by Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik
For decades, Qatar has carefully navigated the geopolitical dynamics shaping relations among its three larger neighbors: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. Qataris have usually perceived one of these three Persian Gulf powers as the primary threat and responded by growing closer to the other two. At this juncture amid the Qatar crisis, Doha will likely deepen its relations with Iran and Iraq to counter-balance pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries that took action against the Arabian emirate in early June. On June 29, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told reporters in Washington that Iran is the Gulf state’s neighbor, so Doha and Tehran must invest in a constructive bilateral relationship.
In the list of 13 demands issued by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain was a requirement that Qatar sever relations with Iran. The Qataris’ deeply rooted foreign policy strategy of hedging bets on both Saudi Arabia and Iran has irked Riyadh and other Arab capitals in the Gulf to a point where these Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are telling the peninsula nation that its neutrality is unacceptable and it must demonstrate fidelity to the kingdom.
Qatar has thus far signaled that it has no intention of capitulating to Saudi/UAE demands. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, have threatened to uphold their actions until Doha complies with their requirements for restored diplomatic and economic relations. To offset the Saudi/UAE-led action, Qatari officials must assess the potential benefits and risks of shifting closer to Tehran’s orbit of regional influence.
Balancing Gulf Powers
Given its small size, Qatar has long relied on its international and regional allies as defense guarantors. After Saddam Hussein’s troops rolled into Iran in 1980, for instance, Qatar and most other Arab states financially supported Iraq, viewing the nascent Islamic Republic as an existential threat to the Middle East’s conservative Western-backed Sunni monarchies. Yet once the war ended, Qatari-Iranian relations quickly improved. After Iran made claims to one-third of Qatar’s North Field gas reservoir in 1989, Doha and Tehran agreed to jointly exploit the field. In 1991 the two countries began discussing plans for a water pipeline linking the Karun river in southwestern Iran to the Arab emirate.
After 1991, when Doha allied with Washington against Iraq in the first Gulf War, Qatar and Iran’s ties further warmed as Doha along with other Arab capitals began seeing Baghdad as a graver threat to GCC security than Tehran. Qatar’s emir called for Iran to join regional security initiatives. Yet such calls fell on deaf ears in other GCC capitals.
A key lesson that Doha learned from the Gulf War was that the GCC couldn’t defend itself without strong US support. Therefore, the Qataris quickly established themselves as a close US military ally, signing a military cooperation agreement with Washington in 1991, twelve years before permitting the Americans to transfer their base that holds the forward headquarters of Central Command from Saudi Arabia to Al Udeid. At the same time, the Arab country’s state-owned news network Al Jazeera quickly gained a reputation in the region as the only major media outlet broadcasting the US bombing campaign in 2003 and exposing how the war was not evolving in line with the Bush administration’s plan. In this way, the Qataris secured close relations with Washington while simultaneously enhancing certain pan-Arab credentials in the greater Middle East.
As Saudi-Iranian tensions increased in the region following Saddam Hussein’s fall, Qatar hedged its bets between these two powers, occasionally breaking ranks with the Saudis. For example, in 2006 Qatar was the only UN Security Council member that did not vote in favor of calling on Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program. In February 2010, Doha and Tehran signed a defense and security cooperation agreement that included “the exchange of technical experts and a widening of cooperation in training and campaigns against terrorism,” according to Fars News Agency. At that time Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem bin Jaber Al Thani pushed Washington to pursue more direct engagement with the Islamic Republic to resolve the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program. That same year, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, where the two pledged to enhance Sunni-Shi’ite unity throughout the Islamic world.
In 2011, the Qatari-Saudi rivalry became more pronounced after Doha began supporting Sunni Islamists in Arab states experiencing political transitions such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Yet, elsewhere in the region, chiefly in Syria and Yemen, Doha and Riyadh have, at times, cooperated significantly over the past six years despite the recent severance of bilateral relations. For instance, Iran and Iraq have both accused Riyadh and Doha of financially and ideologically sponsoring the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. In turn, the Saudis and Qataris blamed the harsh rule of Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shi’ite-led government and its marginalization and bombing of Sunnis in the country’s western province of Al Anbar, combined with the brutality of the Iranian/Iraqi-backed Syrian regime, for the meteoric ascension to power of IS in mid-2014.
In 2014, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors to Doha to punish Qatar for violating the 2013 GCC security agreement, not upholding its commitments to avoid inference in other GCC members’ domestic affairs, and broadcasting “hostile media.” Eight months later, the Persian Gulf ambassadors returned to Doha and Qatar agreed to comply with new Saudi and Emirati requirements for resolution of that diplomatic spat. Qatar’s Emir Tamim subsequently aligned the emirate’s foreign policy more closely with Saudi Arabia, albeit insufficiently in the eyes of other GCC states. Thus, in December 2015, Qatar became an original member of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism. In January 2016, Doha pulled its ambassador from Iran in solidarity with Riyadh following a dispute with the Islamic Republic stemming from Sheikh Nimr al-Baqir Nimr’s execution. And in March 2016, Qatar joined the other five GCC members in collectively designating Lebanese Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Regarding Syria, Qatar has remained steadfast in its position, shared firmly with Saudi Arabia, that Assad must step down in order to resolve that country’s raging civil war.
The ongoing crisis appears to be shifting Qatar toward Iran’s orbit of influence, and Iran has indeed seized the opportunity to support Qatar during this month’s diplomatic row. The emirate, which imports nearly all of its food, relied on the Abu Samra border crossing with Saudi Arabia for 38 percent of its food imports in 2013. As such, Qatar’s maritime border with Iran (the only one to remain open after June 5) became Doha’s food security lifeline, along with the air corridors that have remained available to the country.
Since the embargoes went into effect, Tehran has provided 1,100 tons of fruits and vegetables to the Arab country on a daily basis. Iran’s Bushehr Port has become a key commercial center between Iran and Qatar. Also, Iranian airspace has proven vital for Qatar Airways flights since Bahraini, Emirati, and Saudi officials closed their airspace to flights going in and out of Doha. Moreover, Tehran has made it possible for Qatar to remain solvent by permitting Qatari vessels loaded with LNG to transit Iranian waters (also, the UAE has so far not shut down the flow of Qatari gas through the Dolphin Pipeline).
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif responded to the Qatar crisis by calling on the involved parties to engage in dialogue to settle their rift. Iran’s top diplomat also quickly called his counterparts in Algeria, Europe, Lebanon, Oman, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iraq, Tunisia, and Turkey to discuss the GCC’s row, according to Iranian media.
On June 25, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani spoke with the emir of Qatar by phone, stating that “helping Qatar’s economy and expanding relations—especially in the private sector between [Qatar and Iran]—can be a joint a goal.” According to Iranian media, Rouhani told the Qatari monarch that “Tehran stands with the Qatari nation and government… We believe that if there is a conflict between regional countries, pressure, threats or sanctions are not the right way to resolve differences.” Two days later, Iran’s president declared that the “siege of Qatar is unacceptable.”
Allegations that Doha has sponsored Iranian-backed Shi’ite/Zaidi militias in fellow GCC countries as well as the Levant and Yemen lack evidence. So, why is Qatar’s relationship with Iran a source of tension in the emirate’s relations with the three GCC states taking action against Doha? After all, the UAE maintains diplomatic (albeit downgraded) relations with Tehran, and Dubai alone trades more with Iran than does Qatar. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, Qatar has done more to push back Iranian influence in Syria by backing Sunni rebel forces than any other Arab monarchy in the Persian Gulf, and until recently Doha contributed forces to the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.
Moving Closer to Iraq
Late last month, as tensions between Doha and other Arab capitals were increasing after the alleged hacking of Qatar News Agency, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani visited the Iraqi capital, met with president Abadi, and discussed plans to open a Qatari embassy in Baghdad. One day before three GCC states severed ties with Qatar, Iraq’s parliament speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliate Iraqi Islamic Party, went to Qatar and met with the emir to discuss mutual investment opportunities.
Iraq has officially maintained a “neutral” position on the GCC row, yet numerous Iraqi officials on both sides of the sectarian divide have called for Baghdad to support Doha. Al-Jabouri argued that supporting Qatar against Saudi Arabia will best advance Iraqi interests: “We will not allow Saudi Arabia and its allies to score a win against Qatar or turn its regime to one that is loyalist to them … Iraq will not know stability until Saudi Arabia is disintegrated as it is the center of evil.” Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition called on Iraq to deter any Saudi/UAE-led military aggression against the emirate.
To be sure, Baghdad lacks a unified position on the Qatar crisis, as underscored by Iraq’s Vice President Iyad Allawi blaming Doha for the GCC’s ongoing rift. Yet the pro-Qatari statements from a number of Iraqi officials, who only years ago were blaming the emirate for the rise of IS in Iraq, illustrate the warming of Iraqi-Qatari relations. Of course, Iranian influence over Baghdad’s foreign policy will also determine the odds of Iraq and Qatar growing closer.
Ultimately, Qatar’s security guarantor remains the United States. Despite mixed messages from the Trump administration, the US military and diplomatic establishment has stood by Qatar despite pressure on the White House from Saudi Arabia and other actors to change the Washington-Doha alliance. The United States and Qatar recently signed a $12 billion defense deal, indicating that close bilateral relations remain resilient beneath political theatrics.
Nonetheless, even with Washington remaining the emirate’s defense guarantor, the Saudi/UAE-led campaign to change Qatar’s behavior is forcing Doha to look for alternative allies and partners regionally and globally as its national sovereignty is at stake. Although Tehran may be eager to help Doha, Qatar knows that relying too much on Iran carries risks regarding perception. Thus, Qatar has been accepting humanitarian and security assistance from Turkey in addition to European and Asian countries.
The split on the Arabian Peninsula means that this new triangulation – Qatar, Iran, Iraq – could bring the northern Gulf states closer to Iran and potentially make Doha a key hub in the future. Iran is already benefitting from the Qatar crisis. The Saudis have been unable to assemble a united Arab front to counter Tehran, and Iran can now make a more convincing argument that Saudi Arabia, as opposed to the Islamic Republic, is creating problems for Arab states while violating their sovereignty.
Theodore Karasik is the senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics. Photo: Qatar’s former Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammad Al-Attiyeh meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in 2014.