RAMALLAH, West Bank — Within just a few days, the Palestinian division became clearly evident. On July 11, Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee and the PLO’s Executive Committee, participated in the annual general conference of the Iranian Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) resistance group, during which he gave a speech via video conference stressing his support for the Iranian opposition and reiterating the strength of relations between the two sides.
Only a few weeks later, Hamas’ political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and Secretary-General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement Ziad al-Nakhla took part Aug. 5 in the inauguration ceremony of new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
The participation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the inauguration ceremony of the Iranian president is based on strong public relations and punctuated by financial and military support provided by Iran to the resistance factions.
But Ahmad’s participation in the Iranian opposition conference raised questions related to its timing and implications and to whether it represents a shift in the position of the PLO and the Fatah movement toward Iran.
The opposition MEK was established in 1965 and took part in the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran. But following the fall of the shah’s regime and the religious institution's control of rule, disputes emerged between the organization and the Iranian government. MEK led peaceful resistance and protests between 1979 and 1981. In 1981, the organization turned into an armed opposition and was involved in bloody clashes against the Iranian government. The organization’s leadership was based in Paris before moving to Iraq in 1986. Headed by Maryam Rajavi, MEK has since been based in Iraq and leading attacks against the Iranian government.
Well-informed sources in the Fatah movement told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity there was no general decision by Fatah and its Central Committee to participate in the Iranian opposition conference. The sources said the participation may have been based on Ahmad’s personal decision, but he cannot participate in such conferences without obtaining the approval of President Mahmoud Abbas.
In his speech at the Iranian opposition conference, Ahmad expressed his solidarity “with the Iranian people and their national resistance, headed by Rajavi.”
“We in Palestine are proud of the friendly and brotherly relations that have been binding us with the Iranian resistance for more than half a century now. This brotherly struggle is aimed at conquering injustice, oppression and backwardness inside Iran in order to gain freedom and impose democracy, all the while preventing the imposition of the policy of Wali al-Faqih on the friendly Iranian people,” Ahmad said.
He added he believes in the victory of the Iranian resistance led by Rajavi and in its ongoing struggle, which, he said, “the rule of the mullahs shall not abate.”
The PLO ruled out that Ahmad’s position reflects its own official position.
Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the PLO's Executive Committee, told Al-Monitor “Ahmad’s participation in the Iranian opposition conference does not reflect a new orientation for the Palestinian leadership and the PLO. We have old relations with the Iranian opposition, and we helped all Iranian parties against the shah of Iran before he was overthrown.”
Majdalani said “the relationship with the Iranian opposition is not a substitute for the relationship with the regime and is not directed against it.”
In 2015, Majdalani led political efforts to bring about a rapprochement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Iran, but such efforts did not reap any fruit. “The relationship with Iran is stagnant. No progress has been made at this level," Majdalani explained.
Despite the stability of Iran’s relationship with the Palestinian factions in Gaza, specifically Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Tehran’s relationship with the PA and the PLO has witnessed ups and downs throughout history.
Following the signing of the nuclear agreement in July 2015, the PA tried to improve its relations with Iran, as it sent Majdalani in August 2015 to Iran to discuss the possibility of launching a political dialogue between the two parties and developing bilateral relations. At that time, a visit by Abbas to Tehran was arranged, but the visit did not take place and political efforts stopped.
The PA's attempts to bring about rapprochement with Iran in 2015 seemed timid for several reasons. Chief among these is that the Fatah movement and the PA have always accused Iran of supporting Hamas financially and militarily and supporting the military solution in Gaza in 2007. The PA position toward Iran is consistent with that of some Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia, and it (the PA) tries to not anger such countries with a similar rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.
On the other hand, the strong relationship between the PA and the Iranian opposition has emerged in the past years. Abbas held a meeting with Rajavi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, in Paris on July 30, 2016, which angered Iranian authorities at the time. This meeting was followed by the participation of a parliamentary delegation from the Fatah movement on July 1, 2017, in the Iranian opposition conference.
Also, Ahmad’s recent participation sparked some Palestinian criticism.
The deputy chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Hassan Khreisheh, deplored Ahmad’s participation and told Al-Monitor, “The participation is surprising and reprehensible. At a time when we condemn normalization and take a position on the countries that are normalizing relations with the [Israeli] occupation, we, as Palestinians, participate and speak at the conference of the Iranian opposition that has relations with Israel.”
Khreisheh said, “We are now in a coalition front with the supporters of the Palestinian people, especially after the recent aggression on Gaza, and this alliance is exemplified by the axis of resistance — Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — which allied themselves with the Palestinian resistance. It is just impossible and unacceptable to deal a heavy blow to them by partaking in a conference for the Iranian opposition, which establishes relations with the [Israeli] occupation and seeks to bring down an essential pillar of the resistance axis, Iran.”
Talal Okal, a political analyst and writer for the Palestinian al-Ayyam newspaper, told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian position should not be one of interference in the internal affairs of other countries. We should not be siding with axes in the region.”
“Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are seeking resistance, and within this context, their position and their relationship with Iran is understood, but the position of the PLO, which is the official representative of the Palestinians, is not allowed to take an opposite position,” he added.
“The PLO is entitled not to build a relationship with Iran, but it should not take an opposite position, especially at a stage during which Israel is running wild in the region in the absence of a meaningful peace process. Therefore, there is nothing that requires the Palestinians to support the Iranian opposition — a position that threatens the Palestinian cause," he said.