When President Obama announced last year the easing of U.S. sanctions on Iran in return for concessions on its nuclear program, he cautiously hailed the deal as a “real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement” with Tehran. But while both countries work overtime on thorny nuclear issues, fresh evidence suggests Iran continues to support the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, which went to war anew this summer with Israel.
U.S. and Israeli officials offer varying assessments on the depth of the current level of material support being provided to Hamas by Tehran, although sources in both Washington and Jerusalem say longtime Iranian assistance is what ultimately helped the Palestinian group build the thousands of rockets it fired at Israeli targets from Gaza starting in July.
And at least one influential Iranian official has appeared eager to stick a thumb in America’s eye in recent weeks, claiming Hamas was able to fire missiles into Israel specifically because of technology provided by Iran, and that Tehran should get serious about continuing to provide new assistance.
“Palestinian resistance missiles are the blessings of Iran’s transfer of technology,” the secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, Mohsen Rezaei, told Al-Alam, the Arabic channel of Iran’s state TV, on Aug. 4. “We need to transfer defensive and military technology to Palestinians so that they can build weapons under the blockade and defend themselves.”
According to a report on his comments by The Associated Press, Mr. Rezaei publicly called on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to provide air defense systems to Hamas to protect against airstrikes on Gaza from Israeli forces.
What remains unclear, according to U.S. officials who spoke with The Washington Times, is the extent to which Mr. Rouhani, who has played an essential role in pursuing a warming of relations with Washington during recent months, heeded Mr. Rezaei’s recommendation.
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The officials said there is substantial evidence Iran has provided weapons and missile-building know-how and technology to Hamas over the past decade, even as the extremist group was building on its own the vast majority of rockets that it fired into Israel over the past two months.
“Hamas has been working on rocket technology for over a decade, and most of the rockets used in the recent wave of attacks against Israel appear to be homemade,” said one U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity with The Times due to the sensitive nature of information relating to Hamas’ inner workings.
The comments come against the backdrop of cooled relations between Iran and Hamas over the past two years, following the latter’s decision in 2012 to oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad, a close Iranian ally.
While Israeli sources who spoke with The Times agreed the majority of the rockets fired from Gaza during the latest round of violence were actually homemade by Hamas, they say at least a small number were actually long-range M302 rockets believed to have been made in Syria but provided to the Palestinians by Iran.
“Based on findings from the points of impact, the long-range rockets that were being used were M302s,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, the top spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces.
More than 60 Israelis and 1,800 Palestinians have died in this summer’s clashes.
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Lt. Col. Lerner said in a telephone interview Monday that it was not clear exactly how many M302s were fired, nor was there certainty over exactly how long the rockets have been in Hamas’ possession in Gaza but that “the sense is that they got there from the Iranians.”
The M302s have a range about 10 times longer than what existed in Hamas’ prior arsenal, making such rocket attacks more threatening to Israel’s civilian population.
Israeli officials have asserted that Iran has attempted to ship long-range M302 rockets to Hamas over the past two years — despite the perceived cooling of relations between Tehran and Gaza and the geopolitical risks associated with such activities in the shadow of high-stakes nuclear talks with the United States and other international powers.
Most notably, Israel intercepted a clandestine naval shipment of M302 rockets that Lt. Col. Lerner and others have argued was en route to the Gaza Strip courtesy of Iran. The shipment was revealed in March — a full four months after the November 2013 warming of relations between Tehran and Washington had ushered in a supposed era of better relations.
Israeli navy commandos seized the rockets as they were traveling via a Panamanian-flagged ship across the Red Sea. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time that the rockets, concealed in 20 containers on the ship, were proof that Iran had “not abandoned its deep involvement in terrorism or systematic efforts to undermine peace and security.”
In June, an investigation into the incident by a U.N. panel of experts concluded that the weapons shipment represented a violation of an existing U.N. arms embargo on Tehran.
Reuters, which first reported on the U.N. finding, noted that it had arrived just days ahead of a meeting in Vienna between Iran and six world powers aimed at securing a deal that would gradually lift international sanctions on Tehran — including the arms embargo — in exchange for curbs on the controversial Iranian nuclear program.
Despite Israel’s public statements that the seized arms were destined for Gaza — which Hamas has angrily denied — the U.N. panel compiled a 14-page report determining that the rockets were actually headed to Sudan.
The extent to which the panel’s findings affected the nuclear talks remains a subject of debate. While the arms embargo remains in place, the talks are ongoing and were extended past an initial deadline in July with Iran and the United States agreeing to continue working toward a peaceful agreement.
The suspicion that Tehran may have violated the embargo has left some lawmakers in Congress questioning the concessions that the Obama administration has been willing to make in easing sanctions against Iran over the past nine months.
Some U.S. lawmakers briefed on intelligence relating to Iran’s conduct strongly question Tehran’s commitment to peaceful resolution with the West.
“The failure of the government in Iran to adjust its behavior gives us pause on how much seriousness they’re putting into these negotiations,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Edward R. Royce told reporters in late July just before Congress left town for its recess.
“It’s a reminder that whatever negotiations we have ongoing with Iran, there is this history of deception, which was shared with us by the international agencies which conduct oversight with respect to the attempts to get Iran to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions and with international norms and behavior,” Mr. Royce said.
Questions, meanwhile, have swirled recently among U.S. national security and foreign policy analysts over the extent to which Hamas’ willingness to take on Israel so directly this summer may be affecting Iran’s calculus toward the Palestinian group.
The U.S. State Department has listed Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997, and some suggest that weapons delivery patterns from Iran to Gaza show a cyclical relationship between the group and Tehran.
“You get a sense that we’re on a two-year cycle right now, where Iran helps build up the military capabilities of Hamas by smuggling, and the Israelis catch wind of it, and they [then] seek out and destroy these capabilities,” said Jonathan Schanzer, who focuses on the Middle East as vice president of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Others are more circumspect and say there is little actual evidence of a connection between Iran and Hamas.
Despite Mr. Rezaei’s comments, some argue that neither Israel nor the United States has the evidence to prove that Iran’s claims are true.
Reza Marashi, the head researcher for the National Iranian American Council, a Washington, D.C.-based group that describes itself as dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community, said that if Iran is actually supporting Hamas, his group would seek to draw attention to it.
“It’s in our interest to call them out very publicly if they are doing it,” said Mr. Marashi, who added that he believes Israel’s “vested interest” is to make sure they are winning the public relations war, not just the actual war.