Israeli forces and Palestinian militants issued competing declarations of victory after the horrific 11-day war the shook the Middle East through mid-May, but there are concerns among some in Washington that Iran gained the most from recent clash — both on the tactical and strategic levels.
U.S. intelligence officials have long highlighted Iranian ties to the U.S.-designated terrorist organizations Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and regional experts say Tehran’s exploitation of the two was on full display in mid-May.
“The chief beneficiary of the latest round of violence was Iran because Iran uses these Palestinian groups to test the efficacy of Israel’s multi-layered air defense system, as well as to force the Israelis to continue to have to spend more on those systems,” said Benham Ben Taleblu, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow focused on Iran.
Israeli officials claim their “Iron Dome” missile shield intercepted 90% of more than 4,300 rockets fired by Hamas and the PIJ from Gaza — statistics that prove the system works but also come with a major price tag. Israel has spent hundreds millions of dollars — much of it tied to annual U.S. military aid — to maintain the missile defense system in recent years.
The cost to Israel and the U.S. of restocking the system now is something Iranian leaders are not only relishing but have focused on as one of the strategic aims behind their ongoing support for the Hamas and the PIJ, said Mr. Benham.
He pointed to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s assertion via Twitter in early May that “Palestinian youth [once] defended themselves by throwing stones, but today they respond to the enemy’s attacks with precision missiles.”
On a separate front, Iranian state media outlets often highlight the PIJ’s loyalty to Tehran. At the height of the recent violence, Iran’s official Mehr News Agency cited reports that the PIJ’s Saraya al-Quds Brigade — an outfit U.S. intelligence sources say is particularly aligned with Iranian objectives — had unveiled a new missile named “Qasem” to honor the late Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike last year, was the longtime commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force that U.S. officials accuses of training and arming of regional militants from Yemen to Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon.
U.S. and Israeli intelligence have long-monitored Iran’s support for Hamas and the PIJ. The State Department has designated both as terrorist organizations since 1997 and has listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984.
The department’s most recent Country Reports on Terrorism — an annual document drawing from intelligence findings — highlighted the ongoing Iran-Hamas-PIJ connection: “In 2019 Iran provided support to Hamas and other designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad.”
A U.S. intelligence source who spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity said: “Hamas benefits not only from a regular supply of money from Iran, but also from the training of Palestinian individuals that occurs in Iran — training on how to build weapons out of the things in one’s house.”
The Palestinian militants also benefit from “parts and pieces” of rocketry smuggled into Gaza by Iran-backed actors via the Red Sea, said the source, who noted the smuggling and training operations have continued in recent years despite the shuttering of what had been a major channel — Sudan.
Iran’s ongoing support for Palestinian militancy presents a vexing challenge for the Biden’s administration, which has vowed to maintain U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself while also seeking to promote peace by supporting Palestinian efforts to rebuild the Gaza Strip in the wake of latest violence.
President Biden has faced pressure from progressives in his own party for defending Israel’s heavy bombing of Gaza in the recent clash. But he and top advisers also have taken a hard line on Palestinian militancy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made headlines by asserting that “Hamas has brought nothing but ruin to the Palestinian people.”
Mr. Biden has expressed determination to help moderate Palestinian elements rebuild Gaza in a “manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock [it’s] military arsenal.”
Achieving that goal may be difficult, according to analysts who say it requires intense scrutiny of all aid moving into Gaza to ensure it does not include things like pipes that Hamas and PIJ militants could use to make new rockets — let alone concrete and rebar to rebuild smuggling tunnels destroyed by the recent Israeli bombing campaign.
“We are at an inflection point in which a significant portion of Hamas’ weapons, militant commanders, technical specials, as well as architecture, including tunnels, have been destroyed,” Norman Roule, a retired retired CIA official who focused on the Middle East during his 34-year career with the spy agency, said in an interview last week.
“Hamas will be anxious to rebuild, and we know that Iran will want to provide Hamas with funds, weapons and training,” Mr. Roule, now a non-resident fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University, told The Times.
“At this moment, the international community has the capacity to deter or delay that rebuilding process, but only if it takes the issue of Iranian aid to Hamas seriously,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am not convinced the international community is willing to take on this challenging problem.”
It’s a sobering assessment that now hangs in the backdrop as a range of regional powers, from Qatar to Egypt, vow to deliver dramatic contributions to rebuild Gaza.
Qatar is widely reported to have provided significant financial support to Hamas in recent years, as is Turkey. Both have strategic ties to Washington, with Turkey a NATO ally and Qatar hosting a key U.S. Air Force installation. It remains to be seen how the Biden administration intends to influence the two and others in the region toward ending their support for Hamas.
The former Trump administration claimed to be pushing Arab powers to channel aid into major foreign investment projects in Palestinian areas, while fostering the historic Abraham Accords in which several Arab powers normalized diplomatic relations with Israel.
Former President Donald Trump also engaged in a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions and military moves to constrain Iran’s support for regional militants.
The intelligence source who spoke on condition of anonymity said the campaign worked to slow Iranian backing of Hamas and the PIJ, and expressed concern that an easing of current sanctions on Iran via a potential restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal — a restoration the Biden administration is pursuing — would likely result in expanded Iranian funding for Hamas and the PIJ.
“Not just money,” the source said, “but also weapons, travel expenses and the whole running of the operation.”
Some analysts have suggested the prospect of eased sanctions stirred Iranian leaders to try to foment the recent Israeli-Palestinian clash.
“With the Biden administration showing every sign that it’s willing to bend over backwards for Iran to return to the [2015 Iran nuclear deal], the Islamic Republic has been emboldened and has concluded that now is the perfect time to test the mettle of the United States by targeting Israel,” according to Josh Block, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and longtime advocate of Israel in Washington.
“It’s also an opportunity to undermine Israel’s fledgling friendships in the Arab world by making it politically difficult for Arab states to continue their outreach to Jerusalem,” Mr. Block wrote in a recent op-ed published by The Washington Examiner.
Mr. Ben Taleblu expressed a similar sentiment, asserting that Iran “has invested in Palestinian terror groups for the purposes of turning them or co-opting them into proxies of the Islamic republic and of its resistance model, as well as to be able to function as a spoiler for regional peace efforts and also to be able to put the squeeze on the State of Israel.”