By Mahdi Ghodsi and Ali Fathollah-Nejad
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged Iran’s already ailing economy, but the country’s economic crisis is rooted in factors beyond the pandemic’s fallout. Since the United States’ 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – or Iran Nuclear Deal), it has become clear that Iran’s economic woes – especially its currency devaluation – are strongly correlated with key political and geopolitical events. The volatility in the exchange rate and Iran’s currency depreciation are signs of an unhealthy economy.
By Phyllis Bennis
When US president, Donald Trump, announced his latest threats against Iran on Rush Limbaugh’s show last week, it was unclear whether he or his steroids were talking. Even this president rarely uses language like, ‘If you f**k around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before’ in announcing foreign policy.
The possibility of an ‘October Surprise’ looms over every US presidential election. This year, twenty-some days from the election they’re likely to lose, with more than 215 000 people across the United States dead from the pandemic, the White House transformed into the latest coronavirus hot spot, the economy still in free-fall, and the commander-in-chief high on drugs, the Trump administration’s latest harsh new sanctions on Iran do not look surprising at all. The political use of the term October Surprise, after all, started with the Iran hostage crisis of 1980.
But this not-so-shocking surprise is actually incredibly dangerous and reckless for the future, and incredibly cruel and heartless – even sadistic – right now. The new economic sanctions will shut down the last eighteen Iranian banks still able to finance the import of desperately-needed humanitarian goods, including medicine desperately needed during the Covid-19 crisis, and even basic foodstuffs. Earlier US sanctions had already brought massive suffering to Iranians. At the beginning of April, as the pandemic was at its height, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy acknowledged that ‘U.S. sanctions are stopping medical equipment from being sent to Iran. As a result, innocent people are dying.’
The White House claims this latest escalation of its ‘maximum economic pressure’ sanctions campaign will force Iran to the negotiating table. But years of punishing the entire population of 80 million Iranians has shown that this is almost certain to fail to achieve stated US goals, and even if it succeeded, the human price paid in hunger, lack of medicine during a raging pandemic, and the death of children and other vulnerable people is simply far too high.
During an earlier sanctions campaign against Iran, Democratic congressperson Brad Sherman blithely noted that ‘critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.’ Sherman, who is now running to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had the audacity to compare Washington’s brutal sanctions against Iran to the global movement against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. In so doing, Sherman deliberately ignored a critical distinction: the vast majority of South Africans supported anti-apartheid organisations that called on the world to impose sanctions, accepting the consequences, and linking those external sanctions to their broader national strategy for liberation and freedom. In Iran, people and organisations fighting to broaden democratic rights are calling desperately for an end to sanctions – because the sanctions are killing them.
This newest punishment on Iranians will exacerbate the devastating impact of the broader sanctions regime the USA has imposed on Iran for years. While the State Department brags that it ‘continues to stand with the Iranian people’ and that ‘exceptions for humanitarian exports to Iran…remain in full force’, the reality is that existing economic sanctions, despite those exceptions, have destroyed Iran’s economy and the lives of most of the 80 million Iranians, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among them.
The latest escalations in broad US sanctions against Iran began with Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran Nuclear Deal. Despite virtually unanimous international and US intelligence agreement that the JCPOA was working (Iran was not building nuclear weapons), and UN inspectors remained on the ground in Iran, and despite UN sanctions being stopped, Trump made it clear that abandoning ‘Obama’s deal’ was top of his agenda. In May 2018 he pulled out of the deal and imposed a host of new crippling and unilateral sanctions against Iran.
Other signatories to the JCPOA – Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia, and the European Union – all opposed the US withdrawal, as did the UN Security Council, which had endorsed the deal and established a monitoring agency to guarantee its implementation. The biggest US demand that the UNSC had accepted was what became known as ‘snap-back’, by which any signatory could report an Iranian violation, and if confirmed by UN monitors, the UN sanctions that had been lifted would automatically be restored. With the USA having abandoned the deal, and US sanctions rapidly escalating, European countries made some efforts to protect Iran from the impact of the new sanctions, but largely failed. Iran eventually responded by taking some calibrated steps in nuclear power enrichment beyond what was permitted in the JCPOA.
In early August, Washington tried to convince the UNSC to extend some conventional arms’ restrictions on Iran that were set to expire. These restrictions had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and the rest of the UNSC (with the exception of USA-dependent Dominican Republic) unanimously refused. A week later, in an effort to escalate ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran even further, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he was invoking the ‘snap-back’ procedure, and demanded the restoration of UN sanctions against Iran. The rest of the Security Council (except the Dominican Republic) made it clear that since the USA had renounced the agreement, it no longer had standing to make such a demand. Pompeo’s response was that since the USA had originally signed the treaty, Washington still had all the rights of signatories, despite having officially withdrawn and thus ending all its obligations. He then simply announced that UN sanctions were back in force, though no other state agreed.
Then came the latest US sanctions. Along with new suffering for the Iranian people, the danger could quickly escalate if, for example, the USA decided to forcibly board and ‘inspect’ a ship that it might claim was carrying goods to or from Iran. If Iran were to resist, a serious military conflict could erupt. This threat of a deliberate US provocation, aimed at forcing Iran to respond militarily and giving hawks in Washington an excuse to use greater military force in time for pre-election boasting by Trump, could shape an incredibly dire and dangerous October surprise. Iran has not taken Washington’s bait, reacting instead to US provocations – including the assassination of powerful Iranian political and military leader General Qasem Soleimani in January – with significant caution. But Iran has its own elections scheduled in June, and there is growing pressure on the leadership for more decisive action.
Iran may also be holding back in anticipation of a change in the White House. Democratic Party presidential contender Joe Biden has not called for ending sanctions on Iran, but has made clear that he would: ‘offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy’, return to the JCPOA, end the Muslim ban on entry to the USA, and work to end the Yemen war. While his position is not nearly as strong as it needs to be to end the assault on ordinary Iranians’ lives, there is no question that it challenges some of the worst aspects of existing policy. This should not be surprising; the JCPOA represented the high point of Obama’s foreign policy achievements, and since Biden’s credibility is fundamentally bound up with Obama’s legacy, he needs to maintain the commitment to the JCPOA and the diplomacy-over-war framework that enabled it. It is public knowledge that pressure on Trump to impose new and ever-more-damaging sanctions on Iran come from Israel and the far-right Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Just a couple of weeks before the newest sanctions were announced, the FDD head co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for a ‘12th-round economic knockout’ in the form of a Trump move to ‘[b]lacklist the entire Iranian financial industry’.
So, beyond the expectation of a last-minute electoral bump (which is not a sure thing, given significant public opposition to wars in the Middle East), what is the US goal in provoking a military clash with Iran that could quickly escalate out of control?
In the Trump era, clear strategy is generally outside the realm of possibility. But immediate goals can sometimes be discerned. From the beginning, the Trump administration – mainly in the person of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – has focused on building a US-backed regional anti-Iran alliance with Israel and key Arab allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others. Much of that is underway, bolstered most recently by the USA-orchestrated agreements between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia. Those agreements, while leaving out any reference to ending Israel’s oppression, occupation and colonisation of Palestinians, are primarily aimed at increasing US arms sales to its Arab allies, and going public with the longstanding but formerly more-or-less hidden trade, commercial and security ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies.
Preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons certainly remains a longstanding US goal. Part of that is rooted in the US determination to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation in the world. However, much of it is based on a US commitment to Israel to maintain Tel Aviv’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region; it is Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant that houses the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons arsenal. On the other hand, US intelligence agencies have for years agreed that Iran did not have a nuclear bomb, was not building a nuclear bomb, and had not even decided it wanted to build a nuclear bomb. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear capacity and its ability to obtain nuclear components anywhere else were extremely limited, and UN nuclear inspectors were on the ground. That remains the case, but could change if US ‘maximum pressure’ continues to prevent Iran’s access to international trade, purchases of food and medicine, and so forth.
Maintaining Iran’s role as enemy makes it easier for the USA to justify ever-more-massive arms sales to repressive authoritarian kingdoms, and the ten-year $38 billion gift to the Israeli military. For the preposterously wealthy but strategically dependent Gulf states, the real fears of Iranian influence (on Shi’a populations in their countries, competition for oilfields and pipeline routes, etc.) are matched or even outstripped by the value of Iran-as-bogeyman to ensure continuing US strategic support and protection.
Reports have been floating around that Washington may close the giant US embassy in Baghdad, and pull out diplomatic and other non-military personnel. That may be in anticipation of a future Iranian response to continuing US escalation – perhaps something like a US military attack on the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces – that could lead to Iranian retaliation against US military forces in Iraq. With Israeli backing, a strike against Iranian interests by some combination of the UAE, Bahrain and/or Saudi Arabia, even without direct US participation, cannot be completely ruled out. Under such circumstances, it is not impossible that public pressure could lead the Iranian regime to make different and much more dangerous choices.
US escalations may not be over yet. There are several more weeks of October for new surprises.
* Phyllis Bennis is an advisory board member of the Afro-Middle East Centre. She is also a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the seventh edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
** This article was first published online by Common Dreams
US expert Brooks Spector speculates US intel may have picked up informal chatter, but is unlikely to be a formal Iranian plot.
US magazine Politico reported allegations of an attempted plot to assassinate US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks, in retaliation for the United States killing the Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in a January drone attack, based on US intelligence sources.,
On Monday, Lester Kiewit spoke to Naeem Jeenah, director at Afro-MiddleEast Centre, who said it needs to be taken 'with a pinch of salt'. He argued that South Africa is one of Iran's few friends and it seemed unlikely it would put that good relationship in jeopardy by orchestrating such action on South African soil.
Jeenah also noted that Iran was unlikely to consider Marks a political equivalent to Soleimani.
He adds that it is more likely a ploy by the United States to send a message to the South African government about its relationship with Iran.
SA State Security Agency has stated that the matter is receiving the necessary attention.
Kiewit now talks to and Associate Editor of Daily Maverick and former US Diplomat, Brooks Spector.
Spector notes that Politico is known to be a reasonable publication not given to wild innuendos.
He notes the SSA's statement was the expected response.
Spector says he is entering completely speculative waters when he suggests perhaps this was something hatched in the 'shadier and darker edges of the world.'
He notes that when Soleimani was killed by the Americans in Iraq, the Iranians did say there would be an accounting for this death.
By Ali Fathollah-Nejad *
Iran’s 21 February parliamentary (Majlis) elections, which took place amid massive internal and external challenges to the state, ended with an all-too predictable result: the conservative camp – the so-called ‘principlists’ (osoul-garâ), consisting of conservatives and ultra-conservatives – emerged victorious, not least because of the mass disqualification of most reformist and moderate contenders (including eighty sitting MPs) by the ultraconservative Guardian Council that vets candidates for elections. As a result, the reformists had refused to endorse candidates in twenty-two of the country’s thirty-one provinces, including the capital Tehran where thirty seats were up for grabs.
Although these elections, the most uncompetitive in years, signalled the hardliners’ bold willingness to seek the monopolisation of power within the Islamic Republic’s institutions, the historic low turn-out has dealt a major blow to the legitimacy of the regime, and reflected the low level of people’s confidence toward it. As such, the elections’ outcome may complicate the realisation of such ambitions for power monopolisation, potentially constituting a Pyrrhic victory.
Against this backdrop, various scenarios regarding the domestic distribution of power can be envisaged, especially in view of presidential elections set for June 2021 – from monopolisation of power by hardliners all the way to a reformist comeback for the sake of regime survival. In foreign policy, the conservatives’ increasingly tight grip on all institutions – contrary to conventional assumptions of further hardening the fronts between Iran and the USA – might actually facilitate an arrangement with Washington.
Many candidates, little participation
These elections assembled a few superlatives compared to the eleven parliamentary elections held under the Islamic Republic since 1979: While a record number of people applied to run (around 16 000), the Guardian Council only approved a record low number (forty-four per cent of applicants); in total numbers, three times as many were disqualified in 2019 as compared to the last elections in 2016; and the number of approved candidates was the highest ever. The Guardian Council, whose members are directly and indirectly approved by the Supreme Leader, is responsible to vet candidates for parliamentary, presidential and Assembly of Experts elections. Most of those disqualified in these elections were reformists, undermining the Council’s allegedly non-partisan claim that most were excluded because of pending financial corruption charges.
Another superlative is the historic low voter turnout. It was officially put at 42.6%; yet, in reality, it is believed to be much lower, with some estimating it to be half as much. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the official turnout was 61.8%. The hardliners are usually believed to represent only 15% of the population, who remain loyal to the system because of ideological persuasion and/or material benefits. Thus, a high turnout has usually benefited reformists.
The low turnout this time around is a major blow to the regime as a whole, but especially to the Supreme Leader who had argued that the election results will define the ruling system’s very ‘prestige’. The reduced participation was despite an unprecedented campaign led by state media and the Supreme Leader to urge people to vote, portrayed as a national and religious duty to protect the nation from its omnipresent enemies; despite various coercive elements conventionally deployed by the state to persuade people towards the polling stations (from bussing in military conscripts to hidden fears by segments of society that not voting will negatively impact their access to state allocations and job prospects); and despite the voting period being extended by several hours. Hence, the low turnout is a reflection of a general public mood toward a ruling system seen by many as increasingly illegitimate, incompetent, and anathema to the interests of many citizens.
The low turnout was rationalised by Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli as reflecting the prevalent social mood in the country and people’s deep discontent and disillusionment following the nationwide anti-regime protests of January 2018 and November 2019, and, more recently, the January 2020 downing of a passenger jet, killing all 176 on board, with authorities having lied about their responsibility for three days.
The Conservative victory
Conservatives won 230 of the 290 parliamentary seats, including all 30 in Tehran (where not a single MP was re-elected), while reformists won sixteen seats. The Hope Faction, which supports President Hassan Rouhani and is headed by reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref (who had topped the Tehran results in the 2016 parliamentary elections, but decided not to run this year) is believed to have lost more than 90% of its MPs (with only seven MPs in the next parliament instead of the current 120), while the entire moderate camp is believed to have won a maximum of fifty seats. The parliament will thus completely be transformed, with less than one fifth of sitting MPs represented in the next Majlis.
In the capital, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a former Tehran mayor with higher political ambitions, topped the list with over a million votes. In contrast, in 2016 all Tehran MPs got more than a million votes, indicating the widespread stayaway in the capital city in 2020. The victors in Tehran were, thus, the conservative camp and Ghalibaf.
The wider conservative camp, composed of numerous factions, emerged victorious, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as its most powerful institution expected to further gain ground and Ghalibaf, the most successful conservative candidate, well positioned for higher political offices. With its new power over the parliament, the IRGC could extend its current dominance in the military, intelligence, and economic spheres onto the political one, making the military-rule component in the Islamic Republic more pronounced.
The mass disqualifications and the low turnout may signal a miscalculation on the part of the ultraconservatives, as well as their sense of hubris – due to a large extent to the moderate camp’s weaknesses and failures. The miscalculation is because this election could end a rather well-functioning safety net meant to channel public discontent, and a mechanism for regime resilience, namely, offering the choice – as many Iranians refer to it – between a lesser and a greater evil (i.e., the moderates or reformists against the hardliners). However, despite the conservative camp’s victory, its sense of hubris ahead of the elections had allowed for fiercer confrontations and contradictions within it openly, which might play out in the next years. The conservative camp includes three main factions, which both compete and cooperate with each other:
Ghalibaf future president?
The most prominent figure emerging from the elections is Ghalibaf, whose Proud Iran (Iran-e Sarboland) list, uniting many principlists and critics of the Rouhani administration, had fielded thirty candidates. He ranked first in Tehran, and is thus poised to assume the powerful position of parliamentary speaker, which he could use to position himself as the next president. Ghalibaf had failed to win the presidency thrice: 2005, 2013, and 2017. He began his career in the security-military establishment, then delved into the economic and political spheres – most of which was closely connected to the IRGC. During the Iraq-Iran War, he held chief commander positions in several brigades and divisions. After the war, he became managing director of the IRGC’s engineering arm, Khatam-ol Anbia, the main economic entity of the Guards since then-president Rafsanjani integrated them into the post-war reconstruction economy, and which has developed an economic empire of its own. Ghalibaf was later appointed by Khamenei as the commander of the IRGC air force (1997-2000); became chief of police (or the Law Enforcement of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or NAJA, 2000-2005); more recently, mayor of Tehran (2005-2017); and is currently the Expediency Council’s Economic Commission Deputy. In 2001, he obtained a doctorate in political geography from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, with a dissertation entitled Analysis of the Local State in Iran.
With a security background, Ghalibaf’s political agenda combines economic populism, technocratic management (he was largely seen in this light during his twelve years as Tehran mayor) and militaristic nationalism (during the parliamentary campaign, he played on his close friendship with the late head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, during the Iraq-Iran War). Given more extremist elements within the conservative camp, he will have a good chance of becoming president as a ‘’lesser evil’ option.
Facilitating talks with Washington
For Iran’s regional and international friends and foes, the historic low turnout, which did not escape their attention, indicated the depth of the regime’s legitimacy crisis, while the hardliners’ victory signalled the political trajectory to be expected. There is little chance of foreign policy changes as a result of these elections. Until the 2021 presidential elections, it is likely that there will be a duality of voices from Tehran: a moderate one from the Rouhani administration and a hardline one from other institutions (the IRGC and, now, the Majlis). Both voices operating in tandem have usually demonstrated their usefulness for the regime and the Supreme Leader.
Contrary to conventional thinking, the hardliners’ increasing grip on power might actually help facilitate talks with the USA; such talks are indispensable given Iran’s desperate need to unshackle itself of US sanctions for the sake of regime stability. One major reason for such a scenario, which may play out only after the US and Iranian presidential elections, is that a key impediment to hardliners’ rejection of an opening with the West or negotiations with Washington would be removed. Currently, hardliners’ concern is that an opening to the West, a process which will be negotiated by their rival elite moderate forces if the president is from that camp, would endanger or not sufficiently guarantee their politico-economic and ideological interests. Such concern may just be the result of paranoia; after all, the Supreme Leader supervises and controls any such process of negotiations, thus acting as a guarantor of his hardline allies’ interest.
No redistributive measures
There might be more bold attempts by the future conservative parliament to unseat important figures of the moderate administration, but this is unlikely to be supported by the Supreme Leader – given the aforementioned benefits for the balance of a duality of elite voices. Regarding state-society relations, the gulf between the two sides will likely widen, given the unlikelihood that people’s socioeconomic demands will be met in the short term, with US sanctions continuing unabated, and no major economic policy changes or redistribution of wealth on the horizon. Thus, the conservative camp’s victory may only be a Pyrrhic one for the Islamic Republic as a whole, and will probably prompt some soul searching within its strategic circles about how to deal with such widespread public alienation and disenchantment.
Ideally, a unified hardline camp could offer some socioeconomic relief to lower strata of the population, by utilising its unrivalled access to state and semi-state resources (which they largely control), even in the absence of US sanctions relief. The timing of such redistributive measures will be important: Doing so before next year’s presidential elections might inadvertently polish the tarnished image of the moderate Rouhani administration, increasing the moderate/reformist camp’s chances for his succession and thus diminishing their own. Thus, it is more probable that the hardliners’ parliamentary victory will further explicitly deepen the lame-duck performance of the current administration – soon entering its last year in office – in order later to increase their own political fortunes.
Down the road, the emerging dominant line in Iranian politics could be a kind of right-wing populism, i.e., promoting a discourse around delivering social justice without actually engaging in a redistribution of wealth, while the ideological role of nationalism will continue to rise relative to Islamism, potentially opening up some space (e.g., on the mandatory headcover for women) to absorb some public pressure, while repression against protests and civil society activism will continue unabated. In other words, the IRGC acting – or pretending to act – as iron-fisted modernisers. Be that as it may, a de facto military dictatorship will also have a hard time satisfying the population’s desire for more social equality and political freedoms. A key variable would be if any emerging political regime can maintain the current gulf between the lower classes and the middle class by playing their respective priorities against each other. In the meanwhile, as long as the coronavirus crisis rages in Iran, it is likely to impede the re-eruption of large-scale popular mobilisation, especially by the middle class, thus entrenching the feeling of resignation and despair among many.
The election results also reinvigorated discussions about the fate of reformism in Iran, most notably about whether the moderate and reformist camps’ losses could spell the ultimate demise of the already crisis-ridden reformists; in other words, whether their losses will be the kiss of death for the reformist-conservative duality within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. Over the years, Iran’s reformists have experienced a significant loss of legitimacy among the social bases that had previously supported them, as a result of not only of the hardline camp’s combined opposition, repression and sabotage against them, but, also, and more importantly, of their own shortcomings to deliver on their political and economic promises. This has led to the belief that rather than constituting an agent of change from the top, the reformists have squarely positioned themselves within the establishment and against large sections of the population. In fact, for the first time, during the nationwide anti-regime protests since December 2017, they have been subjected to popular anger equally with the conservatives.
Against this backdrop, the future of reformism may involve two scenarios.
Such a move by conservatives to reintegrate the reformists could be deemed even more necessary if public perception would be that even a more powerful post-parliamentary election conservative camp had failed to address people’s grievances. In fact, the mass disqualification of reformist candidates led to disunity in the reformist camp, from some boycotting the elections to others participating (e.g., the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, whose public activities since the 2009 Green Movement have been heavily restricted by regime hardliners but who was shown casting a ballot in these crucial elections), potentially a signal of some among the reformists willing to forge a coalition with the conservative camp, or, at least, with those closest to the moderates.
Egypt is reportedly furious at Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh after he and a delegation from Gaza attended the funeral of slain Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh headed a Hamas delegation out of the besieged Gaza Strip on 2 December 2019, the first time that Egypt allowed him to leave the enclave since his election as leader of Hamas in 2017. He was meant to visit a number of countries as part of an international relations tour. Egypt approved the countries he would visit; Iran was not on the list. Haniyeh, however, attended Soleimani’s funeral and was the only non-Iranian to speak at the event, where he referred to the Iranian general as ‘the martyr of Jerusalem’. The Egyptians have allowed other members of the delegation to return to Gaza, but it is unclear whether Egypt will allow Haniyeh to leave again, when he returns. Hamas is also cagey about when its leader will make his way back or whether he will visit other countries not approved of by the Egyptians.
Egypt and Hamas relations become stronger after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime during the 2011 uprisings. The one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, from June 2012 to July 2013, saw flourishing relations between the Egyptian government and the authority in Gaza. Morsi had ordered the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Palestinians from Gaza were thus able to travel in and out of the territory without hindrance, and there was also an increase in trade, after years of prohibition. In a July 2013 coup, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi overthrew Morsi and accused Hamas of being a co-conspirator against the security and the stability of the Egyptian people. Reversing Morsi’s decision, he tightened the blockade on Gaza.
Relations improved in 2017 when Hamas elected a new leadership mostly based in Gaza, unlike the previous leadership that was based mostly in Qatar and headed by Khaled Mesha'al. Haniyeh quickly started talks with Egypt after he election. Hamas delegations frequently visited Cairo for reconciliation talks with other Palestinian factions, notably Fatah, facilitated by Egypt. Egyptian officials have also frequented Gaza for negotiations with Hamas over ceasefires with Israel and to discuss blockade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. Relations further strengthened when Egypt agreed to a buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai to prevent Islamic State (IS) group militants retreating into Gaza.
A critical aspect of Egypt’s relations with Hamas is the former’s strong ties to Israel and to the USA. In 2018, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, discussed with Egypt the creation of a trade zone and industrial projects in the northern Sinai and in Gaza as part of Trump’s touted ‘deal of the century’. To realise this plan, Egypt agreed that it would coordinate economic projects with Hamas. In 2019, Qatar announced that it would begin distributing funds to families in Gaza and pay for fuel for electricity generation as part of its National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza project. This followed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, which brought relief to 2 million besieged Gazans. This agreement had been concluded during a twenty-four day trip to Cairo by a Hamas delegation headed by Haniyeh in February 2019. It became clear that Egypt was willing to allow Haniyeh to travel out of Gaza but only for meetings in Cairo; he swiftly returned to the strip after every trip.
For his current trip, Haniyeh left Gaza on 2 December 2019 for Cairo, where he attended a number of meetings with Egyptian officials to negotiate a longterm ceasefire with Israel. This followed an exchange of fire between groups in Gaza and Israel, after Israel assassinated one Islamic Jihad (Bahaa Abu Al-Ata) leader in Gaza. After these meetings, Haniyeh’s delegation departed for his first international trip as Hamas leader. The trip’s schedule was agreed upon with Egypt, and included Qatar, where many former and current Hamas leaders are based, as well as Turkey and Malaysia.
The Egyptians told Haniyeh not to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on 18 December, following Saudi Arabia’s insistence. The Saudis viewed the Summit as Malaysia’s attempt to set up an alternative to the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which Saudi Arabia currently heads. Haniyeh obliged and sent a high-level delegation instead. Unimpressed, Egypt nonetheless conceded that Haniyeh had not violated the agreement. Egypt’s conditions included Haniyeh’s not visiting Iran.
When the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, was killed by an American airstrike on 3 January, Egypt further warned Haniyeh not to attend his funeral. Haniyeh, however, defied the order. He also met with the newly-appointed Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani, and, together with Islamic Jihad leader for an international relations trip, visited Soleimani’s home to express condolences.
Haniyeh’s trip to Iran angered the Egyptians to such an extent that they may not let him back into Gaza after he completes his trip, or prevent him leaving the territory again. Egypt also, in retaliation for Haniyeh’s insubordination, temporarily blocked the transfer of gas into Gaza. This resumed only after talks on 9 February. After these talks, little was mentioned about what the Egyptians had said about Haniyeh, who is still in Doha.
Although Hamas has denied that Egypt had been furious over the Iran visit, it is clear that relations between the two parties have been shaken. Egypt believes that since 2013 it has largely managed to exercise control over Hamas, in line with the wishes of Israel and Egyptian allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Haniyeh’s Iran visit was, thus, an embarrassment for Egypt. Although Haniyeh’s trip to Iran might have been strategic from a Hamas point of view, it, however, throws the existing relationship with Egypt into murky waters. Egypt might further restrict the movement of goods and people through the Rafah crossing, in a form of collective punishments against Gaza’s residents.