SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Israeli government says that Iran has been helping to arm Hamas with rockets it has fired into Southern Israel. That's among the reasons Israel has cited for sending air strikes and troops into Gaza. I'm going to speak to two experts who may have different ideas on how deep or important the connection between Iran and Hamas may be.
Hillary Mann Leverett is the CEO of Stratega - that's a political risk consulting company - and a former Foreign Service officer. Matthew Levitt is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. We'll hear from Hillary Mann Leverett in a moment, but first, Matthew Levitt joins us from his office in Washington, D.C. Mr. Levitt, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. MATTHEW LEVITT, (Senior Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Thank you.
SIMON: Is there a connection between Iran and Hamas?
Mr. LEVITT: A significant one.
SIMON: Is it - is it just ideas, sympathies, or guns and money?
Mr. LEVITT: If only it were just ideas and sympathies. Iran provides Hamas with the majority of the funding, weaponry, training and intelligence it needs to carry out its activities targeting Israel. And we're talking about a significant amount of funding and a significant proportion of its overall budget. Without Iran, Hamas would not be able to function as it does today.
SIMON: What makes you confident in saying that?
Mr. LEVITT: The U.S. government, Canadian government and others have come out with assessments over the years. A lot of information has been made public in court cases here in the United States. There really is unanimity on the subject of whether or not Iran provides funds and support - material support to Hamas.
Canadian intelligence assessments over the past few years have run between 3 and $18 million a year. Other assessments are more to the tune of even 25 to $50 million in certain years. The question is how much at any given time, and even more so, under what circumstances, if any, could Iran be convinced to cease that support.
SIMON: Can this sort of thing be followed? Can it be proven?
Mr. LEVITT: Yes, it can be proven and in different ways. First of all, you know, there are intelligence methods for tracking communications between individuals. Second, there are intelligence means of tracking and following the money. Third, when the Islamic Republic provides weapons to Hamas, these almost always have serial numbers, and fragments of missiles fired by Hamas have had serial numbers that have been traced back to Iran. And finally, you know, for example, when the Israelis raided the West Bank a few years ago, they confiscated documentation of meetings and correspondence of communication between Hamas leaders in Damascus and Iranian officials specifically talking about the moneys and support that Iran provides Hamas and the need to carry out attacks.
Finally, Iran is pretty open about it, and they talk about the fact that yes, of course, they finance Hamas because it is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in the eyes of Teheran.
SIMON: Matthew Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thank you so much.
Mr. LEVITT: Thank you.
SIMON: For possibly a different take on the connection between Iran and Hamas, let's turn to Hillary Mann Leverett. She's the CEO of Stratega. That's a political risk consulting company. She's also a former Foreign Service officer and joins us in our studios. Thank you so much for being with us.
Ms. HILLARY MANN LEVERETT (CEO, Stratega; Former Foreign Service Officer): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Do you agree that Iran supplies Hamas with money and weapons?
Ms. LEVERETT: Well, we really haven't seen very much hard evidence of that. I spent over 10 years in the U.S. government at the State Department and the National Security Council. I was one of the few people authorized in the Bush administration to negotiate with Iranians over al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, so I got to know them quite well and spent a lot of time looking at how they finance, arm, equip and form relationships with groups and parties throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, where we were focused on working with them.
What's fascinating to me about it is this focus on Iran has not allowed us to look at other possibilities. In the Sinai, the Egyptian territory of the Sinai that borders Israel, some of the major cities there - Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab, Taba, El Arish - they have all been centers of major al-Qaeda bombings over the past five or six years. Nobody ever pointed a finger to Iran's activity or a connection to any of those bombings. There could just as likely be weapons that are coming from al-Qaeda or Suni-based groups that Hamas is somehow getting a connection to.
But the idea that Iran can somehow - by air, by sea, by land, through Egypt - get large, sophisticated weapons there, it's not plausible. And then there is an alternative that we see that al-Qaeda has gotten weapons into Sinai. It is possible that Hamas could be tapping into some of those supplies.
SIMON: What would you say to those people who say that they've seen information, court cases, declassified intelligence and other information that indicates to them that money is coming from Iran to Hamas?
Ms. LEVERETT: We've really seen very little of that. The Iranians, I think, would like to give Hamas a lot more money. They just don't have a real way of doing so clearly. The Iranian banking system itself has come under a lot of scrutiny and has been closed off in many ways, and of course, there's no functioning banking system inside of Gaza for Hamas to be able to get money.
This was dramatically shown when two Hamas leaders went to Tehran right after they won the elections, the Palestinian elections. They went to Iran to try to get, number one, political recognition, which of course they got, and they also tried to get financial support. The only way they are able to get the financial support at the time was to bring suitcases and literally stuff the suitcases with money. That was really, I think, an important anecdote that shows the extent to which Iran is able to get money to Hamas.
SIMON: That anecdote would also suggest that as you say, Iran would like to support Hamas.
Ms. LEVERETT: I think they would like to support Hamas, and you see - you see that in the streets of Iran like you've seen that in the streets of Egypt and many other Arab capitals the past week with the Israeli attacks on Gaza. There are people who are signing up to go to fight the Israelis, to protect the Palestinians, but the Iranian government has taken a decision - whether it's because of a lack of ability to get money or weapons there or because of a political decision - not to allow people to actually go to fight the Israelis or to send money or to send weapons...TEXT: Now, whether this is a logistical question or a political question that the leadership in Iran has determined that it does not want to antagonize an incoming Obama administration is an interesting one, but I think it's clearly there. You have, I think, reporting both in Western media, Iranian media, Arab media, whatever the Iranians or any Muslims or Arabs who want to go to fight the Israelis and protect the Palestinians - they're not able to do so. The Iranian government has decided they're not going to do that.
SIMON: Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Stratega, a political risk consulting company and former Foreign Service officer. Thanks so much.
Ms. LEVERETT: Thank you.