The Qatari Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) on March 14 issued the 2016 results of the Arab Index, its annual survey of Arab public opinion. The center dispatched 840 Doha-based researchers to Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Palestine to conduct polls last Sept. 7-22 on various issues, including how Palestinians view the foreign policies adopted by Middle Eastern and international powers. According to the survey, Palestinians have a negative impression of Iranian policy in the region, especially in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, and of its stance toward the Palestinian cause.
Ahmad Hussein, a Palestinian researcher at ACRPS, told Al-Monitor, “The survey showed that Palestinians have a negative view toward Iran, which contributes to the region’s crises and fuels sectarian and ethnic disputes in order to play a more effective, influential role. Seventy percent of Palestinians believe Iranian policy toward the Arab region is negative.”
Hussein also said, “These figures mean that the Palestinians do not really believe in the credibility of the Iranian discourse on Palestine. Seventy-two percent of them believe that Iran is exploiting the crises in the region to expand its influence and seek a wider role, while 65% reject the idea that Iran supports a democratic shift in the Arab countries.”
In short, it seems, a large segment of Palestinians is unconvinced of true Iranian support of the Palestinian cause, as they believe such a stance flies in the face of Tehran’s policies toward their fellow Arab Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Remarkably, Palestinians still think badly of Iran’s policies in the region, although Tehran’s stated positions appear to be supportive of the Palestinian cause. For instance, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Feb. 21 that supporting the Palestinian resistance is a duty for all Muslims, because it has succeeded in undermining Israeli efforts against the Palestinians. He added that Iran’s stance is based on principle and does not favor one Palestinian faction over the other, as demonstrated in Tehran’s foreign diplomatic discourse and its financial and military support of Palestinian factions.
Hazem Qassem, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas is assessing its relations with regional countries, including Iran, to mobilize regional and international positions in support of the Palestinian people and to strengthen its steadfastness on its territories as well as reinforce the resistance. The movement is trying to steer clear of the sectarian considerations that divide the Islamic nation by refraining from interfering in other countries’ internal affairs and avoiding taking sides.”
Hamas seems to be aware that it is not on the best of terms with some Arab states, namely Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which is why it might seem to be holding on to its relationship with Iran, which continues to provide it financial and military support despite the movement not always agreeing with Iran’s policy in the region — for instance, in Syria.
Hussein Ruyuran, a political science professor at the University of Tehran with close ties to Iranian decision-making circles, told Al-Monitor, “This survey is inaccurate, because it ignores the fact that Iran is ideologically committed to the Palestinian cause and does not use it as a political tool. Iran continues to support Palestinian factions regardless of the policy it adopts toward other regional issues. This survey was conducted as sectarian polarization is at its peak.”
Ruyuran added, “Palestinians see themselves as closer to Sunni countries, such as Turkey, which have failed to provide the slightest [military] support, than to Shiite Iran, which supplied them with a military arsenal. Palestinian factions appear to be embarrassed about communicating with Iran, given the sensitivity of the sectarian situation. Hamas, as a religious movement, may be divided over the Iranian military and financial support. The military leadership wants this support to continue and increase, but its political leadership has other considerations, due to sectarian tension, and does not want to anger Arab and Islamic Sunni nations, especially Gulf countries, by maintaining relations with Iran. Meanwhile, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP], as a left-wing organization that is not religiously oriented, welcomes cooperation with Iran without any sectarian reservations. So the problem lies with the Palestinians, not Iran.”
Kayed al-Ghoul, a member of the PFLP’s political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “Our relationship with Iran is based on its support of the Palestinian cause and because we are against turning the conflict into a sectarian one. We agree with Iran that the common enemy is Israel, and this is why Iran supports the resistance and refrains from interfering with Palestinian affairs and affecting our positions. When we see faulty Iranian policies in the region, we have the courage to say so, but at the same time, we believe some Arab countries — no need to mention names — want to make Iran an enemy of Arabs instead of Israel.”
Nonetheless, relations between the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and Iran are not at their best. Tensions escalated in August 2016 when President Mahmoud Abbas met with Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi in Paris. The meeting drew harsh responses from Tehran. In a more recent sign of tensions, Anwar Zakaria, assistant undersecretary at the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Education Ministry, said in a March 25 press statement that his ministry does not recognize degrees issued by Iranian universities in the absence of official relations with the Education Ministry in Tehran. The undersecretary of the Hamas-affiliated Education Ministry in Gaza, Ziad Thabet, confirmed the PA’s decision in a press statement on the same day, but without providing reasons.
A Palestinian official close to Abbas told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Iran continues to support Palestinian factions, both on the military and financial levels, regardless of any negative assessment of its regional policies on the Palestinians’ part. This support helps Iran to achieve its political interests in the region, in terms of confronting Arab countries, and shows the Arab public opinion that Iran continues to back the Palestinians regardless of sectarian polarization between Sunnis and Shiites.”
Although Iranian leaders might not appreciate the Palestinians’ negative assessment of their policies, they do not necessarily need to change them, because they assume Palestinian factions want and need its financial and military support. On the other hand, Tehran is anxious to support the Palestinians, as its assistance could earn it goodwill among Arabs, given the number of Arabs who see Iran as targeting Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Iranian support for the Palestinians is thus a mutual interest, not necessarily a strategic alliance.