Iranian officials on Wednesday acknowledged providing military assistance, including missile technology, to the Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Iranian-engineered Fajr-5 missiles struck near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the conflict this week, and Israeli officials said that Iran supplied the longer-range missiles to Hamas.
A senior Iranian official disputed that accusation, but acknowledged that his country has shared its Fajr-5 missile technology with the militant group that controls Gaza.
“The Fajr-5 missiles have not been shipped from Iran. Its technology has been transferred, and [the missiles are] being produced quickly,” Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was quoted as saying by Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency.
Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, said his country was “honored” to help Palestinians with “material and military aspects.”
Iranian officials’ admissions that they are sharing missile technology with Hamas “shows some brazenness,” said Tom Karako, assistant professor of political science at Kenyon College who specializes in proliferation issues.
“[Iranian] willingness to connect the dots between these rockets that are being fired and themselves puts the Hamas-Israel conflict in the context of the larger regional struggle and raises questions about Iran’s strategic purpose,” Mr. Karako said. “Is it merely to provide Hamas with military capabilities for self-defense or to accomplish a larger strategic purpose?”
Ali Alfoneh, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed skepticism of Iran’s claims that it has shared only missile technology with Hamas.
“Sharing technology with Hamas is impossible,” Mr. Alfoneh said. “Hamas doesn’t have the capacity to run a banana plantation, let alone a missile factory, particularly a missile factory about which the Israelis are ignorant.”
Mr. Alfoneh said Iran supplies Hamas with “ready-to-use” missiles.
Iran’s Shiite-led regime has been a longtime supporter of the mostly Sunni Hamas militant group — two would-be sectarian rivals united by their mutual goal of destroying Israel.
However, Iranian officials rarely have boasted about arming the militants.
“Traditionally, Hamas has had a very long-standing and deep relationship with Iran, which involved training, funding and arms,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the counterterrorism and intelligence program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The relationship ruptured after the start of the uprising in March last year against President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, an ally of Iran.
Hamas has sided with the Syrian opposition, which is comprised largely of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Iran still strongly backs Mr. Assad, whose Alawite sect is a Shiite offshoot.
In August, Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declined an invitation to attend the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement hosted by Iran.
“Iran does not feel that it can trust Hamas as much as it once did, and Hamas does not feel as much beholden to Iran as it once did because it is able to secure more independent funding,” Mr. Levitt said.
But he added that Iran never stopped funneling weapons to Hamas, even as it disagreed with the militant group over Syria.
Iran did virtually cut off funding to Hamas during this period, said Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service.
“The relationship [between Hamas and Iran] has become a lot more shaky in the past year,” Mr. Katzman said.
“I think Iran is trumpeting its support to Hamas as a way to try to win Hamas back into its orbit,” he said. “Tehran regrets that Hamas fell out of an alliance with Iran in 2011 and 2012, and so Tehran may be trying to repair that schism to some extent and to burnish its own credentials as a center of resistance against Israel and the United States.”
With Syria’s civil war dragging on into its 20th month, Iran appears less confident about the longevity of the Assad regime and has started to shore up its other alliances, including with Hamas, analysts said.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials say Iran smuggles weapons to Palestinian militants from its port of Bandar Abbas to Sudan, north into Egypt and onward through the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip.
On Oct. 24, a Sudanese weapons factory in Khartoum was destroyed in what is thought to have been an airstrike.
Sudanese officials blamed the attack on Israel. Israeli officials neither confirmed nor denied bombing the arms factory.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1747 prohibits Iran from exporting arms.
“Any shipment of rockets to Hamas, Hezbollah [in Lebanon] or Syria is a violation of that sanctions regime,” Mr. Katzman said. “It adds to the argument that Iran has no intention of complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Hamas is a much more dangerous foe with the Fajr-5 in its arsenal, according to some analysts.
“Just a couple of years ago, the rockets coming out of Gaza were not penetrating Israel very much at all in terms of the cities,” said Mr. Karako. “Now you are seeing them bring Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into play. That is remarkable.”