Iran: The regional power behind the Hamas war effort
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
Since the calm that was achieved after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Iran has been investing heavily in improving the quantity and quality of the rockets in the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) arsenals. The breaching of the land border between Gaza and Sinai, during Mohamed Morsi's one year rule in Egypt (2012-2013), made it easy for Iran to transfer advanced rockets and other weapons to the Gaza terror organizations overland (through Sudan and Sinai), through the ramified tunnel enterprise, and by sea. One such delivery by Iran – which included long-range Syrian-made M-302 rockets, the kind fired at Hadera and Haifa during Operation Protective Edge – was intercepted by the Israeli navy last March on the Klos-C ship. The Victoria, captured on 15 March 2011, also carried advanced weapons, including shore-to-sea missiles. Advanced Kornet anti-tank missiles have been smuggled in as well.
Although the crisis in Syria indeed fostered tensions between Iran and Hamas, it did not end their contacts through various channels. In Iran's view, the struggle against Israel transcends the ongoing squabbles with the Palestinian organizations. In the aftermath of the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, Turkey and Egypt took most of the credit for aiding the Palestinians; this left Iran frustrated, but still determined to keep assisting the Palestinians in its own way, via military assistance. The aim was to preserve Hamas's ties to Iran even in a time of crisis.
Iran made a critical and decisive contribution to Hamas' technical knowledge by producing rockets of different kinds and sophisticated explosive charges. Iran also aided in the rehabilitation of the infrastructure damaged during Operations Cast Lead (2008) and Pillar of Defense, and they will most likely do the same following Operation Protective Edge. Unlike in the past, Iran did not try to hide the fact that it was helping Hamas and Islamic Jihad develop and advance their rocket arsenals and launching capabilities during the Pillar of Defense operation. The PIJ spokesmen indeed said, "The whole world knows that the main source of the weapons serving the resistance is Iran."
Fajr-5 "Saved the Day"
A short time after Operation Pillar of Defense, the conservative Iranian newspaper Resalat published an editorial in which it praised Iran's missile-producing ability. The article asserted that "in the Gaza war (November 2012) it was the Iranian Fajr-54 that forced Israel to withdraw and surrender…and it was the first to strike the capital city of this fraudulent regime, signaling to the Israelis that even their capital is not safe for them." The editorial also observed that, whereas before the operation Hamas had only used Grad and Qassam rockets, already during the operation Iran had provided it with the Fajr-5, with which, according to the writer, "the Iron Dome system has difficulty contending with." 5
The Fars news agency, which is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also lauded the Fajr-5 rocket and called it a "strategic weapon that has changed the scene of the war between Israel and Palestinians…. Fajr-class rockets, Fajr-5 in particular, are known and described by global military experts, as a weapon system appropriate for asymmetric wars." Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, was quoted in November 2012 on the PIJ's website saying that Iran had given the technology needed to produce rockets of this kind.
During Operation Pillar of Defense, a house in Rishon Letzion was hit by a Fajr-5. Iranian TV broadcast that after the operation, many Gazans named their children Fajr as a token of esteem for the Iranian aid. The IRGC-affiliated Javan newspaper, in a critical article on the attempt to raise the issue of the Iranian missiles during the current nuclear talks, wrote that the United States fears the Iranian missile program since Israel, its regional ally, has "tasted" the (Fajr-5) rockets during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 (the "thirty-three day war") and Operation Pillar of Defense (the "eight-day war"), and these weapons had make a mockery of Iron Dome and forced the prime minister to run into a shelter. In this context the article quoted the words of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who said "the Islamic Republic of Iran would raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground."
The Common Denominator: Destroying Israel
Hamas has always tried to maintain its independence and not submit to Iranian dictates in return for aid. It suffers; however, from dissensions between its "interior" and its external leadership and between its military Ezz alDin alQassam Brigades and political wings; Iran is exploiting these dissensions to dictate a more belligerent, uncompromising policy while making the aid conditional on "results in the field." The PIJ is totally subjected to the dictates of Iran and will be unwilling to join a ceasefire under Tehran's instructions.
The Quds Force of the IRGC, headed by Qasem Suleimani, plays the lead role in coordinating the aid to the different terrorist organizations and handling its shipping and delivery. The Quds Force – mainly through Iran's main proxy in Lebanon, Hizbullah – is also responsible for the clandestine contacts between Hamas and PIJ operatives who deal with smuggling and producing weapons, the coordination of training in Iran and Lebanon, and the transfer of funds. According to some reports, Hizbullah reopened a Lebanese operation room at Iran directive to coordinate with the Hamas command and control in the Gaza Strip.
Within this framework, on 26 June 2014, Hamas Politburo Chief Khalid Mashal sent a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in which he reported on the situation in "Palestine" and on Israel's arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank, and requested Tehran's assistance in the struggle against Israel. A short time later, Khalid al-Qoddumi, Hamas's representative in Iran, sent a letter to the Majlis speaker Ali Larijani in which he asked for Iran's help: "Misusing the situation, the Zionist enemy has intensified its attacks against the Palestinians under different pretexts and is attempting to take advantage of the regional situation to its interests in the best possible form." In May, Mashal met in Qatar with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdollahian and expressed support "for Tehran's efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria." That same month Iran's new ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Fathali, met with representatives of the Palestinian organizations in the country including envoys of Hamas and the PIJ.
In the course of Operation Protective Edge, Osama Hamdan, who is in charge of Hamas's foreign relations, said Hamas was continuing to coordinate its positions with Hizbullah and Iran. Hamdan underlined that "the enemy [Israel] is the same enemy and the tactics [of contending with it] are the same tactics and therefore we are working to exchange expertise. There is on-the-ground cooperation and coordination." Hamdan also asserted that "the relations with Iran are better than what people are prepared to believe and with Hizbullah, much better than what the enemy hopes and believes." He said the relations were based on the "struggle against Israel and the liberation of Palestine." Hizbullah and Iran's relations with Hamas have deteriorated because of the crisis in Syria, including the ouster of the Hamas leadership from Damascus.
Along with the ongoing firing of locally produced rockets (Borak-70), utilizing technical know-how that Iran supplied, the PIJ's battle with propaganda during the current round of fighting (it calls its own role in it "Impenetrable Edifice") has included an announcement about the type of rocket it used and the target at which it was aimed. Specifically, the PIJ said it had fired five Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets at Tel Aviv. Fars published the announcement and added that Hamas, too, had launched Fajr-5s toward Tel Aviv. Hamas claims it has also fired the locally made version of the Fajr – the M-75 (333-mm) rocket – at Ben-Gurion Airport among other targets. During the Second Lebanon War, Hizbullah fired Fajr-5s under the name Khaibar-1.
With the Iron Dome system successfully intercepting almost all the rockets fired from Gaza that threatened to hit urban centers, Iranian propaganda has tried to downplay this accomplishment. It claimed, "The failure of the highly-publicized missile system sparked panic among Israelis after a majority of Palestinian rockets successfully hit their targets;" this claim went hand-in-hand with highlighting the few damages that the rockets caused .
Meanwhile the Iranian social networks have leveled ongoing criticism at the Arab states' impotence vis-à-vis the operation in Gaza. At the same time, support continues for Hamas and the PIJ, the leading forces behind the rocket fire on Israel. Special emphasis is given to the role of the Iranian aid and know-how in facilitating Hamas' rocket program, both in supplying completed rockets – Fajr-5s and Fajr-3s – and the technological know-how for producing them.
The Drawing of Lessons
Nevertheless, the overwhelming successes of Iron Dome, despite Iranian propaganda's efforts to belittle them, necessitate a comprehensive situation assessment by Iran's top operational echelons. The use of rockets is a central component of Iran's asymmetrical-war doctrine in other contexts as well. Iran fears that Israel's great success in countering this threat could be replicated in other theaters where Iran is involved – such as the Persian Gulf, where U.S. interests in the region are under a defensive configuration (including the Fifth Fleet's base in Bahrain and other locations where U.S. and other foreign forces are deployed).
Iran and its proxies will defiantly use any new truce to learn from the failure of their asymmetric doctrine and to think of solutions and "surprises," such as the drone Hamas used during Operation Protective Edge and improvements to the vulnerability of the rockets. Iran will rebuild Hamas and PIJ arsenals and invest a great technical effort to overcome Israel's great successes in intercepting its rockets and exposing the cracks in its asymmetric doctrine.
The Leader Keeps Tweeting
On the political level, Iran has stepped up its activity. Rouhani has sent a request to the Muslim states to help the residents of Gaza, asserting that "unity of Muslim countries against the enemies is a vital matter at this stage." Rouhani added that the resistance displayed by the residents of Gaza will undoubtedly lead to the "defeat of the Zionist regime." Meanwhile, Iran keeps vigorously attacking the "fraudulent regime" in the social media and in periodic announcements that it publishes.
Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi, and Islamic Cooperation Organization (OIC) Secretary-General Iyad Ameen Madani asking them to intervene and stop what he called "the Israeli aggression in Palestine." Hussein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran's deputy foreign minister for Middle Eastern and African affairs, declared that "The Islamic Republic of Iran will strongly continue to support the oppressed Palestinian people and the resistance front."
Iranian military officials have also joined the condemnation of the Israeli campaign in Gaza. The Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, said that Israel's behavior during the operation, in response to what he called the "defensive measures of the Palestinian resistance forces," proves that the leaders "of the fake and occupying [Israeli] regime feel desperate and frightened." The latest events, he warned, suggest that "Israel is facing a Third Intifada and harsh revenge." The conservative newspaper Jomhuri-e Islami also asserted in an editorial that the rocket attacks and growing protest in "Palestine" indicate the start of a new intifada.
Who Doesn't Know Where Hamas' Missiles Came From?
Given the open source reports in the Palestinian media on the use of Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki's July 9 answer to a question on who supplied the rockets to Hamas is troubling: "I don't have any information to share on that…." She was then asked whether the West intended to raise this issue during the nuclear talks in Vienna, and she replied, "Not that I'm aware of. The focus is on the nuclear issue. There's plenty to discuss on that particular issue.… Well, I think it's clear, Lucas, that our concern and our condemnation of the rocket attacks has been consistent. And of course we'd be concerned about the suppliers, but I don't have any more information to share on that."
Between Gaza and Vienna
July 20 is the date set by Iran and the other powers for signing a nuclear agreement. Meanwhile major disagreements and gaps on the core issues between Iran and the P5+1 group endure – continued enrichment, the rigor of inspections, the number of centrifuges Iran can have, and the possible easing of the sanctions.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, set new uncompromising guidelines and redlines, apparently surprising Iran's nuclear negotiators, declaring that Iran wants to significantly increase its enrichment capacities for theoretical future nuclear power plants. Khamenei directly challenged the 5+1 saying: "Their (5+1) aim is that we accept a capacity of 10,000 separative work units (SWUs), which is equivalent to 10,000 centrifuges of the older type that we already have. Our officials say we need 190,000 centrifuges. Perhaps this is not a need this year or in two years or five years, but this is the country's absolute need,"
In nuclear talks since 2003, the United States and the West have been averting their gaze from Iran's negative involvement in a long series of issues: opposing a peace process on the Palestinian track, opposing intra-Palestinian reconciliation (while equipping Hamas and the PIJ with missiles), aid to Bashar Assad in Syria, the involvement in Iraq, subversion in the Gulf states (which includes Hizbullah in Bahrain), and also Iran's ongoing human rights violations, which have only increased since Rouhani was elected president. This willful blindness has caused, and continues to cause, enormous damage to the United States and its allies in the region.
At this sensitive stage, Operation Protective Edge is diverting attention from Iran. As the nuclear agreement draws near it appears that some negotiators are reluctant to confront Iran's assistance to terrorist organizations. When one connects the dots; however, it emerges clearly that Iran is an arsonist, inflaming conflicts in the region as it develops its long-term strategy to dominate the region – from its own standpoint -- successfully. The continued overlooking of this Iranian ongoing conduct, particularly just before the signing of a "historic" nuclear agreement with it, endangers Western long-term interests in the region, the West and especially the United States. The negotiators appear to avert their gaze despite the recurrent harm to their interests and, not least, to their soldiers (as in the attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the help given the Shiites in attacking U.S. forces in Iraq, the aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the subversion in the Gulf states, and so on).
A (Last) Chance to Change Course
This year, the last Friday of the month of Ramadan falls on 25 July. Since 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini and his government decided to consecrate this day to the yearning of all Muslims for the "liberation of Jerusalem," Iran has been marking it as "International (Quds) Jerusalem Day." Khomeini's outlook has continued to define and shape the goals of the revolution and the efforts to fulfill them, including the attitude toward Israel and the calls for its destruction. Each year, Jerusalem Day is celebrated with mass processions organized by the regime, as the top leaders give harsh speeches including calls for Israel's destruction and erasure from the map, along with condemnations of the United States ("Death to Israel," "Death to America"). At the same time, the Iranian leadership emphasizes its contribution to the Palestinian struggle in the face of Arab weakness, and glorifies it role on the path to "the liberation of Palestine and the armed struggle."
Iran, along with its satellites Hizbullah and Syria, keeps working to fulfill Khomeini's doctrine and that of his successor, Khamenei. Iran supplies weapons to the Palestinian terror organizations and heads what it calls the resistance front against Israel and the United States in the region. It also continues to undermine the United States' status in the Middle East, with the aim of replacing it as the region's most influential actor.
So far Iran has not had to pay a price for its destructive involvement in the region, and the West has not forcefully raised these issues in the nuclear talks. Even during Operation Protective Edge, which has not yet ended, the Western negotiators are carefully refraining from mentioning Iran's name as the party responsible for the quantity and quality of the rockets in the Gaza terror organizations' hands and in those of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon. It appears that Iran is also capable of opening a northern front whenever it wants.
Thus, while the international community, fearful of jostling the slowly progressing nuclear talks, keeps ignoring developments, Iran has managed to confront Israel on the southern front (Hamas and the PIJ) and the northern front (Hizbullah). Iran regards these fronts as part of its protective envelope and as suited to its concept of asymmetrical warfare, and as the first line of confrontation with Israel.
As conflict escalates in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israel and the international community must put Iran's role in the spotlight and not shy away from blaming it.
As time passes, Iran moves closer to a nuclear weapon and at the same time tightens its grip on key regional events. The West must hold Iran accountable for its arsonist behavior and raise these issues during the negotiations.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Foresight Prudence.