Hamas Seeks a New Patron

In the latest semi-surreal episode in Hamas' return to the Sunni Arab mainstream, the movement has been asked to mediate between the Arab League and the Syrian regime. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has sent a message to Bashar Assad, “advising” Assad to comply with the Arab League Memorandum of Understanding that he signed on December 19 and has been ignoring ever since.

It is easy to imagine the apoplectic reaction in Tehran to Meshaal's promotion of himself from junior client to mediator, however there is little the Iranians can do to stop Hamas. Hamas' Fatah rivals also reacted scornfully, but there is little they can do about it, either. The rise of Sunni Islamism in the Arab world is a net loss for both Iran and Fatah. Hamas sees it, correctly, as a potential net gain for itself and is maneuvering to extract maximum benefit.

The Iranians do not entirely lack cards in the Palestinian arena. Unlike Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad remains firmly committed to its alliance with Tehran and Damascus. Islamic Jihad, which has built up a powerful independent military capacity in Gaza, is an important tool of policy for the Iranians. It can be used, when its masters wish, to disturb the quiet that Hamas currently prefers. This was seen in October 2011 when Islamic Jihad engaged in a unilateral escalation against Israel, firing Grad rockets at Ashkelon and other population centers.

Islamic Jihad notwithstanding, the slow exit of Hamas from the pro-Iranian bloc offers a clue as to the direction of regional politics in the aftermath of the 2011 changes. The move is toward increased sectarianism and the rise of Sunni Arab Islamism. This new gathering of forces is a natural opponent both of the West and of the Iran-led regional bloc which before 2011 was the main enemy of the U.S. and its allies in the Mideast.