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Controversy Arises Over Alleged Hamas-Iran Ties

While moderate Arab states have been largely quiet about the conflict in the Gaza Strip, Iran has been sharply vocal in its criticism of Israel and has offered support to Hamas. Most analysts agree there are links between Iran and Hamas, but they differ about the nature and depth of those ties.

Israel has long contended that Iran backs Hamas the same way Tehran supports its primary proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli officials say that Iran has armed and trained Hamas fighters. But it is a controversial allegation.

George Joffe, a Middle East expert at Cambridge University in Britain, dismissed the claim that Iran could have penetrated the Israeli cordon around the Gaza Strip to provide arms to Hamas.

"Quite how Iran could have maintained those sorts of contacts seems to me very difficult to understand. Even inside the occupied territories, it would have been very difficult for those kinds of links to exist. They are isolated, in effect, from the rest of the Middle East, too. So again, simple logic seems to me to suggest that the close ties that are proposed really can't exist," he said.

But Reva Bhalla, a Middle East analyst with the private intelligence firm Stratfor, said Iran uses a sophisticated Hezbollah smuggling network to get arms to Hamas.

"Basically, you'll have a bunch of Hezbollah agents who will procure arms through Sudan. They'll enter Egypt under forged documents, pay off disgruntled Bedouins in the Sinai with things like light arms, cash, Lebanese hashish - which they can sell in the black market - and pay off Egyptian security guards as well so that they can travel covertly into Gaza to pass off the weapons shipments through Hamas' pretty extensive underground tunnel network," she said.

But most analysts agree that even if Iran is arming Hamas, it would produce little practical gain for Tehran other than to make life difficult for Israel. It is on the political front, they say, where Iran looks to benefit from the crisis in Gaza as it tries to project itself as the leader of the Islamic world.

Analyst Reva Bhalla said Iran is trying boost its standing in the region by embarrassing moderate Arab states.

"It basically makes Iran stand apart from the Arab regimes. And note that the Arab regimes are the most silent on this issue. Most are quite happy seeing Hamas contained, [they] really have no problem with the Palestinians being contained in the region by the Israelis. It's that huge disconnect between what you hear in the Arab street and what you see being actually discussed within these regimes. And so Iran is trying to exploit that," she said.

There may be a domestic political dimension as well. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who frequently criticizes or threatens Israel - is up for re-election in June.

Cambridge University's George Joffe' said that in voicing support for Hamas, Iranian hardliners might be trying to boost their credentials as defenders of Muslims.

"The Palestinian issue is very important inside Iran; there's no doubt about that. And to that extent, of course, what is happening in the Middle East will play a part inside the elections themselves," he said.

But Middle East scholar Mehrzad Boroujerdi of Syracuse University said that when the economy is bad - as it is in Iran - rallying to Hamas' cause might not necessarily translate into votes.

"I'm not sure because based on the past track record or at least surveys we have seen of the Iranian voters seem to indicate that they are moved more or less by domestic politics, particularly economic issues, rather than foreign policy issues. So whether it's the plight of the Palestinians or the nuclear issue, it's not necessarily going to be the 'maker or breaker' [pivotal issue] as far as the Iranian public is concerned," he said.

However, Iran's state-run news agency claimed that some 70,000 Iranian students have volunteered for suicide operations against Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip.