Since the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the Iranian regime's public support for it, the war of words as to whether Hamas should be called a "proxy" for Tehran has been rekindled. In this article I will try to argue why despite not technically fitting the term, Hamas should still be regarded as a proxy force for the Islamist regime of Iran and must be dealt with accordingly.
Since the 1960s, Arab nationalist groups with pro-Soviet tendencies among Palestinian Arabs led the war on Israel. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which emerged under the charismatic leadership of Yasser Arafat, was the most important and well-known of those organizations.
At the time, many Iranian Islamists and leftists, in line with their "anti-imperialist" struggle against the West in the heat of the Cold War, developed a deep bond with Arafat. Many of them were trained by the PLO and sometimes even fought by Arafat's side.
After the 1979 revolution in Iran, these people would immediately take Arafat to Tehran to seek Ayatollah Khomeini's support for his anti-Israeli efforts. It was during that historic meeting that Khomeini issued his infamous decree to "conquer Quds" and "wipe Israel off the face of the Earth," thereby setting Iran's Islamist regime on a collision course with Israel.
Nevertheless, after decades of armed conflict with Israel achieved nothing for Palestinian Arabs, Arafat finally came to the conclusion that he must sit down and talk to the Israelis. This new vision, encouraged with a behind-the-stage nudge from the Arab kingdoms that were keen to put the longstanding conflict with Israel to rest, led to the pursuit of an uneven political process by the PLO that more or less continued until Arafat's death in 2004.
This triggered great consternation in Tehran, and the Islamists started to call Arafat a sellout. In the years leading to his death, the Iranian regime was openly insulting Arafat in state-run platforms, accusing him of betrayal to the Palestinian Arab cause. Apparently, the PLO had reached its expiration date for the Islamists in Iran.
It was at this point that Tehran realized the classic Arab leftist-nationalist anti-Israeli vector had run its course. To push forward their plans to annihilate Israel, the Islamists had to recast the narrative in their own image and reconstitute the fight.
The instrument they needed was an extremist contingent among Palestinian Arabs that would fully conform to their apocalyptic vision, and they found it in the form of Hamas, a nascent Islamist organization. Hamas was founded in 1987 as a subsidiary branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its goal, as stated in its original charter published in 1988, was to eliminate Israel and establish an Islamic government "From the River to the Sea."
Only three years after Arafat's death, Hamas had become so powerful that it was able to challenge the PLO's rump, which by that time had come to be known as Fatah, and successfully drove it out of the Gaza Strip and confined its activities to the 'West Bank' of the Jordan River. After the 2007 war, Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip, and has since implemented an Islamist style of governance that has much in common with that of the Iranian regime.
From one perspective, the Hamas-Fatah conflict can be seen as an extension of the cold war between Iran and the Arab kingdoms on the Palestinian Arab turf. And the fact that Hamas came out on top, most assuredly with Tehran's aid and encouragement, meant that from then onward the Islamist apocalyptic approach to the Palestinian Question as well as the Question of Israel would take precedence and dictate the tone for the entire Islamic world.
Hamas is not a proxy of the Iranian regime if by proxy we mean it was established by and is structurally tied to Tehran, for example, a la Hezbollah. While the regime in Iran is Shiite Islamist, Hamas was founded by the affiliates of the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Unlike well-known Iranian proxy groups across the region that have a centralized structure with a central leading figure who reports to and takes orders from Tehran, Hamas has a multilayered and complex leadership hierarchy. In addition to the Gaza Strip and the 'West Bank', Hamas' leaders are spread across the Middle East in countries like Turkey and Qatar, where there is also a heavy presence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas is known to closely coordinate its major moves with Tehran, but it does not take direct orders from it. The Hamas' terrorist activities are partly financed by Tehran, and its cadre are known to have been trained by the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. But there are also others who strongly support Hamas.
Of course, since 2007 the relations between Iran and Hamas have had ups and downs. The most well-known conflict of interest between them occurred during the Syrian Civil War. In an interesting twist, while Tehran bolstered the secular dictator Bashar al-Assad, Hamas supported the Islamists who were fighting against him.
This for a while strained their relationship, but in the long run they were able to overcome their secondary differences and converge on the single most important factor that had brought them together in the beginning, which was the utter destruction of Israel. Therefore, despite all technical mismatches, I believe Hamas still qualifies to be called an Iranian proxy.
I would call Hamas an "ideological proxy" for the Iranian regime. The reason is, in its vicious desire to obliterate Israel that compels it to go to any lengths, even inviting manifest self-destruction – as the recent events clearly demonstrated – Hamas has a unique ideological bond with the Islamists in Iran that makes it function in lockstep with Tehran. As such, Hamas has become Iran's foremost instrument to advance its apocalyptic agenda against Israel. That is why it must be dismantled immediately.
Tehran has a long history of supporting Sunni Islamist extremist organizations such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and so it can be safely called the capital city of all Islamist terrorists. As long as Iran's Islamist regime stands, we can always expect to see more Islamist-originated terror and violence around the world. To settle this once and for all, Israel must cut off the head of the octopus in Iran.
Reza Parchizadeh, a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, is a political theorist, security analyst, and cultural critic.