Sixty skate team shows off their tricks in the following video from the Tehran skate park.

            Bikers are as daring as their Western counterparts. Members of the ZanKo freestyle team offered training for young Iranians interested in BMX in the poster below.  

            Soccer is the most popular sport in Iran— outdoor for young males and mainly indoor futsal for young females. Iranians have taken their love of soccer off the field and into the streets. Freestyle football is a one-man sport that has more in common with breakdancing than soccer. Mohammad Akbari from the “PersianBall Crew” juggles, balances and spins a ball in the following video. 

            Women are banned from attending men’s matches, although some devoted fans have dressed as men to enter stadiums. But they have their own clubs and competitions. In July, the national Iranian women’s team won second place in futsal, a form of indoor soccer, at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. The feat even won the attention of newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, who tweeted his congratulations.
            Uniforms have been an issue in regular world-class soccer for women. The women’s national soccer team had hoped to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. But the team withdrew from a qualifying match in 2011 because the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) would not allow women to play with their necks covered. FIFA lifted the ban on headscarves in March 2012. 
            Snowboarders account for up to 30 percent of Iranians on the slopes, according to the World Snowboard Guide. More than a dozen resorts have helped popularize snow sports, especially among youth. In recent years, Hype, a Dubai-based energy drink company, has hosted snowboarding exhibitions in Iran such as the one in the following video. 


            Volleyball is increasingly popular as well. The men's national team competed in the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World League Finals for the first time in summer 2013. The team is now ranked 12 worldwide by the federation.

            But broadcasting matches is a problem for Iranian television because female fans at international matches are not wearing Islamic dress. Covering the volleyball games has been “more difficult than airing the [presidential] debates,” said Ezatollah Zarghami, head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), according to news website Asr Iran. IRIB broadcast a June 30 match in Sardinia versus Italy with a seven-second delay to check for images of women not wearing Islamic dress like the picture below.
            Volleyball is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s favorite sport, according to his Twitter account. 
            The Korean martial art gained ground in the 1960s, but young Iranians are now among the world’s top Taekwondo competitors. Mohammad Bagheri Motamed won a gold medal at the 2009 World Taekwondo Championships in Copenhagen and the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
            Women have also taken to the sport. In May 2013, four Iranian women won gold or silver medals at the Carthage International Open in Tunisia. Sara Khoshjamal Fekri faced off against a Tunisian opponent at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the photo below. 
            Iran’s caliber of basketball is constantly improving. The Super League, the equivalent of the National Basketball Association (NBA), has become more competitive with the hiring of foreign coaches and players, especially Americans and Europeans. Iranian-American Jonas Lalehzadeh (below) was the league’s top scorer for the 2012-2013 season. Click here for an interview with the six-foot-five-inch point guard.
            Iran’s national team competed in the 2008 Olympics, the first time since 1948. Now the Islamic Republic now has one of the top teams in Asia. Iran’s players are referred to as the “West Asian giants” on the continent. In August 2013, the men’s team won the International Basketball Federation Asia Championship—its third title in four years. Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian player in the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA), scored 29 of the team’s 85 points against the Philippines national team.  
Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.

Photo credits: Zanko (Freestyle) team via
FacebookSarah Khoshjamal by Bridget Coila from Beijing, China (other0065  Uploaded by Traleni) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Jonas Lalehzadeh via Facebook
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


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