Now Lebanon

Hamas Embroils Egypt in Gaza

Editor's Note: Last year, Michael Doran penned a seminal essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Heirs of Nasser,” in which he argued that, much like Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser did in the 1950s, Iran’s strategy today would seek to turn the region’s upheaval to the disadvantage of the United States. In Egypt, Doran contended, Iran would look to incite violence against Israel through Hamas, with the aim of driving a wedge between Cairo and Washington. It was Nasser who had perfected this strategy, which, Doran explained, is known in Arabic as tawreet (“embroilment”). The recent war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas proved the prescience of Doran’s important essay. Tony Badran of Now Lebanon spoke to Doran about recent developments in the Middle East.

Tony Badran: In your Foreign Affairs article, "The Heirs of Nasser," you explained the concept of tawreet ("embroilment"). You defined tawreet as "goading [someone] to take actions against a third party that will result in political effects beneficial to you." You then argued that the conditions are once again ripe for tawreet, especially in Egypt, "and that Iran would seek to embroil Cairo.” Do you see the recent conflagration in Gaza along those lines? Was this an attempt by Hamas, and perhaps behind it, Iran, to embroil Egypt? What was the calculus?

Michael Doran: Yes, I assume that one of the motives behind Hamas' escalation was an effort to shift the posture of Egypt, of President Morsi, so that it would be more supportive of Hamas and less cooperative with the United States and Israel. Provoking conflict with Israel was a means of appealing to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood base, and Egyptian public opinion more generally, in an effort to pull him closer to Hamas.

Was it Hamas' calculation alone, or did Tehran also push for it? No American observer has very precise knowledge regarding the extent of Tehran's influence over Hamas. My working assumption is that the Iranians give Hamas the big arrow. Qassem Soleimani says, “We think some tension on the border would be advisable,” and then Hamas is left to translate this general advice into specific policies, determining the tactics and timing on its own. 

The last report out of Israel on the bus bombing in Tel Aviv (which took place on the last day of the conflict) identified Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) as a co-conspirator with Hamas. If true, that is significant evidence of a more direct Iranian role in operations. PIJ is very closely aligned, almost controlled, by Iran, so it’s safe to assume that any operation conducted by PIJ was ordered or sanctioned by Tehran. The timing of that particular outrage suggests that PIJ, meaning Iran, was trying to generate an Israeli escalation in the form of a ground incursion.

Personally, I find the question, "Did Iran give the order?" very interesting.  But from a US policy perspective, the answer does not make much difference. For Washington, the strategically significant fact is that Hamas and Iran are still close, as evidenced, among other things, by the steady supply of rockets from Iran to Gaza. Therefore, it makes sense to treat Hamas' escalation as a joint Iranian-Hamas effort to shift the posture of Egypt.

Read the full interview in Now Lebabon.